Who doesn't know the tale of La Belle & la Bête (Beauty and the Beast)? It's one of the most revered fairy tales around, a classic tale of romance, princesses and curses. Christophe Gans (Silent Hill, Le Pacte des Loups) seemed determined to breathe new life into the franchise, the only question that remained was whether he would be able to add something that lifted his version above the countless other adaptations. Looking back at the final result, I think he succeeded remarkable well.
From day one it was plain and obvious this film was going to be fighting an uphill battle. Not only would it have to fight off comparisons with the insanely popular '94 Disney adaptation, but there's also the '46 classic that is still held in high regard by many a fan. There's no way Gans would win over everyone, still I think criticism has been unfairly harsh for his version of La Belle & la Bête.
There always a tricky can't-win-em-all balance when fairy tales are concerned. I tend to be disappointed by Disney's overly happy, cutesy adaptations (and I've been truly traumatized by the singing cutlery in their version of Beauty and the Beast), but you can't give these films too dark an edge as they remain primarily aimed at children. To get to the adults, you have to make the fantasy part compelling enough, and that's exactly how Gans succeeded with this film.
While there are many different versions of the story floating around, Gans seems to be favouring the Villeneuve version. The main plot remains almost identical to the original, but the background story of both Belle and the beast are less fantastical compared to the original telling (which included even more fairies and curses). That said, those who are familiar with the fairytale in whatever popular form won't find too many surprises here.
On the visual side of things La Belle & la Bê truly shines. Not just the CG (which is more than sufficient), but the designs in general are completely mesmerizing. The castle, the interiors, the surroundings, even the costumes. Gans hired the right people for the job, turning an above average fairytale into a stunning experience. There are a select few false notes (like the CG dogs), but they are few and far between.
The soundtrack is fitting but a little much at times. It's overly epic and romantic music that feels as if it's ever-present, but the mood of the tracks do fit the film. That said, Gans clearly aimed to remain faithful to the fairytale setup so there wasn't too much room for experimentation anyway. In that light the score isn't even half bad. Still I would've preferred something a little more subtle and toned down, but that's just me.
The role of beast is part CG, part Vincent Cassel. Cassel is without a doubt one of the most talented French actors around and definitely cut out for this job, on the other hand he doesn't have that much to work with besides being angry and French. The role of Belle went to Léa Seydoux who transformed from artsy tramp (La Vie d'Adèle) to innocent princess without too much of a sweat. They form a nice enough screen couple and while their characters leave little in the way of personal input I've seen much worse acting in fantasy films (hello Lord of the Rings).
Whether you'll like La Belle & la Bête depends on what you hope to get from a fairytale adaptation. If you want a good, meaty story you'll end up disappointed. If you want a proper love story you might be disappointed by the many flashbacks that detract from the relationship between Belle and the beast. But if you're looking for wonder and awe, then Gans delivers one of the best fairytale adaptations in a long time, only matched by Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.
Overall reception of La Belle & la Bête has been mixed. I went in expecting nothing and came out amazed at the beauty and wonder that hides underneath its fairytale covers. Gans did an amazing job bringing the world of the beast to life. On top of that, the film is grim enough to appeal to adults while keeping the fairytale wonder intact so younger kids have plenty to enjoy too. A very pleasant surprise indeed, and Gans' best film to date.