Disney’s 1991 animated movie Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for a “best picture” Oscar. It won two Oscars for its music, three Golden Globes, four Grammys, and was the first Disney animated film to become a stage musical. In other words, anyone considering helming a remake had big, big shoes to fill. But Disney said they’d make a live-action version, and have kept their word, with the film being released next week.
They no doubt appreciated that expectations would be high, so they brought some big names on board. Everyone’s favourite millennial is in the title role – Emma Watson plays Belle (that’s French for “Beauty”; the original story is 18th-century French fairy tale) – and the film is directed by Oscar winner Bill Condon, the man responsible for other movie musicals such as Chicago and Dreamgirls, and a massive fan of the 90s cartoon.
“I consider the 1991 film to be a perfect movie,” he says. “When the film was released it was groundbreaking, in the way the story was told ... and with that incredible score from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, so I initially did not want to go near it.”
However, with the advance of technology, the director is convinced that things that the time is ripe for a real-life interpretation of the story.
“It is 25 years later and technology has caught up to the ideas that were introduced in the animated movie,” he explains. “Now it is possible, for the first time, to create a photo-real version of a talking teacup on a practical set in a completely realistic live action format.”
As well as faith in technology and adoration of the animated version, Condon brings to the table a love of movie musicals, and a desire to do his part to make a tribute to those from Hollywood’s “Golden Age”.
“I want audiences to embrace the form and understand that, at its best, music and movies and musical numbers in movies don’t distract, they don’t interrupt, they deepen and help create meaning,” he says.
Condon is not the only long-term fan.
“I have loved Beauty and the Beast since I was four years old,” says Watson. “I remember Belle as this feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had these ambitions and was incredibly independent and wanted to see the world.”
It seems like a perfect role for a woman who works with the UN promoting gender equality. Condon adds, “Belle is someone who doesn’t really care about becoming a princess. She’s more interested in seeing the world and figuring out who she is than in finding a man and getting married. And she had this relationship with the Beast where they were just toe to toe and that, to me, just seemed like such a terrific dynamic and interesting kind of relationship that I’d never seen before in a fairy tale.”
Prior to 1991, most female characters in animated films were viewed as passive and somewhat one-dimensional, but Belle broke the mould. She is interested in literature, has thoughts of her own and is not easily intimidated, and quickly became an empowered role model for girls around the world and the first contemporary feminist heroine in an animated film.
Perhaps the most difficult character is the other in the title: while the Beast is humanesque in appearance (and, of course, an actual human transformed by a sorceress into the frightening creature), he is represented on screen digitally. As the Beast, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens faced particular challenges: the filmmakers combined physical performance capture with high-resolution facial capture technology. For his scenes with humans, Stevens wore stilts and a prosthetics muscle suit, with a grey bodysuit on top, so that the CGI could be added afterwards.
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He also had to separately film his facial expressions, surrounded by several cameras which tracked every pore and every muscle in his face.
“It was especially challenging,” says Stevens, “you have to think back to scenes already filmed and move just your face, not your body, whether you had any dialogue or not. There was one instance where I had to do the entire ballroom waltz with just my face, which was quite interesting.”
Featuring all the songs from the original, plus four new numbers written by the 1991 soundtrack’s composer Alan Menken, working with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s favourite lyricist, Sir Tim Rice, and breathing new life into a beloved film, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast stands on a precipice. It is the latest in a string of live-action Disney remakes, which have had mixed reception, this time one of the most popular animated movies of the last quarter century. It will introduce new generations to Belle, who, when she was introduced, was a new, independent breed of Disney princess; but how will die-hard fans react? Given the passion the cast and crew have for the source material, it’s fairly safe to assume they’ve done everything humanly possible to alleviate those fears.