BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. >> In 1991, Disney struck gold with “Beauty and the Beast.” The film enchanted audiences and critics alike, and raked in several hundred million dollars along the way, but also upended expectations of what an animated film could be.
Not only did the New York Times theater critic controversially call it the best Broadway musical score of the year (spurring an actual Broadway show three years later), it also was the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.
Over a quarter century later, the legacy endures but times have changed, and there’s a new “Beauty and the Beast” on the block. Out March 17, the film is a lavish live-action reimagining of the “tale as old as time” with state-of-the-art CG splendor, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic songs and score (and a few new tunes with Tim Rice), and a modern social consciousness.
The film stars “Harry Potter’s” Emma Watson as the bookish heroine Belle, who yearns for adventure outside of the confines of her “small provincial town” and “Downton Abbey” alum Dan Stevens as the cursed and cold Beast. Their supporting cast is a coterie of veterans, including Kevin Kline (Maurice), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza) and Ewan McGregor (Lumiere).
That Disney’s specific vision for “Beauty and the Beast” has lived on is no surprise, and its 13-year run on Broadway helped keep it in the cultural consciousness.
“It’s genuinely romantic, a genuinely beautiful story,” Menken said of its lasting appeal.
And then there’s the nostalgia aspect. For many (including the cast), this was a seminal childhood film.
Luke Evans (Gaston) saw it when he was 12, Josh Gad (LeFou) when he was 10, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) when she was 8. Suffice it to say, they all knew the lyrics to the songs before they were cast.
The remake is also part of the Walt Disney Company’s ongoing strategy to mine their vaults for animated fare worthy of live-action re-creations. “Mulan,” ”The Little Mermaid,” ”Aladdin” and “The Lion King” are just a few already in the works.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy updates to be made in “Beauty and the Beast.” Director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) delighted in rooting the story in a specific time and place — 1740 France — and adorning every last corner of the production with Rococo and Baroque details.
Technology advances allowed the production to render household objects that look believable when brought to life. The Beast’s look, meanwhile, was achieved by combining performance capture and MOVA, a facial capture system, meaning Stevens throughout production walked on stilts and sported a prosthetic muscle suit with a gray body suit on top. (Yes, he danced in this getup).
The characters are more fleshed out as well. The Beast gets a backstory. As does Belle, whose independence looked refreshingly radical in ‘91 and goes even further here.
“She’s a 21st century Disney princess. She’s not just a pretty girl in a dress,” Evans said. “She’s fearless and needs no one to validate her.”
That the woman behind the character is also the UN women’s goodwill ambassador only adds to its resonance.
“I think Emma’s an incredible role model for young girls, as somebody who has two daughters but also has a young son who I want to grow up with these values instilled,” Stevens said.
And, in a tribute to Ashman, who died of complications relating to AIDS at age 40 before the ‘91 film came out, the production even unearthed forgotten lyrics from his notes, which they’ve added to two songs in the new film — “Gaston” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
While many of the beats, and even lines, remain the same as in ‘91, the world looks more diverse from the very first shots. Faces of all races can be seen both in the grand castle and the country town.
“(Condon) wanted to make a film that was resonant for 2017, that represents the world as it is today,” said Mbatha-Raw.
Much has been made, too, of LeFou’s subtle “gay moment,” which put the internet in a tizzy far ahead of anyone actually seeing the film. On one side, GLAAD was applauding, on the other, a Facebook page apparently belonging to the Henagar Drive-In Theatre in Henagar, Alabama, announced that it would not be showing the film.
Many in the production have backed away from the topic entirely.
“To define LeFou as gay … nobody who sees the movie could define it that way. He’s enthralled with Gaston,” Menken said. “I’m happy that LeFou is getting so much attention. But I pray that this stupid topic goes away because it’s just not relevant with any respect to the story. Even the one moment that’s being discussed is just a silly little wink. It’s nothing.”
For his part, Gad thinks it’s been “overblown,” too, and that the story is more about “inclusiveness” and not judging a book by its cover.
“It’s a story with a lot of wonderful messages, and, really once you watch the film, anyone who is wondering what it’s all about will understand that it’s a beautiful story, inclusive of everyone. It’s a legacy that I’m proud to be part of,” Evans added.
“But you can judge Gaston by his cover,” he said with a smirk. “That’s exactly who he is.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter at @ldbahr.