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Like the buffalo-faced tragic hero of the story, Disney's new live-action "Beauty and the Beast" arrives under a curse that it will be compared to the studio's near-perfect 1991 animated version.
How could one not compare them? Director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls," the last two "Twilight" movies) uses Linda Woolverton's 1991 script as its backbone, maintains the supporting gallery of enchanted objects, has everyone sing those wonderful Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs and cribs most of the visual and emotional cues. Even Belle's dresses are the same colors.
Of course, there's nothing new under the sun, and both versions are based on the 18th-century French fairy tale about the young woman imprisoned by a hairy monster but who finds the goodness beneath his hideous exterior until her love for him breaks the spell that made him a beast.
As Condon's movie begins, there are small but significant differences from the 1991 movie. The opening fleshes out the story of how the spoiled prince (Dan Stevens) mocked an old beggar woman who, he learned too late, is an enchantress (Hattie Morahan) who cast the spell on him and his servants.
Then we meet the fair Belle (Emma Watson), the bookworm who is misunderstood by the residents of "this poor provincial town." Watson's Belle is not just a romance-novel fan but an inventor, like her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), and shocks the townsfolk when she suggests little girls should learn to read.
When Maurice stumbles upon the Beast's castle, Belle rides to rescue him, sacrificing herself to become the Beast's prisoner in her father's place. She gets a warmer welcome from the castle's staff, all transformed to household objects: Lumière (Ewan McGregor), the candelabra; Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the clock; Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), the teapot, and her son, teacup Chip (Nathan Mack); Mme. de Garderobe (Audra McDonald), the wardrobe; Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the feather duster; and a new character, the wardrobe's harpsichord husband, Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci).
It's here where the new movie is at its weakest, as Condon and crew turn the warmly drawn characters of the 1991 version into hyper-realistic computer-animated figures that are more creepy than friendly. The new rendition of Lumière's musical number "Be Our Guest" runs so close to the animated version that one wonders why Disney bothered, aside from financial reasons.
There are new songs, with Tim Rice writing lyrics to Menken's music, much as he did for Disney's Broadway adaptation. (Ashman died just before the 1991 version hit theaters.) The movie's new songs (different from the Broadway additions) don't come close to Ashman's witty wordplay or the toe-tapping familiarity of the old songs, though Beast's lament "Evermore" gives Stevens a nice moment to pour out the tragic hero's broken heart. (Stevens' vulnerability suits the song better than Josh Groban's operatic rendition, which plays over the final credits.)
There are some story diversions in the new script, credited to Stephen Chbosky ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") and Evan Spiliotopoulos ("The Huntsman: Winter War"), and some work better than others. The deeper backstory of Maurice and Belle's relationship is touching. There's a darker edge to her arrogant suitor, Gaston (Luke Evans). And Josh Gad (who voiced Olaf in "Frozen") makes comic hay out of the sycophancy of Gaston's sidekick LeFou.
The suggestion of LeFou being gay for Gaston has generated a lot of pre-release controversy, which seems silly once you watch the movie. The homoerotic subtext is slight, conveyed mostly in Gad's performance of the song "Gaston" and the sly twist he puts on a lyric like, "You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley, and they'll tell you whose team they'd prefer to be on."
What makes this "Beauty and the Beast" worth watching is to see Emma Watson, miles beyond her Hermione Granger years, blossom as a mature leading lady. Watson reveals a fair singing voice stronger than Emma Stone's in "La La Land," a movie Watson turned down to do this while also showing the plucky charm, grace and intelligence of the "most peculiar mademoiselle" who learns to love a beast.
'Beauty and the Beast'
Disney replays its 1991 animated classic in a too-faithful live-action version, raised by Emma Watson's luminous performance as Belle.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, March 17.
Rating • PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.
Running time • 129 minutes.