(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dearest Review: Once Upon a Time

Following their unexpectedly terrific (and terrifically profitable) live action re-dos of Maleficent and Cinderella, it’s hardly a surprise that Disney would turn to their crown jewel of animated princess tales for their next “real world” makeover. And thankfully for all who love the 1991 original, the new Beauty and the Beast lives up to its predecessor, a most happy "happily ever after" after all.

Using the animated version’s basic story as a starting point, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and his screenwriters have explored and deepened the mythology of this “tale as old as time”. The hand drawn characters of the animated film are (literally and figuratively) fleshed out more, given detailed back stories and stronger motivations, and they also address some inconsistencies in the original’s narrative (like why no one from the village remembers the castle). They do get a bit carried away, though, particularly in an extended sequence about Belle’s mother that, frankly, nobody has ever wondered that much about.

Although not as strong a singer as one would hope, Emma Watson plays Belle as a scrappy independent young woman, another anti-damsel-in-distress that has become par for the course in these modern retellings. Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens turns out to be an inspired choice for the Beast, who goes from fussy fop to menacing monster to hairy hero to, finally, princely romance novel hunk. As the castle staff-turned-anthropomorphized housewares, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are mostly heard but not seen, but their charming characterizations still shine through. Kevin Kline (as Belle's befuddled father Maurice), Luke Evans (as the vain and far more villainous Gaston) and Josh Gad (as LeFou... you may have heard about him) round out the stellar cast.

All six of the original film's songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are revisited, most notably the Academy Award winning title song; as sung by Thompson, it's every bit as enchanting (and tear-jerking) as when Angela Lansbury first performed it. As he did for the Broadway adaptation, Tim Rice steps in for the late Ashman as lyricist for three new, sadly mostly unnoteworthy tunes, although Stevens shows off some impressive pipes in the Beast solo "Evermore".

From the opening prologue to the spectacular "Be Our Guest" production number to the final transformations, this Beast is a Beauty, a feast for all the senses. With its Gothic set pieces, imaginative costume designs and ubiquitous special effects, I fully expect the remake to follow in the footsteps of its precursor when Oscar time rolls around again, racking up several nominations and perhaps even a win or two.

It has been 26 years since Disney first told the tale of a beautiful girl and a not-so-handsome prince, a magical, musical story that has entertained generations both on stage and screen, and I am happy to say that this newest telling not only adds to but enhances the legacy of Beauty and the Beast.

Dearest Rating: 8/10

Review by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

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