When Disney announced it was planning a live-action remake of its 1991 animated musical Beauty and the Beast, many were skeptical. How could live action hope to equal—much less improve upon—the beloved classic? Others were hopeful that the remake would breathe new life into the “tale as old as time.”
I was happy to learn that the new movie would be graded in Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) with a soundtrack mixed in Dolby Atmos immersive sound. So I bought a ticket for opening day at my local Dolby Cinema and settled in to see what Disney hath wrought.
We all know the story, which is based on a French fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. A cruel, selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is hosting a lavish party at his castle when a poor old woman arrives and asks for shelter from the fierce storm raging outside, offering a single rose in tribute. He laughs and kicks her out, only to discover she is actually a powerful enchantress (Hattie Morahan) who places a curse on the entire castle, turning him into a hideous beast and his servants into living household items. The spell will be broken only if the Beast learns to love and is loved in return, which must occur before the last petal of the enchanted rose falls, or the spell will remain in force forever.
Years pass, and the prince and his castle are forgotten. In a nearby village—called Villeneuve in honor of the original author—young Belle (Emma Watson) wishes to experience the wider world. However, the villagers see her independent spirit and voracious appetite for books as odd. She is wooed by the vainglorious but well-respected soldier Gaston (Luke Evans) with help from his faithful squire Le Fou (Josh Gad), but she spurns him.
When her kindly father Maurice (Kevin Kline) stumbles upon the castle and picks a rose for Belle, he is captured by the Beast and imprisoned as a thief. Belle volunteers to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner, and the household staff—Lumiere the candlestick (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the mantle clock (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson), her son Chip the teacup (Nathan Mack), Madame de Garderobe the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), her husband Maestro Cadenza the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), and Plumette the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)—all hope she is the one to break the spell.
Of course, all the original songs by Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman are there—with some revised lyrics that were originally considered too risqué in 1991—along with four new tunes by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice that are equally appealing. Everyone in the cast does at least a creditable job singing; in some cases—especially Audra McDonald, Emma Thompson, and Josh Gad—much better than that. Some reviews criticize Emma Watson’s singing, which could be due to the heavy use of auto-tuning on her voice.
The new movie expands on the 1991 story; for example, we learn what happened to Belle’s mother in a magical excursion to Paris. However, the pacing is poor in places, with abrupt edits that don’t make much sense. And some of the characterizations are confused. Is Gaston merely a braggart or seriously evil? Luke Evans plays them both at different times. Overall, the direction seems sloppy, and the additions to the story make it feel a bit ponderous and overlong.
Calling this movie “live action” is a bit of a stretch, since so much of it is CGI (computer-generated imagery), including the living household items, the castle, some of the scenery, menacing wolves, and the Beast himself. Some reviews complain that the CGI is too obvious, especially after the stunning success of the technology in Disney’s The Jungle Book. I agree that some of the CGI is not quite as seamless as it is in that movie, but not to the point that it bothered me. And I thought the Beast—who was brought to life via mocap (motion capture)—looked quite good, particularly the eyes.
There’s a bit of a brouhaha about a gay character, which is only hinted at a few times. If you didn’t know that in advance, you might miss these hints except perhaps the last one. Also of social interest is the presence of two mixed-race couples, which would never have been seen in earlier Disney eras.
The Dolby Vision HDR image looks fabulous. As usual, the black interstitials (moments of full-screen black between scenes) are true black, and I could see lots of shadow detail in deeply dark scenes. At the high end of the luminance range, a couple of sunrises over distant mountains are really bright, and the first one floods the entire screen with near-white. In particular, “Be Our Guest” is a dazzling HDR feast for the eyes.
Likewise, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is superb. The music is mixed way into the surrounds and overheads, and there are several scenes—for example, the first time Madame de Garderobe dresses Belle—in which the sound effects truly immerse the audience in three dimensions.
I’m sorry to report that the average sound-pressure level was higher than reference level—almost 8 dB higher! Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 97.4 dBZ (flat), 92.6 dBA, 96.9 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 120.1 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 100.9 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 90.4 dBZ. It definitely doesn’t need to be that loud.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast, and so have a lot of other people. The movie garnered a record-breaking $170 million in North American ticket sales during its opening weekend, and another $180 million overseas, more than covering the estimated $300 million it cost to make and promote.
The songs are wonderful, and the message about looking beyond outward appearances to find inner beauty has never been more relevant than it is today. As noted in this New York Times article, “It shows how the ostracism of someone who is different can feed anger and resentment. Judgmental, ill-informed villagers with pitchforks reflect the current state of social media.”
Yes, the movie could have been tightened up in several ways, but it’s still a lot of fun. If you intend to see it and you’re near a Dolby Cinema (click here for a list), by all means see it there. You’ll be rewarded with an exceptional presentation.