Frank Rich probably had no idea what lay ahead in the future when he declared towards the end of his tenure as chief theater critic of The New York Times that the Disney animated film musical Beauty and the Beast contained “the best Broadway musical score of 1991.” (In retrospect, the Tony-nominated musicals of 1991 included Miss Saigon, Once on This Island, The Secret Garden and The Will Rogers Follies. Not a bad year by any means, but Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s enchanting score for Beauty and the Beast is certainly a product of well-integrated, traditional musical-theater storytelling.)
On April 18, 1994, Disney began its ongoing conquest of Broadway with a live stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast packed with lavish costumes and stagecraft wizardry (seriously, how did they get that transformation scene to work?). Although not enthusiastically received by critics, it was certainly welcomed by family audiences (who were no longer afraid of venturing into the newly cleaned-up Times Square), and it ultimately ran more than 13 years. I remember seeing it twice in the same year, once with my parents and then again with my middle-school class.
Disney’s decade-long renaissance of animated film musicals (initiated with The Little Mermaid) died out by the end of the 1990s with Mulan and Tarzan, but the mega-success of Frozen offers hope that more animated film musicals may follow in its path. But at the moment, Disney is caught up in the lucrative fad of cranking out live recreations of its classic animated musicals (The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty reinterpreted as Maleficent). But unlike those earlier remakes, the new live-action Beauty and the Beast, helmed by director-screenwriter Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Chicago), is still an all-out, merry-making musical-theater extravaganza – even if it is not exactly an improvement on the original film.
The remake can be and should be enjoyed, and it has all the makings of a modern multiplex mega-hit, destined to delight a large and diverse audience, but it’s really not all that different from or superior to the paint-by-numbers 1994 Broadway production, even if the songs written by Menken and Tim Rice for the film remake are different than the songs the pair wrote to pad out the stage version. All of their new stuff pales in comparison to the original score of Menken and Ashman. The digital animation in the film that brings the household items to life is clever and striking, but hardly as memorable or lovable as the original, far more expressive hand-drawn animation. (For the record, I did not see the film in 3D, which is also an option.) The various additions to the script (the flashback to Belle’s sick mother, Belle’s father being left for dead in the woods, Belle and her father trapped in a paddy wagon set for the madhouse) just stall the storytelling.
And then there is the biggest problem with the film: Emma Watson’s lack of a singing voice. No one was expecting her to compete with the vocals of Paige O’Hara in the original film, but Disney ought to have cast someone who could at least sing the score passably or dubbed Watson’s singing (after all, if it was good enough for Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr). That being said, Watson (best known as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films) brings a spunky, youthful spirit to the role of Belle.
Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey) was a great casting choice for the Beast, handsome and with a lurking sadness. Luke Evans is appropriately broad and hammy as the villainous Gaston, and Josh Gad is likewise full of cartoonish cheer as Gaston’s toady LeFou. (The whole “gay subplot” controversy about LeFou is much ado about nothing. For genuine gay subtext, revisit the relationship between Jafar and Iago in Aladdin.) As expected, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald all make nice supporting turns as the voices of the household goods. Audra is also seen at the very beginning doing an opera recital. Kevin Kline, assigned with playing Belle’s sad-sack, befuddled father, brings some unexpected poignancy.
So, what comes next? Will Beauty and the Beast get a Broadway revival? Will Disney do more of its live-action remakes as musicals? (According to industry buzz, Aladdin directed by Guy Ritchie and The Lion King directed by Jon Favreau are expected to be musicals, and The Little Mermaid may even get additional songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda.) Personally, I’d like to see Disney go back to the starting board and focus on developing new film musicals. Traditional hand-drawn animation, computer animation, live action – I don’t care. Let’s get another Disney rebirth underway. Disney should see it as an investment that will eventually provide more products that it can bring to Broadway or remake on film.