Disney has found huge success in adapting their classic animated tales into a live-action film. From Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and to a lesser extent Maleficent and Alice In Wonderland, the studio will continue to mine their vault to continue to deliver one hit after another. But they have a tall order with Beauty and the Beast, as that probably has the largest fanbase for any Disney animated film. Starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as the title characters, audiences can expect to see an almost mirror image in this live-action adaptation, plus some additional storytelling and some brand new music.
During the film’s press junket, we got to sit down with our fellow journalists to talk to director Bill Condon, music composer Alan Menken, and film stars Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw about what it was like to bring everyone’s favorite Disney movie to life and the pressures that come with it. Check it out here below what they had to say.
Though the animated film is a bit exaggerated, the live-action one is based in reality and has a physicality to it where audiences can believe that the French village may have existed. That added touch was the one thing that opened up to questions that were never asked in the 1991 film. “There are questions that maybe you never asked before that you want to know about: how did Belle and Maurice end up in this village? And that leads to these new songs, and you are then creating something new,” said Condon.
Menken agreed. So when he came on board, the two discussed what they would add. Much of the backstories you will see are performed through music. This is especially true for Maurice and The Beast. “We tried to root ourselves in 18th century France,” said Menken.
The artist has been such an influence in terms of music for Disney, giving them and audiences around the world songs that they can relate to. His music has such a profound impact, it sometimes doesn’t even occur to him how it reaches out to people. “When I first came to Disney, I thought of Little Mermaid, first and foremost that’s Howard Ashman and my follow-up to Little Shop of Horrors, for me it was working in musical theater,” said Menken. “We don’t calculate beyond telling the story, and the characters, and try to give these projects its own musical span.”
For Audra McDonald, this film was especially important for her as the story speaks to her kids “knowing that not only would the film have this incredible team, but Emma Watson would be Belle, and knowing how much Emma has affected girls of my daughter’s age and my daughter is someone who would ask to donate her birthday money and gifts to charity instead of getting presents,” said McDonald. She credits Watson for influencing her daughter to be that way. “Knowing full well that Emma was going to make sure that Belle was someone who was independent, who was strong, who was educated, who was sticking up for girls and women, and who does all the rescuing. That’s why I knew it was important for me to be a part of.”
For Gugu Mbatha-Raw, there were quite a few challenges to overcome playing a French feather duster. “For me it was working on the French accent,” said the actress. “Both myself and Ewan [McGregor] had the same dialect coach, and then just playing in the studio with Bill [Condon] encouraging us to, you know, embrace that sort of inner child and that real sort of let’s pretend kind of freedom.” After playing a few serious roles in the past few years, playing Plumette was a joyful experience for Mbatha-Raw. Then to get together for one sequence was all something really special for her. “We got be on set for that transformation sequence, and all these legendary actors are there, and you know, to be swirling around that Disney ballroom, it was just really, really magical,” she added.
Despite the high expectations for this film, it has been met with a few “controversies.” Considering that it is 2017, it’s still hard to imagine that homosexuality is a taboo for some people. However, Condon was willing to address that issue head on by making LeFou gay. “I talked before about how we translate this into a live act – that means filling out the characters,” said Condon. “It’s also a translation to 2017, you know? And what is this movie about? What has this story always been about?” He added that the film is about accepting people for who they are, and in a Disney way, they are including everybody. “I think this movie is for everybody, and on the screen you’ll see everybody, and that was important to me, I think to all of us,” Condon said.
As for the music, Condon and Menken addressed how songs were used as storytelling devices. Using the film’s song “Evermore” as an example, Condon says characters in musicals sing when they no longer can speak, because their emotions are running so high. “I think it’s one of the dramatic high points in all of literature, you know, the fact that the Beast at this moment, that he lets Belle go, becomes worthy of love,” said Condon. “And discovers what love is, but at the same time sacrifices his future, you know? And so we talked about the fact that we needed a song, and of course, there had been a song in the stage adaptation.”
Menken used “If I Can’t Love Her,” a song from the Broadway version, as an example. Explaining the different mediums of the title from the animated to the stage production to the live-action film, Menken says, “We wrote this song for the Beast, because at that act break is the moment where the Beast out of anger has driven Belle away and it was important.” The purpose of that song was to get “Beast to sort of howl for redemption or just say I’ve given up.” However, for film, there is a three-act structure. And the two agreed that it would be best for the film if the Beast let Belle go “because she’s no longer his prisoner, and he loves her, and the spell will not be broken now, but at least he knows what love is.”
But for them, these songs needed to be in response to a particular moment or emotion. “Sometimes you’ll go, I feel like we need a song in this spot, and we will massage the story so a song could fit there,” said Menken. While they could talk at length about the subject, Menken says it all comes down to collaboration. A lot of collaboration goes into what song is going to come, where’s it going to go, what does it need to accomplish and how will it interact with the song that preceded it and the song that came after it? What will be the overall effect of it? What character is underrepresented in songs? There’s so many factors,” said Menken.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opens in theaters on March 17, 2017.