To quote a lyric from one of the songs in “Beauty and the Beast,” “there may be something there that wasn’t there before.” The familiar elements are all in place, of course. It’s “Beauty and the Beast,” for goodness’ sake: a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme and all that. And there are inspired flights of nostalgia as well, visual evocations of the predigital glory of Busby Berkeley, Ray Harryhausen and other masters of fantastical craft.
But this live-action/digital hybrid, directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in the title roles, is more than a flesh-and-blood (and prosthetic fur-and-horns) revival of the 26-year-old cartoon, and more than a dutiful trip back to the pop-culture fairy-tale well. Its classicism feels unforced and fresh. Its romance neither winks nor panders. It looks good, moves gracefully and leaves a clean and invigorating aftertaste. I almost didn’t recognize the flavor: I think the name for it is joy.
This was by no means a foregone conclusion. The reanimation of beloved properties — to use the grim business nomenclature of Hollywood — often leads to hack work and zombie-ism, as old archetypes are shocked to life and arrayed in garish, synthetic modern effects. That might easily have happened here. Look (I mean: don’t look) at the horrors that have been visited, in recent years, on Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz. And even if Disney had done a more convincing upgrade, on the model of last year’s “Jungle Book,” a new “Beauty” could have offended fans of the 1991 animated feature simply by existing. That movie, a high point of the ‘80s and ‘90s Disney revival, is close to perfect. What singing teapot would dare to challenge Angela Lansbury?
The only possible answer is Emma Thompson, whose Mrs. Potts is joined by other household objects with the voices (and, briefly, the faces) of movie stars. Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald are the excitable harpsichord and the operatic wardrobe; Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are the suave candelabra and the anxious clock. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the lissome feather duster. Young Nathan Mack is Chip, Mrs. Potts’ son. Their singing and banter is so vivid and so natural that you almost take for granted that they appear to be mechanical objects clicking and whirling in physical space, sharing the frame with human characters.
There are a few moments — a climactic high-elevation fight scene that looks like every other climactic high-elevation fight scene; a chase through the forest involving wolves — where the digital seams show, and you’re aware of the cold presence of lines of code behind the images. Most of the time, though, you are happily fooled. More than that: enchanted. The most dazzling visual flights are matched to the best of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs. “Be Our Guest” in particular is a choreographic extravaganza that enfolds decades of Disney history (all the way back to “Snow White” and “Fantasia”) in contemporary cinematic craft.
But the tradition of Disney features, both live action and animated, rigorously places spectacle in the service of plot. The audience needs to be, by turns, reassured and surprised, guided through startling and suspenseful events toward a never-in-doubt conclusion. The new “Beauty and the Beast,” written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, smoothly modernizes — and to some degree sanitizes — a story with a potentially thorny psychosexual subtext, a tale of male animality and female captivity. He’s a beast and a prince. She’s his prisoner and his therapist. It’s a little kinky if you stop to think about it, and also (to use a more responsible word) a little problematic.
Variations on the beauty-beast theme are hardly scarce. What else is “Twilight” (the last two movie installments were directed by Condon)? Or “Fifty Shades of Grey”? “Beauty and the Beast” decisively removes itself from such company by insisting on the heroism and competence of its heroine, Belle, a bookish and ingenious young woman who lives with her father (Kevin Kline) in a picture-book French village.
Watson, already something of a feminist pioneer thanks to her portrayal of Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies, perfectly embodies Belle’s compassion and intelligence. Stevens, blandly handsome as a human prince, is a splendid monster, especially when the diffidence and charm start to peek through the rage. The awkward business about imprisonment turning into true love is handled smoothly. If you want a hot and haunting “Beauty and the Beast,” check out Jean Cocteau’s version, or the fan-fiction-inspiring television show from the 1980s. This one is chaste and charming.
It’s Disney! Which means there will also be a villain and a comical sidekick, who steal many scenes on the way to their comeuppance. That would be Gaston (Luke Evans), a narcissistic cabbage-stomping former soldier and his adoring pal LeFou (Josh Gad). Gaston is sweet on Belle, and his excitement at her unambiguous refusals makes him the film’s avatar of nastiness. No redemption here. He goes from annoying to evil when he stirs up the anti-intellectualism and xenophobia of a populist mob to serve his own egomaniacal ends. The residents of the castle fight back because their humanity is at stake. It’s just a fairy tale.
‘Beauty and the Beast’
Rated PG. Some scary stuff, and some rough stuff too.
Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
“Beauty and the Beast” opens March 17, but the studio made it available for earlier review.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.