Walt Disney Pictures    126 minutes           PG

There is no doubt that this is a well-thought out, beautifully and elaborately produced live action film that takes the 1991 animated “Beauty and the Beast” to a new level. But does this version about true love have the magic of the original?

It’s a little different from the start. Bill Condon (Dream Girls, Twilight TV Series), uses huge sets that were built at Shepperton Studios in London to create Belle’s town and the enormous castle of the Beast in this $160 million extravaganza. The Late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken wrote the music for the original, which were re-recorded for this film and Mencken and Tim Rice wrote three new songs for the film. A huge musical number with tons of dancers at the elaborate castle set the stage. The Prince is cruel to a poor woman who is really an enchantress. She puts a curse on the prince, which transforms him into The Beast. The castle is also the scene for the grand finale ball and these massive scenes are filled with detail we thought they were too busy, overcrowded and a little overproduced.

For the first scene introducing Belle, Condon used drones as well as every possible camera angle to capture Emma Watson singing her way through the town of Villeneuve (named after “Beauty and the Beast” author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.) Belle is the oldest of the Disney princesses and very independent. Watson insisted on changes to make her even stronger. Now Belle is the inventor instead of her father, played engagingly by Kevin Kline. And, as in so many Disney films, this is a single parent family. Belle and the audience discover what happened to her Maman later in the film.

Belle has invented a primitive washing machine that frees her up to do what she loves best…READ…which is a great message for kids seeing this movie. Belle would have definitely been a STEM gal today, interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Her passion is reading and education, which were unusual for young women in the mid 1700’s. (Watson works with The Book Fairies leaving books around towns for people to find and take because of her own passion for reading.) Belle gets to oooh and ahhh seeing the Beast’s incredible collection of books in the massive library in his castle. The production design of that room alone  is stunning.  

Watson also insisted on wearing boots instead of flats with Belle’s everyday blue outfit, as any practical girl would walking through her town. And she insisted on more reasonable dancing shoes for the beautiful ballroom scene with the Beast as well.

Emma Watson became so involved because this was her favorite fairy tale and she had seen the original movie many times growing up. She had not sung since she was 10 years old and had to take singing lessons to play Belle. She’s a better actress than a singer, but is able to pull it off.

She also had input regarding the yellow gold ball gown so identified with this princess. It took 12,000 hours and more than 2,100 Swarovski crystals sown on to make the satin organza fabric sparkle. The dress flows more than the original animated gown but we didn’t like it as well. You’ll be seeing a lot of girls wearing this costume at Halloween this year.

Luke Evans shows up as the blustery Gaston. He plays one of the most obnoxiously conceited, and fun characters in the film. Gaston is sure Belle will marry him and his song is well staged and entertaining. It’s also longer than it was in the animated version adding lyrics that were cut when the original was produced. Although not as muscular or sinister as his animated self, Evans is handsome, with a great voice and certainly livens things up.

His side kick Lafou, played by the talented Josh Gad, is Gaston’s biggest fan in what has become a controversial portrayal of the first openly gay character in a Disney movie. Gad is a talented actor, but we thought his characterization could have ridden more of a fine line to keep the audience guessing. Is he or isn’t he gay? We also thought Gad could have played it looser for more laughs. It seemed as though he may have been pulled back. With his success on Broadway and as Olaf in Frozen, he has the capacity to play comedy well. Maybe Condon was afraid to make his bits too funny.

Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, The Guest) is amazing as the Beast. He worked hard, having to perform his part all the way through, twice! First Condon and the special effects department had him in an oversized suit on stilts so Watson could gauge the right amount of space for Watson to act around him. Second time through, Stevens sat in front of a bank of cameras reading his lines all over again; his face coated with a special paint, so animators could capture his facial movements and transfer them to the beastly face you see in the film. We thought more emotion and agony could have been projected. He is such a spoiled brat of a Prince in the beginning of the film and more sad than scary as the Beast. Stevens And he has his own new song in this version, “Forever More.” The scene when the Enchantress comes back at the end is where we see the most emotion.

Watson as the strong-willed Belle who came to save her father, and Stevens as the Beast, in his effort to control her, play well off each other. His fight with Gaston is filled with action and good choreography, but might be a little frightening for little ones. And the scene with CGI wolves in the woods baring teeth and growling as they attack your favorite characters could cause a few nightmares.

We remember the Beast’s servants, Lumière, Mrs. Potts, Chip, Cogsworth the Clock, Madame Garderobe and Maestro Cadenza as being a soft , endearing group in the original animated film. But we found that the CGI animation applied to the household objects and furniture in this one seemed hard and kind of kind of awkward. Combining the animation with live action for these characters fell short of what they achieved in 1991. The colors and sets are vibrant and beautiful. However, you never forget that you are watching technology at work rather than being able to suspend disbelief and see them as enchanted characters come to life.

Ewan McGregor was actually glad he got to record all his lines for the candlestick part twice, too, which he says was a good thing. He says it helped him get the French accent right. Funny since his wife is French.

Emma Thompson and young actor, Nathan Mack, are good together as Mrs. Potts and Chip. Movie history. Lumière was going to be named Chandal and Miss Potts was going to be Miss Chamomile in the 1991 animated version, but songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken thought the names were too hard to say, sing and rhyme with lyrics.

Ian McKellan relished being able to do his first musical, but was sad he didn’t get a song of his own. He turned down the role voicing the clock in the original animated feature. This time he said yes! Broadway musical star Audra McDonald, is the Wardrobe that dresses Belle up using a rainbow of colors.  And Stanley Tucci provides the musical accompaniment as the Maestro. Very pretty pieces of period furniture, but we thought their computer generated movements appeared a little clumsy.

Director Condon has put together a beautiful film with all the elements and more for a new generation. No problem adjusting to the minor story changes. It portrays a strong, smart young woman, willing to risk everything for family, with singing, dancing, elaborate sets, costumes, and objects that come to life. It’s also an action flick with a well choreographed fight to the finish. We don’t think this film creates the same awe inspiring magic that pulled on the heartstrings as much as the original, but is a massive, detailed production that updates Belle’s independent spirit. It is Watson’s movie all the way and she truly becomes the Belle of the Ball.