New Beauty and the Beast adds progressive beats to age-old fairy tale

Live-action film directed by Bill Condon turns Emma Watson’s heroine into an inventor and embraces gay identity, but its visuals remain true to the 1991 animated classic

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 8:17am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 8:17am

Director Bill Condon was only interested in turning Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast into a live-action film if he could use Alan Menken’s Oscar-winning score. He remembers fondly when it came out in 1991 and how it not only solidified Disney’s animation renaissance after The Little Mermaid, but also helped revitalise the big-screen musical at a time when the genre was basically dead.

The New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich even called it, somewhat controversially, “the best Broadway musical score of 1991”.

It’s fitting, then, that the twinkling instrumentals of Menken’s prologue are the first thing you hear in the new trailer for the film, released on Monday by Disney. Set for a March 2017 release, the film stars Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast and a robust supporting cast including the likes of Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The film will feature re-recordings of Menken and Howard Ashman’s songs, as well as a few new ones.

“We talk about how technology is a reason for doing it 25 years later, but the fact is, too, that the genre itself has revived and people are more accepting. There’s a wider audience for just the joy of breaking out into song,” said Condon, who also wrote and directed Dreamgirls. “It feels like the audience has caught up again.”

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Anyone who has seen the animated film is sure to be struck by some familiar imagery in the trailer, recreated and made real in magnificent detail – like the grand ballroom and Belle’s yellow gown. But Condon was not restricted solely to drawing from the animated film.

The new movie also contains nods to Jean Cocteau’s ornate black and white version from 1946, Condon said, as well as his own unique vision.

“We went in with the idea that we were going to set it in a very specific time – the early 18th century in the French countryside,” Condon said. They took pains to make sure the household staff resembled items – clocks, teapots, candelabras – from that time and place.

Unsurprisingly, the big, splashy technical setpiece is Be Our Guest, in which the anthropomorphised household items stage their own Busby Berkeley-inspired number to serve Belle a meal. It wasn’t easy.

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“For us it was taking something that animation does easily – imagining dancing candlesticks – and making it real,” he said.

The film is not just a remembrance of Beauty and the Beasts past, however. They’ve made Belle even more modern than she was in 1991, when it was somewhat extraordinary to have the centre of a Disney film be more interested in books than boys. In this version, she’s an inventor too, and being portrayed by an actress who is a humanitarian and a UN women’s ambassador.

“Having somebody who is devoting her life to those causes was invaluable as we started to reinvent this feminist character,” he said.

Also, Condon, whose films frequently deal with subjects pertaining to gay identity, is embracing that context here, too. He said the late lyricist Howard Ashman, who had Aids at the time, closely identified with the Beast’s story as “somebody who is cursed and whose curse is breaking the hearts of those who love him and the fantasy that this curse could be lifted”.

Ashman died of Aids related complications months before the animated film even hit theatres in 1991.

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“Right from the start it, in a very personal way, grew out of that tragic gay moment and then beyond that it’s a musical,” Condon said. “I don’t want to give too much away, but I think there are actually a few more explicit moments that might surprise you.”