Movie review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’

This image released by Disney shows Dan Stevens as The Beast, left, and Emma Watson as Belle in a live-action adaptation of the animated classic "Beauty and the Beast." (Disney via AP)

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Or a woman, as the case may be.

This age-old truth continues to resonate through Western culture, with touching acts of self-renunciation in such classics as “Beowulf” and “Huckleberry Finn” — plus more recent titles like “Star Wars,” “Gran Torino” and “The Dark Knight.”

And here it is again in “Beauty and the Beast”; occurring repeatedly throughout the story, it’s one of many virtues in this terrific movie.

Others include acting, singing, music, choreography, dialogue and production design — all coalescing into what is quickly becoming another financial juggernaut for Disney.

This live-action remake of the 1991 smash stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as, respectively, a plucky 18th-century lass and the surly creature for whom she falls, even as he holds her captive in his castle.

The impressive cast also includes Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald and Ian McKellen.

Watson, unless she received some post-production tweaking, has a gorgeous singing voice — clear and sweet as a nightingale. Thompson is wonderful on the title track, while Stevens shows off a rich baritone on the brand-new “Evermore.” Indeed, one surprise here is that the new tunes — composed by the same team who worked on the original — are just as good as those beloved 26-year-old standards. The freshly penned “Days in the Sun” is a typical Disney show-stopper, while the classic “Be Our Guest” explodes across the screen like a head-on collision between Busby Berkeley and Baz Luhrmann.

This film is fully 45 minutes longer than the first, yet it never feels slow. It’s a powerhouse, especially in the many moving moments when one character sacrifices for another. This “Beast” is so thoroughly engaging that dozens of school-age girls at the show I attended — who had sat through eight previews and a two-hour movie — remained in the theater, in an apparent delighted daze, through most of the closing credits. (It’s worth sticking around to hear Ariana Grande and John Legend sing “Beauty and the Beast,” followed by Josh Groban belting out a luscious “Evermore.”)

And for the record, the pre-release brouhaha over the film’s inclusion of a gay character is a tempest in a teacup. (No offense, Chip!) Wistful, very subtle and sometimes even amusing, it’s perfectly integrated into the story and isn’t worth all that fuss.

This film as a whole, on the other hand, certainly merits the long lines, sell-outs and boffo receipts it has generated. Not only will it draw many repeat customers, but also, it bodes well for Disney’s forthcoming onslaught of other live-action updates — including “Mulan,” “Aladdin” and “Dumbo” (the latter from director Tim Burton!).

It’s tempting to wonder if any of these can be as good as “Beauty” — but then, with both “Jungle Book” and “Cinderella,” Disney has a proven track record in this area. So if they want to remake all 50 animated features, well …

Be our guest.

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