Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast is a spell cast by a wand in good working order: A castle materializes in the depths of a dark forest. Furniture — a feather duster, a wardrobe — comes to life to sing and dance. And a blood-red rose preserved under glass in blue-lit gloom droopingly waits for true love to set everything right and let happily-ever-after commence.
If the wand has missed a few tricks that prevent it from rising above first-rate family entertainment into a pure romantic fantasy to equal Ever After, Drew Barrymore’s revisionist Cinderella – well, it’s nothing to get beastly about.
The story you know: Beautiful, bookish Belle (Emma Watson, Hermione of the Harry Potter movies) is held hostage in that castle by the Beast (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), a prince transformed into a fairytale Chewbacca because of his horribleness. She must learn not to be afraid of him and find love for him in her heart. He must learn not to terrify her and, yes, admit that he loves her, too. Also, to stop slurping stew with his face down in the good china. It’s a disgusting habit.
Assisting them on this thorny path to love, like chaperones sent in by Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger in a benevolent fairy-godmother mood, are the Beast’s staff, now transformed into household objects: the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), the candlestick Lumière (Ewan McGregor) and the clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen). Those last two function here as a sort of domesticated variation on C-3PO and R2-D2. (Star Wars again—but Star Wars is a fairy tale, after all.)
You already know, too, that the real monster here isn’t the Beast but Gaston (Luke Evans), the handsome narcissist brute who chases after Belle — all the way up to the top of the tallest tower in the Beast’s castle — chiefly because he can’t accept the fact that she isn’t thrilled by his marriage proposal. Freud would have found him interesting.
Director Bill Condon sets this all in a storybook production that’s sumptuously ornate. In the movie’s prettiest scene, Belle and Beast stroll through the gardens of his estate on a wintry afternoon, surrounded by stone walkways and tidy little trees frosted white. This also leads to the movie’s silliest laugh: When Belle tosses a snowball at the Beast, he responds (playfully, he thinks) by hurling back a snowball so big it knocks her to the ground.
After a while, as the human performers and the CGI effects combine to whirl you breathlessly through the movie, you may realize that the original Disney cartoon was more graceful, and that its flattened dimensions perhaps allowed it to sustain the story’s different elements in better balance. The new Lumière, for instance, is so very much like an actual gold or brass figurine, with a tiny, inexpressive metalwork face, that he can’t really let loose on the musical’s showstopper, “Be Our Guest,” an affectionate homage to French cabaret that turns into a glorious Busby Berkeley extravaganza.
Even with all the advances in digital technology, some things still look like the old Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle.
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The movie also has a few problems with its Beauty. Emma Watson’s performance is sweetly unaffected, which helps keep her afloat in such heavy sauces. She also has that same look – searching and skeptical — we know from her years as Hermione. This means in the end she seems not so much to surrender her heart as to solve a problem that needed concentrated thinking.
It’s hard to gauge how much of Dan Stevens’ Beast is a CGI creature apart from the soulful eyes, which are of an indeterminate blue and drink in and glow with light at the same time. The Beast’s upper torso, which is of Schwarzenegger proportions, is probably not the real thing, although he has a way of pulling his mouth down and into a petulant scowl that’s not too far removed from Matthew Crawley suffering through another harangue from an earl. But the prince who emerges at the end is a proper, dashing hero, and you’re for him, and for Belle—for everyone, in fact, as Audra McDonald and then Emma Thompson sing a reprise of the title song.
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That Oscar-winning number, by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is always Beauty and the Beast’s ace in the hole. Sung by an indulgent Mrs. Potts as Belle and the Beast waltz around the castle’s ballroom, it would melt a heart of stone and unclog blocked arteries as well. Even if a Belle and Beast don’t seem perfectly suited, it assures us we should put away doubts, because Mrs. Potts says so (and because Thompson plays her with such cozy motherly warmth).
Luke Evans is an excellent Gaston, downplaying the comedy of the character’s vanity and underscoring the story’s darkness with his cruelty.
Josh Gad’s LeFou — Gaston’s sidekick and henchman — is being described as Disney’s first openly gay character. Well, yes, okay. Just don’t go expecting Elijah from Girls.
Beauty and the Beast is in theaters March 17. Rated PG.