Usually these brouhahas quickly blow over, as was the case with Mrs. Potts. In other instances — the recent dust-up over a gay supporting character in “Beauty and the Beast” comes to mind — online consternation can snowball into a potentially damaging news story. Why did Disney decide that modernizing “Beauty and the Beast” was a risk worth taking? And what is behind the studio’s plans to do the same with “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” and a host of other animated gems that fans hold near and dear?
Some people see a cynical money grab, a way to keep those theme park turnstiles clicking and little girls begging their parents for princess gowns. But the answer is actually a lot more complex.
Hollywood loves to revisit hits in ways that can be maddening — oh, that old script was wonderful; we’ll change everything — and Disney has a particular tradition of mining and remining the same stories. But the company’s movie studio usually does not return to classic characters in a willy-nilly manner. Walt Disney himself gravitated toward “Cinderella” and other fairy tales largely because he saw a way to use an innovative cinematic art form (in his case, hand-drawn animation) to bring the characters to life in an engaging, contemporary manner.
Mr. Condon’s “Beauty,” set for release on March 17, had the same mission.
The story is essentially the one you know. A bookish young woman, an outcast in her small-minded French village, is taken captive in a castle, where the servants have been magically turned into household objects (a feisty candelabra, a fussy clock). An arrogant prince, transformed into a monster, must find true love to reverse the spell. Yes, Belle wears a flowing yellow ball gown in the ballroom scene, and the “Be Our Guest” dancing-cutlery sequence is still a Busby Berkeley-inspired showstopper.
But the screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) added depth — what happened to Belle’s mother, more about why the prince got zapped — and a new household character, a touchy harpsichord (Stanley Tucci). Mr. Condon also pushed for modernizations, including making Chip (Nathan Mack), the teacup son of Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), more of a skater dude. Mr. Gad’s comedic manservant, LeFou, is now gay.
Most important, this “Beauty and the Beast” mixes live-action filmmaking with digitally rendered characters and backdrops — the cinematic language of the moment — to bring the tale to life in a fresh way, much as Disney did last year with “The Jungle Book.” Mr. Condon’s Beast, for instance, is a fully digitized character. Phosphorescent makeup that appeared blue under ultraviolet light was applied to Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), and cameras tracked every pore of his face as he performed; special software then converted his expressions into data and the furry, horned Beast.
“We never want to say, ‘Well, here it is again,’” said Sean Bailey, president of production for Walt Disney Pictures.
“Beauty and the Beast,” produced by the team of David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman (“The Muppets,” from 2011), may seem like a no-brainer now, with advance ticket sales via Fandango outpacing those for “Captain America: Civil War.” (That superhero film took in $179 million over its first three days in May.) But Mr. Condon’s musical was actually a major risk.
Ms. Watson, known for playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” series, was not seen as a strong singer. “Beauty and the Beast” cost more than $300 million to make and market, and Disney — despite concerns about a live-action musical’s appeal to men and boys — committed to that mega-budget before “La La Land” demonstrated renewed interest in the genre. (Disney initially planned to remake “Beauty and the Beast” without the songs, but “they saw with ‘Frozen’ that there could be a massive international audience for musicals,” Mr. Condon said.)
And there was the issue of fandom. Disney already had other live-action remakes of animated classics on its assembly line, including “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” which would both become critical and commercial hits. But “Beauty and the Beast” was special. The imagery and music from the 1991 version have never faded, in part because Disney used the score as the foundation for a blockbuster Broadway musical that ran for 13 years and toured 20 countries. “Beauty and the Beast” also parted with Disney’s princess formula — she saves him — and it has come to symbolize a creatively fertile period from 1989 to 1999 known as the Disney Renaissance.
“We feel a pretty tremendous obligation to the animated classics,” Mr. Bailey said, “and part of that means asking ourselves, before work even gets started on the new films, ‘What is the contract each one has with the audience?’ With the older classics, what people seem to remember are emotions. But ‘Beauty’ is the first from the renaissance. People really know it chapter and verse.”
Disney’s live-action adaptations list now includes “Dumbo,” with Tim Burton directing; “Aladdin,” directed by Guy Ritchie; “The Lion King,” with Jon Favreau behind the camera; “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone; and “The Little Mermaid,” with Lin-Manuel Miranda coming aboard to write additional songs. The strategy, set by Alan Horn, Disney’s movie chairman, replicates what Disney-owned Marvel Studios has done with superhero films — take characters that have permeated popular culture and elevate them by bringing on top stars and serious filmmakers.
Mr. Condon, whose directing credits include the musical “Dreamgirls,” which was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 2007, winning two, was not especially keen to take on another computer-generated world. He had done that with the final two installments in the five-part “Twilight” vampire series. His two-part “Breaking Dawn” (2011-12) was a commercial smash, but most critics were not kind. Even Mr. Condon, who won an Oscar himself in 2003, for his “Chicago” screenplay, winces at the memory of using computer-generated imagery to create a half-human, half-vampire baby. As he recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “That was a disaster.”
But he was intrigued by the tonal challenge of making a grown-up movie starring talking furniture, and he said he loved the idea of melding the most advanced filmmaking technology with a lavish, old-fashioned musical. While certain characters were entirely digital creations, Mr. Condon placed them in ultra-real settings. The scene that opens the film — Belle walking through her rural village and pining for something “more than this provincial life” — included 150 extras, 28 wagons and hundreds of live animals.
“What I loved the most was the opportunity to reclaim some of the musical traditions of Hollywood,” Mr. Condon said. He even tucked in allusions to song-and-dance extravaganzas like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Sound of Music.”
Initial “Beauty and the Beast” reviews have been mostly positive, with critics praising Ms. Watson’s strong-willed Belle; Sarah Greenwood’s sumptuous production design; and Mr. Condon’s vivid handling of the household objects — even Mrs. Potts.
“Mrs. Potts, the poor darling, she was almost more complicated than the Beast,” Mr. Condon said. “We went through a lot of trial and error to make her appealing in three dimensions. I think people will be happy.”
And if they’re not?
“Someone, somewhere” will surely be in a snit about something, he said, with a laugh. The trick with social media flare-ups, Mr. Condon added, is not to overreact — or react at all. (Disney never publicly commented on LeFou’s sexuality, which helped douse that uproar. No fresh fuel.) Within a day or two, people almost always forget about it: Ho hum, on to the next outrage.
“I’m glad that people are protective,” he said. “That means they are invested.” “Beauty and the Beast,” with its Rockette-kicking forks and canoodling feather duster, Plumette, may strike non-fans as a silly thing to obsess over, he added, “but for a lot of us those characters are family.”