Magazine article Variety

Live Action, High Stakes

Magazine article Variety

Live Action, High Stakes

Article excerpt

Beauty and the Beast," the fairy tale, dates back nearly 300 years. It's had a long and winning life in film, television, and the theater, culminating, for recent generations, in 1991 with Disney's animated version of the story of unbounded love. Now, Disney's new liveaction version of "Beauty," which has experienced a small tempest over an "exclusively gay moment" - a novelty for a conservative and tradition-bound company - is on pace for a robust $120 million opening weekend.

That's due in no small part to the contribution of the two veteran producers charged with bringing a fresh jolt to the age-old tale. David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman knew they faced a formidable challenge when they were handed the reins to one of Disney's crown jewels in 2013. When they assembled their cast for the first time for a reading in early 2015 at Shepperton Studios outside London, anticipation and pressure were high. Some of Disney's top brass flew in for the occasion. The producers and director Bill Condon decided to gussy-up the table reading with a full production of the movie's songs, complete with the climactic dance featuring stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.

When the time came for the rendition of "Beauty and the Beast," Emma Thompson (who plays animated teapot Mrs. Potts) took the microphone from the professional singer who had been hired to make sure the song went off without a hitch. With "I-got-this" assurance, Thompson not only captured the song's tenderness but finished with a diva's power. Watson and Stevens waltzed the song away.

On the brink of the film's March 17 release, Hoberman recalls that moment as "one of the all-time great read-throughs, and a career highlight." Lieberman remembers the composer for both the new film and the 1991 animated version, Alan Menken, breaking into tears. "It was crazy," says Hoberman. "Quite the moment."

With "Beauty" one of its first releases of 2017, Disney has big expectations. Last year saw the studio produce four $1 billionplus worldwide box office hits and a fifth film, "The Jungle Book," that fell just short of that lofty plateau. Fandango reports that "Beauty" sales are moving at a faster clip than any other family-oriented film in the history of the ticket-selling service, outpacing the brisk sales for another Disney tentpole, 2016's "Captain America: Civil War."

Disney CEO Robert Iger has noted other signs of audience enthusiasm, telling shareholders at a meeting last week that the first trailer for "Beauty" drew more than 127 million views in the first 24 hours it appeared online. That's more than watched the first trailer for the company's blockbuster "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

The film needs to do big business to cover Disney's major investment of about $300 million for production and worldwide marketing.

Said Iger, "Whenever you take on one of Disney's most beloved stories, the stakes, we know, are quite high, and so are the expectations. I want to tell you this movie does not disappoint. It's beautiful, it's heartfelt, and it is fantastic."

The film's one messaging hiccup came in the final weeks leading up to the debut. It began when Condon gave an interview with a gay magazine, in which he touted supporting character LeFou as creating the first "exclusively gay moment" in a Disney film. Josh Gad, who plays the foppish sidekick to the villain Gaston, tweeted that he was "beyond proud" of the scene - a fleeting recognition of same-sex attraction.

But the brief moment at the end of the two-hour, nine-minute movie (likely to pass unrecognized by at least some viewers) was enough to alienate the owner of one drive-in theater in rural Alabama, who said she would not show the film. And the Russian government signaled that it would not allow children into theaters showing the film, potentially cutting into revenue in that territory.

The film's backers and Disney quickly tired of the controversy. Condon gave a new interview in which he said the discussion had been overblown. …

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