A tale as old as time: Raving, torch-carrying mob descends upon the territory of the Other to exact vengeance for an entirely speculative crime. Fairy-tale villains always seem to want what they can’t have, whether it’s to be the fairest of them all or simply to rule the world. But in the case of Gaston, the whiny, entitled, and dim-witted Big Bad at the center of Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, what he covets is the elusive Belle (Emma Watson), beautiful but bookish, who has improbably spurned him in favor of the Beast (Dan Stevens). A scene in which an angry white man with inexplicable power calls for the destruction of difference in the name of protecting his homeland from a hypothetical threat (“We can’t be safe until the Beast is dead!”) is now sadly met with a grim, resigned recognition. But what this competently directed live-action remake of 1991’s animated Beauty and the Beast actually delivers is a remarkably optimistic balm to a festering, existential wound.
While nothing can make us truly forget the horrors of the present day, Beauty and the Beast offers an almost absurdly realized alternate universe where diversity and racial harmony are the norm, conflicts are resolved in comically expedient ways, and everyone in town has a great singing voice. Belle asks what seems to be the film’s big question—“Can anybody be happy if they aren’t free?”—and then is abruptly granted her freedom. The villain is ultimately recognized as the buffoon he’s always been, and the angry mob morphs into a dance party. There’s even a queer meet cute, in which two men end up face to face during a partner dance—and much to their delight.
Beauty and the Beast’s narrative sags in its middle section, mostly due to the screenplay being almost self-consciously conflict averse. But the set pieces are visually satisfying, if not dazzling, and the special effects employed in bringing to life the non-human characters—effects which at times are so dominant that you forget you’re actually watching a live-action film—contribute a liveliness and sense of wonder to what’s already a delightfully realized world. In staying mostly true to the original source material, Condon’s remake can revel in its representation of a known entity rather than possibly crumble under the pressure to make the story new again. It’s not about what happens, necessarily, but rather how it looks when it inevitably does, especially for a genre so reliant on spectacle, animated or otherwise. And the aesthetics here, in what’s a delicate balancing act where actors must interact sometimes exclusively with CGI, are by and large sound.
The biggest narrative intervention in the remake from the original film is a raising of stakes for the secondary characters enslaved in the castle in the form of household objects in terms of their relationship with the curse that’s befallen the castle and its inhabitants. If the Beast doesn’t find love within the time allotted by the Enchantress and her curse, Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and Chip (Nathan Mack) will also be doomed, losing even their ability to speak to one another, much less perform song and dance numbers.
And the small moments of shared grief in which the staff turned objects say goodbye to each other while apparently succumbing to the curse are heartbreakingly believable, even when delivered from a clock to a candle. This sense of shared burden is this new Beauty and the Beast’s greatest triumph. We’re all in this together, the filmmakers tell their audience, no matter what kind of darkness might descend upon us. And while a happy ending is never in doubt for its characters, the film somehow turns that inevitability into an asset. For a little while, at least, the majority of those in the audience can actually be reinforced in their belief that love will always trump hate.