What was so magical about Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast,” from 1991? Fans of the film might start with the music, especially the Oscar-winning theme song performed by Angela Lansbury. Paige O’Hara certainly did her part as the voice of Belle, as did Robby Benson as The Beast. Credit should also go to Linda Woolverton, the first woman to pen a Disney animated feature, and the one who turned Belle into a bookish beauty.
Much of the magic, though, came from the animation itself. That, of course, is missing from Disney’s new live-action remake. Directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) with what looks like a bottomless budget and featuring the potentially perfect pairing of Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in the title roles, “Beauty and the Beast” is one lavish-looking fairy tale. Alan Menken’s original score is still here, plus three new songs with lyricist Tim Rice. The paradox is that this “real” version can’t muster up the living, breathing feel of the animated original.
That may not matter to those who’ve been waiting to see Watson turn her Hermione Granger character from “Harry Potter” into a Disney princess with smarts and confidence. The role suits Watson fine, though it doesn’t give her much creative leeway. The same can be said of Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), who as the Beast is mostly hidden behind a layer of CGI. We do buy into the budding romance between them, but often it’s the grand-looking costumes (by Jacqueline Durran, of 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice”) that are really seducing us.
Where this “Beauty” truly pales against the original is in the musical numbers featuring the castle’s enchanted antiques, here played by Emma Thompson (replacing Lansbury as Mrs. Potts), Ewan McGregor (replacing Jerry Orbach as Lumiere the candelabra), Ian McKellan (Cogsworth the clock) and others. The voices are fine, but the computer-animated figures themselves can be disappointingly stiff. Lumiere, for instance, is almost completely expressionless -- a major drawback considering he sings the joyous dinner-scene number “Be Our Guest.” As for Luke Evans as the arrogant Gaston and Josh Gad as his fawning sidekick, LeFou, they’re serviceable. (LeFou is Disney’s first gay character, but don’t expect too much on-screen discussion about it.)
In the end, “Beauty and the Beast” still enchants, largely due to the irresistible story and Woolverton’s still-intact touches. The hand-drawn original film, though, remains the real deal.