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The new Beauty and the Beast is a joyous, oddball homage to the animated classic

The live-action Beauty and the Beast gets a lot of things right. But it’s still not as good as the original.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For a generation, and the parents who took that generation to the theater, Disney’s 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast, along with The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, represent the pinnacle of Disney animation — a triumph of song, art, and joy. So when Disney announced that it was turning Beauty and the Beast and those other classics into live-action musicals, there were naturally some reservations about Disney attempting to tinker with near perfection.

By the time the Beauty and the Beast live-action remake gets to the “Gaston” number, however, most of those reservations will have been quashed. Disney doesn’t bring Beauty and the Beast any closer to perfection with the live-action adaptation, but it shows that it understands what made that film so magical in the first place, while putting its own subtle spin on a classic.

While the movie’s marketing suggested it would be a shot-for-shot remake of the classic, director Bill Condon’s update actually leans into unexplored bits from the original film, probing the intricacies of the central myth and opting for weirdness over cuteness. Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos treat the animated version like source material, creating a love letter to the classic film and its fans while updating the story and heroine Belle (Emma Watson) for Disney’s post-Frozen, post-princess era.

And while it isn’t as smashing as the original, there’s still plenty here to fall in love with again.

The remake changes the original story for the better

The main challenge facing the team behind Beauty and the Beast was how to take the animated classic, with its conventional princess story, and rejigger it to fit Disney’s recent anti-princess stance — a story with more focus on coming of age rather than the goalposts of true love (as demonstrated in films like Frozen and Moana).

In the 1991 version’s spin on the classic French fairy tale, an enchantress curses a boy prince and transforms him into a hideous animal, and his servants into household objects. They’re forced to wait in the castle for someone to break the curse by falling in love with the Beast despite his hideous visage, governed by a magical rose on a 10-year timer. If no love is found before the last petal falls, then the prince remains a beast forever.

Chbosky and Spiliotopoulos tweak this story by having the enchantress place a curse not only on the Beast/Prince (Dan Stevens) and his household but also the adjacent town, whose people forget how the prince and his family gouged them with taxes and threw lavish parties. The curse also works differently here: As each petal from the magical rose falls, the Beast, along with the servants who were turned into furniture and household objects, become less and less human, until they lose their souls.

The twist shifts this Beauty and the Beast into darker territory, making the castle’s hospitality one born of desperation rather than enthusiasm. It also adds a sense of deeper consequence, as these characters are faced with death instead of simply being cute versions of themselves for eternity.

Watson’s Belle is a better character, but a worse singer

Belle is also given a mysterious backstory here. We don’t know why she and her father have moved to this French town, but we understand that it’s something to do with the death of Belle’s mother. Belle’s love of books, her knack for engineering, and her desire to find out more about her mom and her family’s history make her more than a character whose end goal is true love.

If there’s a major weakness to the film, though, it’s that Watson doesn’t have the pipes to play Belle: The autotune gets downright distracting in some points, and it takes away from Belle’s solo songs. At certain times, it’s impossible not to compare Watson’s vocal ability to that of Paige O'Hara, the original Belle, who started off starring in Broadway musicals.

But it’s also worth remembering that Watson has to do so much more than voice a character and let the animation do the rest of the work.

Watson’s performance as Belle is an odd combination of inquisitive and aloof, which actually works well for a character trapped in a French town where everyone is just a bit too comfortable. This Belle isn’t the traditional vivacious Disney princess, and Watson seems to understand that, making her chillier and more guarded than the classic Belle. The approach gives the story room to unspool, and highlights Belle’s vulnerability much more effectively than Watson’s singing.

The live-action brings some — but not all — of Howard Ashman’s songs to life

While the live-action musical aspect does Watson no favors in her solo numbers, it lends itself much better to numbers where the whole ensemble is involved. “Gaston,” a rollicking number that perhaps wasn’t appreciated enough in the animated original, is led by Luke Evans’s Gaston and Josh Gad’s LeFou, and serves as a sterling example of how a live-action cast can elevate the original animated material. Townspeople crowd the pub, and the choreography makes the number come alive. It’s playful, and playfully subversive — after all, the song is essentially an unrequited love letter from LeFou to his muscle-daddy man crush Gaston.

No doubt a lot of that energy can be attributed to the legendary songwriter Howard Ashman, who co-wrote the original’s songs (along with those for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) with his collaborator Alan Menken. Condon has spoken lovingly about Ashman and how Ashman, who was gay and died of AIDS complications shortly before Beauty and the Beast’s 1991 premiere, saw himself and his struggle in the Beauty and the Beast story.

In moments like “Gaston,” you can see Condon’s appreciation for Ashman’s humor. But it’s also there in the feverish, frenetic “The Mob Song,” the other standout group number. Evans gulps and snarls throughout the number, unfurling his character’s unquenchable bloodlust. To Ashman, the song embodied the stigma of being gay, living with AIDS, and being considered a “beast,” and Condon leans into the song’s energy, terror, and suggestion of who the true monsters are.

The best thing about Beauty and the Beast is its willingness to get weird

The most fascinating decision in the movie is how Condon and his team employed the visual effects in their arsenal. The live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book, which won an Oscar for its visuals, was a triumph of full-on CGI, while Cinderella, released a year earlier in 2015, used CGI characters minimally. Beauty and the Beast lands in the middle of that spectrum, with two human leads (Belle and Gaston), significant secondary human characters (Belle’s father Maurice and LeFou), and a plethora of CGI’d beings who bring an unexpectedly unglossy twist to the proceedings.

Instead of going cute with characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth, Condon envisions them as slightly grotesque. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) isn’t all eyelids and smile as he was in the animation, but rather gnarled and impish; Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) is dilapidated.

This visual choice helps underline the idea of consequence and looming obsolescence, the suggestion that this castle isn’t inviting as you’d think. Lumiere and Cogsworth aren’t going to be cute and cuddly until the end of time; they’re facing their own mortality.

Believe me, I never thought I would be discussing our mortal coil in relation to a Disney film featuring a talking teapot, but this strange darkness adds a new wrinkle to the story. The castle’s servants need Belle to stay as much as the Beast does — their lives depend on it. Suddenly the standout song “Be Our Guest” feels more like a plea than an invite.

Beauty and the Beast’s affection for oddness allows for more humor, too, changing some of the original’s earnest laughs into something a little more cringe-adjacent, while enhancing moments of slapstick comedy, like a snowball fight between the diminutive Watson and Stevens’s hulking, CGI-enhanced Beast.

The film’s embrace of weirdness also makes it easier to appreciate when Beauty and the Beast decides to swing for the fences and give us sumptuous, gorgeous visuals like that hallowed ballroom. It’s a swooping stunner of a scene that somehow bests the original.

But the film is careful not to give viewers too many of those moments — a logical choice, since it’s hard to consistently match the magic of the original. Still, there are enough moments that will make you appreciate what Condon, Watson, Evans, Stevens, and Gad have brought into this retelling — all the stuff that wasn’t there before.

Beauty and the Beast is playing in theaters across the country.

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