Twice upon a time? That’s the big question that has hung over Walt Disney’s live-action remake of its own animated classic, Beauty and the Beast, since it was first announced over two years ago. How on Earth, cry a legion of very vocal fans, can you catch lightning in a bottle on two separate occasions, a quarter of a century apart? And don’t even get them started on Ewan McGregor cast as a French candlestick.
As much as director Bill Condon denies being under any pressure to please fans, the weight of those concerns, that sheer, unfettered love for the original that still exists all across the world, must have been felt by him and his crew on set. Time hasn’t withered the world’s passion for that cartoon classic, in which – wait for it – a young girl develops Stockholm Syndrome for a prince who has been transformed into a gnarled beast by an enchantress, who has also turned his staff into various household items to further punish him for his cold detachment and vanity. (Which is a little hypocritical, if you ask us, but let’s move on.) No. Far from it. Zero petals have been shed off this tale as old as time over the years.
Its reputation, its place in movie history, is still most firmly in full bloom.
And now here it is, back and in live-action, with Emma Watson as the titular beauty, Belle, Dan Stevens as the beast and those domestic implements being played by – deep breath – Ian McKellen (as Cogsworth, the mantel clock), Emma Thompson and Nathan Mack (as Mrs Potts and Chip, the teapot and teacup), Audra McDonald (as Madame de Garderobe, the wardrobe), Stanley Tucci (as Maestro Cadenza, the harpsichord), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Plumette, the feather duster), and Ewan McGregor (as, of course, Lumière, the gilded candelabra). While the actual proper physical humans include Kevin Kline as Belle’s dad, Luke Evans as the dastardly Gaston, and Josh Gad as his sidekick, Lefou.
“It’s true that the original is held in very high regard, and rightly so,” says Condon, who has also previously directed the musical Dreamgirls, and who wrote the screenplay for the big-screen version of Chicago. “But the only reason I didn’t feel that much pressure was because we didn’t drop anything. The original is so beautiful as it is. The score [by Alan Menken, with lyrics from Howard Ashman] is iconic and great, but also perfect! So this wasn’t the case of wanting to come at it from a different angle or to reinvent the wheel. This was translating it into this other dimension, into a new medium, really – a photo-real, live-action film – and then filling it out. It was about translation and expansion, not reinvention.”
It’s also, of course, not the first time Disney has pulled off this kind of move. This blockbuster marks the fifth in their recent “human-being-erising” (not a technical term, you’ll no doubt be surprised to learn) of their animated back catalogue. That movement, born from comic book-pedlars Marvel, showing Hollywood how to make megabucks from shared universes of pre-existing properties. Disney, wanting a slice of the action itself, started with Angelina Jolie in the so-so Maleficent (2014), got a bit better with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella a year later, and then went on leaps and bounds with last year’s creature-feature double-bill of Pete’s Dragon (which was way better than its ropey animated predecessor) and The Jungle Book (which just won an Oscar).
The steady rise of that trajectory, coupled with its reputation in the Disney firmament, always meant that Beauty and the Beast came loaded with high hopes from a studio and box office point of view. And the truth is that all concerned seem to have nailed it. Forget your Star Wars and Spider-Mans. It’s Belle and company who are the dark horse to beat in the race for the biggest movie of 2017.
“It’s a huge challenge turning a beloved 2D animated film into a more human 3D story,” ponders Dan Stevens of his being cast as the Beast. “But it’s a great story with great characters, so I was very excited. My wife and kids were very excited, too!” In his teens, when the original was released, the Downton Abbey star remembers vividly how “hugely popular” it was at the time, but also came into the process armed with plenty of ideas on how to make it feel fresh again.
“We wanted nuances. To make the Beast a little more two-dimensional. To make him appear like a human trapped inside this creature,” he says of his and Condon’s conversations in pre-production. “One of the biggest differences is that in the animated film you don’t see the Beast before he was transformed. You see a stained glass window version of him, but there’s no real sense of what he was really like. In this film we see him at the debutantes’ ball, [we] were keen to bring out this sense of a petulant, spoiled child and the sense of entitlement which led to his downfall. It allows the audience to see why he was cursed in the first place, which was not just for having refused a rose, but for all his other traits as well. There’s this psychological rationale about what makes a beast a beast, so I watched everything from Wreck-It Ralph to Citizen Kane to get me inspired. That prologue is done almost entirely through the medium of dance, which is not something I’d done much of before.” Which is, of course, a little unfortunate, given the story’s most adored set piece involves a crucial romantic waltz right across a whopping marble dance floor...
That ballroom floor in the Beast’s castle, fact fans, was made from 12,000 square feet of faux marble and its design was based on the ceiling of the Benedictine Abbey in Braunau, Germany. The ten glass chandeliers in it, meanwhile – that each measure 14 feet by seven feet – are based on actual chandeliers from Versailles, which were then frosted, covered in fabric and candle-lit. The effect was, according to Stevens, “one of the most sensational rooms I’ve ever seen… quite magical”. As for the candles, they were just some of the 8,700 used by the production, along with 1,500 red roses. There were, sadly, no official stats on the set’s sandwich consumption at the time of going to press. But we hear that Watson can pack them away.
And then, of course, there’s that dress. Made iconic by the original and recreated here with 180 feet of feather-light satin organza, 3,000 feet of thread, 2,160 Swarovski crystals and a staggering 12,000 man-hours, when Emma Watson walked on set in it, all the work and money drifted away in the ether. “It was genuinely goosebumps,” says Condon of the moment. “She’s taken something that was so fresh 25 years ago and brought it right into our time.”
“The scene I wear that dress in, and I have that dance in,” Watson told Entertainment Weekly of the sequence, “really tells the story of Beast and Belle falling in love. We don’t have a huge amount of time in the story to tell that story. The dance, for me, is really where the audience starts to see it happening and starts knowing that it is happening. This is total, blissful escapism. You are transported to another world.”
Or, as her Beast himself has it: “That’s the moment. I was very keen to calibrate the Beast according to the Belle that Emma wanted to play, so we spent a lot of time talking about beauty and beastliness, men and women and masculinity and femininity, good and evil and all sorts of polar opposite things. Ultimately we realised that the tale is not so much about an ugly thing and a beautiful girl but about the beauty and the beast that’s in all of us...The two sides each person has and learning to live with that balance.”
And if that’s not a sentiment as relevant now as it was 25 years ago, then frankly we don’t know what is.
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas from March 16.