‘Beauty and the Beast’ is more beauty than beast

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Bonjour! For decades, the world has entrusted “tales as old as time” to the meticulous hands of Walt Disney Studios. The Mouse understands how to methodically preserve, enhance and even breathe new life into treasured fables for each new generation, and make a buck in the process, not necessarily in that order.

If you loved the animated Disney classic (1991) and/or the Broadway musical (1993), you should be very satisfied indeed with this live-action/CGI feature. The sets are lavish, costumes sumptuous and most all the characters are perfectly cast. Thankfully, the major production numbers, such as “Belle,” “Gaston,” “Be My Guest,” and the “Beauty and the Beast” ballroom scene are worthy of the animated feature and play.

We’re not sure of the logic, but Director Bill Condon was selected specifically for his work on “Dreamgirls” (2006). Emma Watson (“Harry Potter” series) leads an all-star cast of mostly British actors in a story set in a small French village, huh? As the scholarly Belle (no stretch for Watson), this dream girl wants much more than this provincial life. Watson is every bit as impressive as she was in the extraordinary Potter series.

The supporting cast is a marvel, but Watson’s charm, resolve and graceful confidence carries the picture. The little “Potter” girl has matured to effortlessly fill the blockbuster lead role, all while singing those familiar Ashman/Menken/Rice tunes beautifully. Some of the lyrics have been updated, others were the originals “dumbed down” for the animated feature and there are entirely new songs that fit seamlessly into the story.

The plot is unchanged, but there are a few changes to the storyline, script and notable one-liners have been added to keep the audience’s attention. However, the premise is somewhat dated. First, there’s a rich, vain and shallow prince and then there’s an arrogant and brash narcissist that the town folk admire and follow in spite of his flaws. Could there be such people in today’s sophisticated society?

If you remember, the prince is sentenced to doom when he “rejects” a haggard old woman offering him a gift. In fairness, didn’t Snow White serve a terrible fate for “accepting” a gift from a haggard old woman? Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We think these parables need to have some rules and stick to them.

Underneath layers of costume, fur and a CGI face, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the “handsome” beast while Luke Evans (“Girl on the Train”) is wickedly wonderful as the vile Gaston. A few theaters in the South banned this movie for Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) being so happy and gay. But that matter is so minor, it’s not even a subplot.

As with “Cinderella,” Disney originally decided to exclude music from this live-action version. But, director Bill Condon pleaded, “You’re going to spend all this time making a huge, gorgeous live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and not do ‘Be Our Guest’?”

Ryan Gosling was offered the role of the Beast, but turned it down to do “La La Land.” Emma Watson was offered the lead role in “La La Land,” but turned it down for this one. In doing so, she took the role of Belle from Lily James, who won the role of Cinderella over Watson. Payback’s a witch, in’it? This superb cast is rounded out with Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci.

“Beauty and the Beast” is 129 minutes and rated PG for action violence, peril and frightening images. At $160 million, this is the most expensive musical ever made, but is on a record setting box office bonanza. As the devoted audience knows every line, the cast still somehow makes each scene fresh and filled with anticipation.

The cynical may think Disney tells itself what Gaston said to his mirror, “You are the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen; nobody deserves you!” But, they do know how to make a flick for kids and for those that used to be kids. It’s not perfect, but if you just want to see a lovely story with inspiring musical numbers and spectacular visuals, be our guest.

Ron’s Rating: A Leigh’s Rating: A

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