Beauty and the Beast (PG)

Three stars

Dir: Bill Condon

With: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans

Runtime: 129 minutes

SOME studios have cash in the attic, the odd title worth releasing again while audiences wait for the new model to arrive: the first Trainspotting being a recent example. But Disney? The creators of The Jungle Book, Snow White, Aladdin, 101 Dalmatians and 102 other animated box office smashes, has Fort Knox just off the kitchen and a line of credit that could stretch twice around the world.

Little wonder, then, that the studio is planning so many live action remakes of its classic animations. Where Jon Favreau’s 2016 The Jungle Book (worldwide gross $967,000,000) led, others, including Dumbo and Aladdin, will follow.

For now, say hello again to Beauty and the Beast. An expanded version of the 1991 picture, Bill Condon’s picture is less of a thrill ride than The Jungle Book and more of a tame waltz through the highlights, but it is still up to Disney standards in style, music, and its all-star cast.

The director of Dreamgirls and Mr Holmes cues up the story in traditional dark and stormy evening style: a cruel young prince (played by Dan Stevens) in ye olden times France taxes his people heavily to buy the beautiful things he craves. One night an old woman arrives at his door seeking shelter but is turned away. Do not be confused by appearances she tells him, for beauty comes from within.

Before you can cackle at the irony of being lectured by the movie industry about the perils of shallowness, the pretty prince has been turned into a beast, complete with ram horns, in punishment for his disdain. If he can learn to love another and be loved in return, the curse will be lifted. But if not …

From bleak beginnings we spring to the sun-dappled countryside. The production design by Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, Anna Karenina) is top to toe gorgeous throughout, with her provincial village a riot of ginghams, florals, candy colours and cuteness. Even the chickens look like they’ve just come from the hairdressers.

Not that Belle (Emma Watson) considers the place such a catch. Adoring only of her scatty widower father (Kevin Kline) and books, Belle is seen as an oddity, a young woman who should think herself flattered to be wooed by the handsome but fantastically vain Gaston (Luke Evans).

It is while searching for her father that Belle winds up in the Beast’s lair where she is kept captive. Not an attractive look on any man, but these are fairy tales, they see hostage situations differently here. Belle at least gets to point out the weirdness of her position, one of several nods, including declarations of a woman’s right to go her own way in life, that the film makes to modernity.

Condon also introduces what has been widely trailed as Disney’s first gay character into the mix, though it is done with so little fanfare you may be hard pushed to notice. (The Russian authorities did, however, and responded by banning under-16s from seeing the film. Sometimes real life does not have a patch on fairy tales when it comes to beastliness).

Condon and his cast breeze through the plot, the songs (the title song and Be Our Guest the showstoppers) and the comedy interludes, with Josh Gad a star turn at the latter as Gaston’s servant. Also turning up on cast duty are Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Audra McDonald.

Watson, despite being one of the new breed of more feminist Disney heroines, still has her big dress up moment. Like everything and everyone else in the picture, she is present, correct, perfectly pleasant but just a tad underwhelming. There is a sense that there could have been so much more oomph to give had anyone dared. Even the beast is more of a sad posh boy than a bad one, a Darcy rather than a devil.

Still, even though we know how the story pans out, Condon’s picture is a pleasure to watch, thus proving, if you ever doubted, that a thing of Disney can be a joy forever.

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