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Movie review: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ beautiful update of Disney classic

“Beauty and the Beast” (PG)

The tale as old as time gets a fresh, new interpretation with “Beauty and the Beast,” Disney’s hotly anticipated live-action remake of their 1991 animated version. It’s a beautiful film from start to finish as long as you try to leave behind any comparisons to the groundbreaking original – the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar – and enjoy it for what it is; a classic romantic tale that’s bolstered by an expanded storyline with new characters, more new songs and dazzling visuals and vistas.

Emma Watson takes on the monumental task of playing Belle, a young maiden whose main concern is taking care of her widowed father (Kevin Kline), a kindly clock- and gadget-maker who is taken prisoner at a castle housing a cursed prince (Dan Stevens). An arrogant ruler who cares little for the downtrodden, the prince is damned to an eternity as a beast unless someone can find it in their hearts to truly love him. He leads a sad and lonely existence, with his only company being his servants, who are turned into a variety of objects like clocks, teacups and candelabras when the spell is cast upon the prince.

Tim reviews “Beauty and the Beast” with Tom Barnard on “The KQ Morning Show,” starting 10 minutes in. Also, Tim talks about the film and more with Bob Sansevere on “The BS Show” here, starting 24 minutes in.

In an effort to rescue her father, Belle takes her father’s place as prisoner, and after a certain amount of time, takes kindly to the beast as he begins to show humility. But the clock is ticking fast on the beast, and if a rose that measures the passage of time loses all its petals, he will remain a beast forever.  complicating matters is the arrogant aristocrat Gaston (Luke Evans), whose behavior becomes more and more vile as he seeks a reluctant Belle’s hand in marriage.

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Expertly directed by “Dreamgirls” helmer Bill Condon, “Beauty and the Beast” delivers on all that’s promised, especially with music – Alan Menken penned new tunes for the film with lyricist Tim Rice to go along with the existing songs he wrote with the late Howard Ashman – and the visual effects.

The great thing is, as spectacular as the visuals are (the showstopper “Be Our Guest” is one of most dazzling scenes put on film in years), the technical side of “Beauty and the Beast” never dampens the performances by the stunning ensemble cast, which also includes Ian McKellen as the clock Cogsworth, Ewan McGregor as the candelabra Lumiere and Emma Thompson as the teapot Mrs. Potts. Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald are also welcome additions to the cast, as the castle pianist and singer take the form of a piano and operatic-themed clothing dresser, respectively.

On the live-action side, the always-great Kline, Evans and Josh Gad (as Gaston’s bootlicking sidekick, LeFou), command the most attention, while Watson, while a good, if not great actress, becomes the film’s weak link. Granted, Watson has the weight of the world on her shoulders, but the role really demands a Broadway-caliber singer to fit the bill.

That’s not to say Watson can’t handle the tunes well – she does — but doesn’t come near to the performance of the songs by Paige O’Hara in the animated version. And that’s the quandary that Disney is going to have to face as they adapted more of their animated films into live-action: Do you cast a star like Watson, who is recognized worldwide because of the “Harry Potter” films? Or do you go with a Broadway vocalist who can take the songs to a whole new level? A large part of the reason the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Mulan” became hits was because most people didn’t realize that such Broadway singers as Paige O’Hara, Jodi Benson and Lea Salonga were the voices behind the iconic lead characters.

No matter its flaws, “Beauty and the Beast” is a wonderful film throughout, and a welcome addition to Disney’s stable of live-action remakes or updates, including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Maleficent” and “Cinderella.” There’s no doubt you’ll emerge from the tale as old as time wanting more from Disney’s creative minds, and the those newly-imagined tales can’t come soon enough.

Lammometer: 8 (out of 10)

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Interview: Lee Pace talks ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’

Of course, writer-director Peter Jackson and WETA Digital have created some pretty amazing special effects with their films based on the legendary works of J.R.R. Tolkien since the first “Lord of the Rings” movie in 2001. But sometimes, as acclaimed actor Lee Pace discovered in “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” nothing beats practical effects — like riding an elk.

Well, sort of.

Pace, who reprises the pivotal role of the elven king Thranduil in the final installment of “The Hobbit” trilogy, revealed to me in a recent call from London that the four-legged beast he’s riding in the film is doing a bit of play-acting himself.

“The elk was played by a horse named ‘Moose,'” Pace said, laughing.

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Lee Pace in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (photo: Warner Bros.).

There’s no question that Pace has done a bit of shape-shifting himself throughout his career. Whether he was playing Ned, an ordinary pie-maker who has the extraordinary gift of bringing the dead back to life in the brilliant but under-appreciated television comedy, “Pushing Daisies,” or the blue-skinned villain, Ronan the Accuser, in the summer sci-fi blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Pace said he’s always been up for, well, a change of pace.

“I play characters for a living, that’s all I do. I don’t have to market things and I don’t have to cut the film together. I connect to the character and try to find a way for other people to connect to the character and bring it to life,” Pace said. “There are some characters like Ned, who’s a human and in many ways very close to me, and then there’s Ronan and Thranduil, who are very far away from me. They look different than I do and behave and think differently than I do. I love that opportunity to get away from boring me and play something extraordinary.”

Opening in 2D and 3D theaters nationwide on Wednesday, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the Company of Dwarves in a deadly conflict with the monstrous dragon, Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), and other evil forces. The dwarves might have to battle their enemies to save the Lonely Mountain alone, though, unless they can overcome differences with the elves and humans, who could possibly aid them in what will certainl

y be a fight to the death.

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The film also stars Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee as the wizards Gandalf and Saruman, respectively; Richard Armitage as the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield; Evangline Lilly as the elven warrior Tauriel; and Orlando Bloom as the elven warrior Legolas — the son of Pace’s Thranduil.

Pace, 35, said he relates to the enormous fan base of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” books and movies, mostly because his love for the material stretches back to his childhood.

“I read ‘The Hobbit’ when I was a kid. I feel like it was one of the first books my dad put in my hands,” recalled Pace, an Oklahoma native who grew up in Texas. “I also have real clear memory of being in high school and reading ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Reading that was like a door of nature opening up to me, and suddenly I was aware of trees and how they’re an important part of these stories.”

Naturally, as a part of the production and still a deep admirer of the source material, Pace said he feels a responsibility to help get the story right for the fans on the big screen.

“A part of you does the role for the fans, because it’s no fun rehearsing the role for yourself in your bathroom,” Pace said, laughing. “So you want to honor the character that Tolkien wrote, but I also think it’s important to honor your own artistry and express the character as the character inspires you.”

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Pace noted again that while the elven king is very far from who he is in real life, as he watched the films, he saw more of himself than he ever expected to witness.

“I see his quest for isolation, which is a condition that Tolkien wrote into the book. It’s not what the story is about as a whole, but it became what the story is about to me,” Pace said. “I think that’s expressed in this last movie, because we see a little bit into why he is so isolated, why he is so hard-hearted, and why he is trying to shut his doors to the rest of the world to keep his people safe. The more I do interviews about the role, the more I understand that sub-conscious thing that the character brought out in me — about being fearful of the danger outside and wanting to protect what’s important to me.”

On the lighter side, given the far-reaching impact of “The Hobbit” films, Pace said while he’s recognized a lot more in public now, he doesn’t let the notoriety fill his ego.

“I actually think people are actually pretty disappointed when they see me in public because, in the movie I have this beautiful, long hair, piercing blue eyes and wearing incredible armor riding a giant elk,” Pace said, laughing. “When they see me on the street, they’re only seeing boring me and are disappointed.”

At least the reaction isn’t as strange as when Pace is recognized as Ronan from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” as fans try to mimic with him one of the final scenes in the movie.

“They sing to me, ‘Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier …,'” Pace sang with a chuckle. “It’s like they’re trying to start a dance-off.”