***Disclaimer: May contain spoilers for the new film**
The story of Beauty and the Beast has always held a special place for me. I remember watching it as a little boy and my imagination ran wild at the idea of an enchanted castle with objects that were alive. It became more special for me 10 years ago when I was lucky enough to play Lumiere as a senior in my last high school musical. Hearing any portion of the music today brings a smile to my face and many happy memories of childhood and high school.
When I heard that Disney would be producing a live-action version of this beloved fairy tale, I was super excited but very hesitant. I couldn't stand the thought of such a beloved story being produced at a level of quality that was less than stellar.
My expectations were high and I kept a close eye on the cast list as roles became official for many beloved actors. And as casting began to be finalized I was excited to see many favorites from other franchises as stars of the show. I was amused at the thought of young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor / Lumiere) and Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan / Cogsworth) working together to help Hermione Granger (Emma Watson / Belle) fall in love with Matthew Crawley from Downtown Abbey (Dan Stevens / Beast).
Even with high expectations and a rock star cast, I was nervous as I walked in to the theater last Friday. And while imperfect as all films are, the live action re-telling directed by Bill Condon delivers a modern masterpiece that preserves this incredible story for another generation.
While the plot largely remains the same, the storytelling itself is where this film stands apart from the animated film and Broadway play. The audience gets more insight into Belle's childhood and more is revealed about Belle's mother, and even the prince's upbringing and the circumstances that led him to turn the old woman away on his last night as a human.
What also stands apart is Emma Watson herself as Belle. Belle is "a beauty but a funny girl," but in addition to the qualities that anyone playing Belle can bring, Watson brings out a strong side of Belle that I haven't seen before and I found fitting and worthy of her character. In addition to her beauty, love of books, and general goodness, Belle is shown as an intelligent, progressive, independent woman ahead of her time. One of my favorite scenes in the new film is when Belle sits down with another girl much younger than her and teaches her how to read. With our increased understanding of Belle's and the Prince's parents, it is easier to see how this spunky farm girl from the heart of France can fall for a creature with two horns growing out of the side of his head.
While most who play Beast are able to portray the angry, brooding character well, I found that Dan Stevens brought a level of depth to the character that I also hadn't seen before. As Stevens sings a new song to the story "Evermore," I couldn't help but feel the longing in his voice and the love he was beginning to feel for Belle.
The show is supported by a strong cast of talented supporting actors and actresses; it tugged at the heartstrings as the last petal fell and these beloved characters one by one turned into objects. The most interesting and compelling addition of supporting actors was that of Agatha, the Enchantress, and her careful placement in key parts of the story.
After having seen this story countless times on stage, I feel that it is easy for Lumiere and Cogsworth to steal the show with their back-and-forth humor, and with the fun that comes with "Be Our Guest." I was pleasantly surprised to see that Belle and Beast stole the show this time around. The strong storytelling, the unforgettable performance by Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, and her character choices help accomplish what I never was quite able to believe in previous tellings of this story -- that these two characters could really and legitimately fall in love.
From a musical perspective, I loved the orchestration of Alan Menken's brilliant score, and the vocals of Emma Watson and Dan Stevens were stunning. New songs are quickly becoming memorable favorites and I've already listened to the album a few times in the car on Apple Music. My only disappointment is that the film did not include two of the more moving selections from the Broadway play -- "If I Can't Love Her" and "Human Again."
At the end of the day, the live action interpretation of this favorite fairy tale stands on its own as a storytelling masterpiece and perhaps the best live-action interpretation that Disney has produced yet.