Disney adds high-tech visuals and new songs to live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Fans of the 1991 original animated musical “Beauty and the Beast” will be pleased with Disney’s live-action version, as will followers of the popular PBS series “Downton Abbey,” who have Matthew Crawley as the princely hero. Fans of the Harry Potter movie series will also be delighted to see Hermione Granger as the heroine who gets the prince. And, for the first time, a Disney film features a gay character, something which has touched off some controversy in areas around the country where the movie is being shown.

Ultimately, however, Bill Condon directs this Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos script as a celebration of the original, more than doing justice to old favorites with new recordings of the original Alan Menken and Howard Ashman score and including three new songs by Menken and Tim Rice.

Things begin with the audience seeing a pair of beautiful blue eyes being made up with as much makeup as a fantasy creature from a Cirque du Soleil production. As the camera eventually reveals, this isn’t some wicked queen but an arrogant and spoiled young man (Dan Stevens) on his way to host a party in his castle.

The party is doomed when an old hag asks for refuge from a storm and offers the young man a perfect red rose in return. Enchantresses don’t take rebuffs lightly and this one curses the prince, turning him into a beast.

His enablers — the grand bouteiller Lumiére (Ewan McGregor), his sweetheart Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw ), court composer Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), the grand maitre Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), her son Chip (Nathan Mack) and the maestro’s wife, opera singer Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald) are also transformed, but into household items. Lumiére becomes a candelabra; Cogsworth a clock; Cadenza a harpsichord; Potts a teapot, and Chip a chipped tea cup.

The enchantress gifts the Beast with the red rose, warning that if he cannot find a woman to love him before the last petal drops he will be forever a beast and his companions will become inanimate objects.

Years later, not far away in the small town of Villeneuve, Belle (Watson) is more preoccupied with books than local boys. In fact, books are so precious and few that she often re-reads them. Vain ex-soldier Gaston (Luke Evans) comes courting with his flamboyant sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad). In this update, LeFou subtly but openly expresses his desire for Gaston, becoming Disney’s first openly gay character.

Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), a maker of exquisite toys, encourages his daughter to be different and has no love for Gaston. One day, he leaves for a journey, promising to return with a rose for Belle. An encounter with wolves leads him to ride his horse Felipe into the Beast’s realm which has been cursed with eternal winter. That should have been warning enough, but Maurice proceeds and enters the castle — a dark grotesquery of baroque gone wild. Noting there’s something amiss, Maurice flees but pauses to steal a rose. For this he’s imprisoned in a castle tower.

Belle travels to the castle in search of her dad. In an act of daughterly love, she takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. Maurice returns to the village, but only Gaston believes his tale. Gaston and LeFou follow him back into the woods, but Gaston leaves Maurice to be eaten by the wolves. Maurice is saved by an old woman, Agathe (Mattie Morahan) and when he returns to the village and accuses Gaston of attempted murder, LeFou lies to support Gaston. Maurice is then put in a paddy wagon but before he can be sent away, Belle arrives.

Back at the castle, the servants help the embittered Beast romance the frightened but brave Belle. During an escape attempt, the Beast saves Belle, but he is gravely injured. Belle nurses him back to health. In return, he gives her something she only dreamed of: access to a library filled with books. Through an enchanted mirror, Belle learns that her father is in danger. Riding back to the village, she unwittingly reveals that the Beast is real. Gaston inflames the villagers to storm the castle to kill the Beast while Belle and her father are locked in the wagon.

As this is a Disney film, you know that the Beast will fight with Gaston and the Beast will win. Belle and the Beast will find love and that love will save the Beast.

This might be a “tale as old as time” but it is the new technology that makes this better than the original. The computer-generated animation of the enchanted objects and the detail in the over-the-top baroque castle — exterior and interior — make this movie a visual treasure. The film offers more background and motivation for Belle and the Beast and adds new characters, making this update of the Disney classic an enchanting addition to the Disney Princess canon. Grade: A

“Beauty and the Beast” opens Friday.

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