It's a tale as old as time, or so the song tells us. But just what is that ageless story at the heart of Beauty and the Beast? Opposites attracting, sure, but a fair maiden warming to an arrogant prince who's been cursed with a monstrous appearance isn't really an everyday experience. On the other hand, with gender equality still an ongoing problem in our society, a narrative about a young woman being undermined by an egocentric male, belittled for her intelligence, and robbed of her agency by an imposing force all very much fits the bill.
While breathing new life into Disney's popular animated effort is the movie's main aim — just as they've done with Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book — the Mouse House hasn't missed the opportunity to bolster this live-action offering in certain distinctive ways. You don't cast Emma Watson as Belle without ensuring that the titular beauty isn't just kind but determined, confident, courageous and willing to fight for her place in the world. In fact, with the film also boasting Disney's first interracial kiss and first exclusively gay moment, the studio is clearly trying to bring the narrative in line with the times.
The plot is much the same as it was in 1991, or the mid-18th century for that matter. The prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed due to his uncaring behaviour, with love the key to breaking the spell. Meanwhile, a young girl named Belle yearns for life beyond her quiet village, where she is frowned upon for her studious ways and persistently wooed/harassed by vain town hunk Gaston (Luke Evans). Beauty meets beast when she goes looking for her missing inventor father (Kevin Kline), who has been imprisoned in the man-turned-creature's enchanted castle.
With singing household objects such as Lumière the candlestick (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), Mrs Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson) and Plumette the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) all on hand to dispense advice, what follows is a tale about longing and romance, as well as a spirited fable that champions a woman's right to choose her own destiny. The film's modern attitude feels especially refreshing, without ever seeming too on the nose. This is a production that's eager to weave its progressive positions into the fabric of the narrative rather than shout its from the castle turrets.
Director Bill Condon (Mr Holmes) takes a classical approach to the movie's look and feel. Lavishly staged, costumed and choreographed, stepping into the world of Beauty and the Beast is like stepping into a storybook. All of the old tunes hit the spot (McGregor and company crooning 'Be Our Guest' is a highlight), although a couple of new inclusions prove little more than melodic padding. As for the cast, the expectedly impassioned Watson, suitably brooding Stevens and gloriously pompous Evans all help make this timeless tale seem equally nostalgic and new.