Three things I’m thankful for today:

  1. Levi and Asher at yesterday’s skating party. First time rollerskating for Asher. He took it on like a champ. Levi owns a pair of skates but is very shaky on them. He didn’t start off well yesterday but rather wiped out immediately. He was dead set against skating, but after watching a round of limbo and deciding he was missing out on the fun, he went out, with my support (and occasionally Diana’s, who missed her calling as a roller derby champion), and had a blast. I took enormous pleasure in his delight.
  2. The three, um, unspokens I took care of yesterday. (Diana knows what I’m talking about.)
  3. A morning of rest and recovery today. It was very crucial for my peace of mind.

Our oldest son, Asher (9), is a choir kid. Extroverted, inclined to break out into song at any moment, I think once he hones his skills, he’ll be a formidable force on stage. He enjoys live theater productions, particularly musicals, and although he’s too cool to tell me he loves me back anymore, he has no compunction about belting out the show tunes when they come to mind. He’d been pushing us hard to take him to Beauty and the Beast, so we carved out a time when we knew it wouldn’t be crowded this past Wednesday night and took them all to the Palace. This would be Judah’s (4) first live-action film in the theater. His first (successful) film experience was Moana. (Diana had tried to take him to Penguins of Madagascar when he was 3, and he didn’t make it past the trailers.) We knew the run-time of 2 hours 10 minutes would test his patience, and I silently decided if he needed a change of scenery, I would take him to the lobby. No way would Diana miss this. We were pleasantly surprised that he sat and enjoyed the entire film. Before the climactic fight between the enchanted furniture and the torch-bearing villagers, Judah asked, loudly, “When is this going to be over?” This earned chuckles from those around us, as well as his inappropriate laughter when Gaston dies. (Spoiler? You’ve seen the original animated movie, right?) Otherwise, he was rather spellbound, as were we all.

This is Disney’s latest “live-action” update of an animated Mouse-house classic. (Live-action is a bit relative, as there is much necessary CGI and motion capture utilized here.) No entry thus far is a shot-for-shot or scene-for-scene adaptation. Rather, each one has added something new, whether it be subplots, a subtle shift in emphasis, or an overall re-imagining, as in the case of Maleficent. Here, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) gives us a few new songs penned by Alan Menken (the composer behind the original) and Tim Rice (veteran Disney lyricist) and their respective scenes and performances, adding some deeper impact to Belle and the Beast’s memories of their mothers and thus contributing to the growing love and understanding between them. The reasons for Maurice’s imprisonment and Belle’s sacrifice to secure his release are better, as well. In the original, the Beast takes Maurice captive for trespassing. Here, it is because Maurice picked a rose from the Beast’s garden to take back to Belle. As she had asked her father to bring her a rose, she has a valid reason to give the Beast for taking her and letting him go. This was a nice touch.

The film takes a while telling its story, and it needs to be interesting as it’s getting to the high points we can’t wait to see. Condon holds our interest (and the interest of a four-year-old) with exceptional production design. The village is nice and quaint while also being claustrophobic–the villagers are packed in together and stifling, and we can empathize with Belle’s longing to see the wider world. The forest is dark and scary and feels real, even on the enchanted, snowy road leading to the Beast’s castle. The castle itself is vast and expansive, scary but also fraught with potential. We look forward to seeing how Condon’s version of the tale will use the space. Indeed, his camera loves it. The interior is Gothic but also has a Raphaelite flair.

The film is packed to the gills with actors we know. First, there’s the triumphant Emma Watson. We’ve all been dying to see her as Belle. How does she do? I’m still working that one out, but in a good way. She is not the Belle of the original. She’s Belle as played by a dead-serious Hermione. She’s not all bubbly cheerfulness as she sings her opening number, “Belle.” Watson’s Belle is truly sick of the town and wants to get out. The villagers think she’s weird, and she doesn’t care much for them, either. She loves her father, appreciates the librarian, and kindly tolerates the other villagers, but she’d be on the next train out of town if she could afford it. She seems surly, a bit cynical (this in comparison with the animated Belle we know and love, mind–she’s actually fairly pleasant in comparison with most of us). This plays out well, though. Once Belle and the Beast reach a bit of a truce after their encounter with the wolves, they begin to understand each other, and we see Belle has found a kindred spirit. Unlike the original Beast, this one is a consummate reader, like Belle, and an intellectual, a nice touch that allows for a meeting of minds. This mitigates the subtly troubling Stockholm Syndrome nature of the story. She may have arrived against her will, but he stirs her curiosity, allowing her to see the pain he’s in so she can guide him toward redemption.

The other performances? The original Gaston was unnaturally gigantic and husky. To cast on physicality alone would probably require a body type along the lines of Dwayne Johnson, which wouldn’t work. We like him way too much. Luke Evans, however, captures the over-the-top braggadocio instead. His ego makes up for any lack of musculature. It’s a fun performance that alternates as needed between menace and self-mockery. Josh Gad steals the show in any scene he’s in as Le Fou, fawning to the point of total embarrassment over Gaston at every moment. His performance of “Gaston” may be the best musical number of the movie. Gad is a musical theater veteran, as well as a Disney veteran (he voiced Olaf in Frozen). He puts his strengths to excellent use here. Condon fleshes out Le Fou’s story arc to allow for a nice, happy resolution for the character that has unfortunately stirred the ire of many on the far right to the point that I dread talking to half the people I know about this movie. (If you didn’t know about “it” going in, you wouldn’t notice it, and your kids will not notice it at all if you keep your mouth shut and just enjoy the dang movie.)

Moving on (and wrapping it up), there is the who’s who of beloved British and character actors voicing the enchanted characters of the castle. Emma Thompson takes the mantle from Angela Lansbury quite admirably as Mrs. Potts. Ian McKellen is an excellent Cogsworth. Probably my favorite, however, is Ewan McGregor as Lumiere. This may be due in part to the fact that I didn’t know he was in the film going in. I detected his slight brogue underneath a well-done French accent. I was sure it was him by the time we got to “Be Our Guest” and was delighted to hear his every-man Moulin Rouge tenor. For the record, the number is a show-stopper and wows as much as it needs to, to satisfy our nostalgic cravings. I was smiling ear-to-ear. Dan Stevens deserves mention, of course, for his motion-capture portrayal of the Beast. We know it’s him under there. We see his dreamy blue eyes and can detect it in his facial tics and movements. This is our Matthew, who left us much too soon on Downton, turning his widow into an insufferable, duplicitous harpy (for a time). It’s good to see him again.

I liked this film a lot. I’ve seen some of Condon’s other work. He’s an interesting choice as a director of a family flick, considering he also directed the critically acclaimed but sexually graphic Kinsey. And yet Condon is very faithful to the vision of the film. In its early development, Disney was considering not making it a musical, much like Cinderella. Condon reportedly said, “With all due respect, I think you’re crazy. The songs are too good. You’re going to spend all this time making a huge, gorgeous live-action Beauty and the Beast and not do “Be Our Guest”? He’s a fan’s director, and it shows. This is a labor of love. It may not match everyone’s vision for the film, but how can it? An auteur such as Condon has the right to make the choices he sees fit for his vision, and I was quite haunted and captivated by this epic production. It doesn’t replace the original. Rather, it’s an expansion of the vision that can stand alongside it, as I’m sure Disney intended.

Rating: 4/5