'Beauty and the Beast': Mostly the same old song

They’re calling the new Beauty and the Beast a live-action musical, though that hyphenated term becomes less and less apt with each new advancement in digital technology.

Certainly star Emma Watson is alive, and she makes a nice Belle, the headstrong peasant girl who dreams of leaving her provincial village and sidestepping the attentions of  lunkheaded suitor Gaston (Luke Evans). Her yearnings, of course, take her to the haunted castle of a prince-turned-beast (Dan Stevens) cursed to retain his ghastly form until he can learn to love.

Watson was cast because she is charming and can sing a little, but surely for another reason – her experience in the Harry Potter movies staring at a green screen and pretending it’s some J.K. Rowling watchamacallit.

There’s very little that is “live-action” about the Beast and the inhabitants of his castle – the talking candlestick, clock, dresser, feather duster, teakettle, and cup. These are feats of animation, really, and so we are left to judge whether they are an improvement (the film will be released in 3D) on the two-dimensional animated version of the classic Disney cartoon.

Not really.

In fact, this is where old-school traditional animators may have an advantage over newfangled technology, impressive though it may be. Free from the burden of having to make a character conform to a visual representation that looks "real," cartoon animators can be more fanciful in creating an image that is  purely an expression of persona, of character. (They could also turn Mrs. Potts' spout into a snout, something the high-tech animators could not achieve.)

As special effects go, the Beast is a more impressive creation. Stevens gives the performance, computers capture his expressions, animators add the features, and sound technicians modify the voice.

The music, as good as ever, is taken from the 1991 animated movie. Songs added for the Broadway show are not included in the new musical, but composer Alan Menken has written new songs (including "How Does a Moment Last Forever," with vocal by Celine Dion), with contributions based on previously unused material by Menken's original Beauty and the Beast colleague, the late Howard Ashman. John Legend and Ariana Grande also collaborate on a new version of the title tune.

The "live action" numbers are competently staged by director Bill Condon (who directed the musical Dreamgirls).  But he is unable, in 2 hours and 15 minutes, to conjure the kind of magic the 1991 movie achieved in 85 minutes.

Nor is he able to make us sense that there is a compelling reason for the remake to exist (though it does, Condon said, contain Disney's first "unambiguously gay" character, LeFou, played by Josh Gad). There is a reason, of course -- the studio is remonetizing its greatest animated hits. We've already seen live-action updates of The Jungle Book and Cinderella, and there will be more: DumboAladdinThe Lion KingCruella, and The Little Mermaid, complete with new music from Lin-Manuel Miranda.


Beauty and the Beast

Directed by Bill Condon. With Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Emma Watson, Stanley Tucci, Josh Gad, Dan Stevens, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images.).