It's a tale as old as time (or at least a few years now): an animated classic being remade in live-action for a new generation. We've already had two 101 Dalmatian films, Cinderella with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, and the only vaguely live-action The Jungle Book. Now it's the turn of one of the studio's giants, 1991's Beauty And The Beast, with Emma Watson in the lead. For a quarter century, we've been singing along with the original, cheering along its smart, capable heroine and wondering why the human version of the Prince was so much less attractive than his cursed form. Can this new take possibly fill such Beast-sized shoes?
The great challenge for Watson, director Bill Condon and their team is that the animated film was near flawless, the first animation ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Award. Belle was one of the first Disney Princesses to have an independent mind, fighting to find her own place in the world and be her own person (though the feminist accolades of the character are still up for debate). And frankly, if you're of the generation that grew up with the cartoon, this version takes some getting used to.
The story is almost exactly the same: Belle (Emma Watson) is a bookish girl out of place in her village. When her jeweller father (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned by a cursed prince, the Beast (Dan Stevens, buried under layers of CG), she agrees to take his place and ensure his freedom - and finds herself drawn to the big buffalo-looking guy. It's all terribly familiar, down to the flirty feather duster, though the story teases out the Beast's past a little, and gives his curse a few new twists.
Live action itself is the big problem. Some things, after all, are done in animation because they aren't possible in real life, like having a cast of talking furniture. That's why the animators invented those flights of fancy, to show off what their medium can do. But the great gag of having the prince's servants turned into household objects gets stranger the more realistic they get. Not to be judgmental, but drinking from a sentient tea cup is straight-up unnatural.
Judged in a vacuum, then, this is a weird, entertaining spin on a classic fairytale. But in a world where practically all of us have seen the 1991 version, it's like a karaoke version of our favourite
So this might have been better to take a few elements from the animated film and not copy the lot so slavishly. As it is, you sit through the few new scenes just waiting to get back to the bits you know – which are sometimes near shot-for-shot recreations – instead of being able to get lost in the story.
Yet so much care and effort has gone into this that it can't help but be pretty good. Watson's well cast as a book worm and can carry a tune, as well as giving of her natural fiery determination to the bickering with her captor. Dan Stevens has fun with the Beast, though it can't have been much fund or him standing on stilts in a motion-capture suit. And there's a glorious voice cast for all those enchanted "objets", including Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Emma Thompson, which helps you warm to them. The real scene-stealer, however, is villain Gaston, played by Luke Evans, who's Trump with a pony tail; all narcissism and preening. Glorious voice too, which of course we should expect from a proud Welshman.
The film also deserves credit for taking some brave forward steps. It's Disney's first big family film to feature "a gay moment", one that is very brief and sweet but which has still caused the studio a damaging backlash in certain conservative parts of the world. Disney refused to edit the scene for local prejudices, so well done them for putting principle over profit.
Judged in a vacuum, then, this is a weird, entertaining spin on a classic fairytale. But in a world where practically all of us have seen the 1991 version, it's like a karaoke version of our favourite. Kids will love it and it will be a huge hit, but you may be left wondering whether there's really anything there that wasn't there before.