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There's a lot to like about Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast, a live-action take on Walt Disney Pictures' animated classic from 1991. How could there not be? It is, after all, a faithful adaptation of a near-flawless musical -- an animated classic that continued a Disney Renaissance Period (that included The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Aladdin) and broke barriers by earning a deserved Best Picture, the first animated feature to pull that off.
And yet, the long shadow cast by Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast also prevents Condon's version from truly feeling unique and special, despite its efforts to tweak and tug at this tale as old as time to find something fresh and new. The familiarity of Beauty and The Beast -- both from the 1991 animated version as well as the smash Broadway show that it spawned -- stole some of the impact of this live-action telling. Because when a cover band plays a note-for-note version of an incredibly famous song, you can't help but also hear the original version in your head at the same time -- and in the case of this feature, I prefer the original over the alternate take.
For the moment, let's focus on what really works about Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast, the latest effort in Walt Disney's current push to produce ornate live-action adaptations of its animated masterpieces. (After Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, look for live-action The Lion King and Mulan movies to open in theaters in subsequent years.) Condon delivers a lush, often gorgeous, spare-no-expense movie musical that boasts spectacular production values on his sets, costuming and overall design. The director behind Dreamgirls understands how to choreograph big, splashy musical numbers, and songs like "Belle" and "Gaston" swell into full-bodied showstoppers that put the complete ensemble to work. When Beauty and the Beast hits its rhythms, it really soars.
However, when Beauty and the Beast missteps, the weight of the expectations created by the movie's spectacular predecessors can be felt. The brilliant Emma Thompson, for example, isn't Angela Lansbury. And we shouldn't expect her to be Angela Lansbury... except when Mrs. Potts launches into the Oscar-winning ode "Beauty and the Beast." It's different. You notice. And for me, it took me out of the experience. There are three new songs added to the musical, though they aren't memorable (especially not when standing alongside the likes of "Be Our Guest" or "Something There"). Of the entire cast, the one actor who transcends his or her animated counterpart has to be Luke Evans, who humanizes Gaston's inflated ego and continually finds clever ways to convey the blowhard's vanity. His rendition of "Gaston," aided by Josh Gad and a tavern filled with cronies, might be the movie's finest moment.
As Belle, Bill Condon casts Emma Watson, and I for one appreciate the irony of an actress launched through a massive literary adaptation like Harry Potter playing Disney's most iconic bookworm. Through Watson's casting, Condon and his screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, are able to enhance Bells' characterization, making her a champion for female literacy (in an included scene in Belle's ignorant town), and suggesting that Belle's commitment to the Beast (Dan Stevens) is almost as much about rescuing the cursed employees of the enchanted castle as it is about falling in love. This Beauty is as much a savior as she is a tool being used to break a spell. The knock on Watson in this role is that her voice may be too small for the necessary songs, but Condon finds ways to hide her is larger choruses, so the young performer isn't left hung out to dry.
The element of Beauty and the Beast that needed more time to develop, though, is the CGI trickery used to create things that are credible in animation, but suspect in "live action." Classic characters from the Beauty and the Beast narrative -- the candlestick, Lumiere (voiced by Ewan McGregor), and Cogsworth the clock (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen) -- aren't seamless creations on screen here. They become eyesores when the very human Watson has to interact with clumsy digital manifestations like the towering Garderobe (Audra McDonald), and it torpedoes the musical number "Be Our Guest," which becomes a distracting whirling dervish of hollow digital chicanery. The CGI overload undermines Dan Stevens' performance as The Beast, as well, as I constantly debated the merits of the CGI (makeup? prosthetics?) used to bring this Beast to life, when I should have been noticing any chemistry shared between the leads.
In the end, it's still Beauty and the Beast, a beautiful story and a magical musical in its own right. Though, in this instance, that summation serves as both a blessing and a curse. I wish more separation existed between this telling and its predecessors, so that direct comparisons wouldn't have to be made, and the live-action version reaching theaters could stand on its own merits. But I found myself contrasting Condon's efforts with the two global sensations that have arrived before it. Without questions, potential audience members who already adore either the animated Beauty and the Beast or the Broadway show it spawned will find things to appreciate in Condon's take. But with two versions already at their disposal, I needed this new live-action adaptation to give me real reasons why I'd need to watch this take over the other two, and I can't say that it did.