'Beauty and the Beast'

This will sound like a backhanded compliment - or, worse, an overt criticism - but it is truly not: Disney's latest remake of a beloved classic, Beauty and the Beast, helped me more fully appreciate the original.

Director Bill Condon and team have crafted a loving, enchanting live-action update of the 1991 Best Picture nominee - the first animated film to ever earn that honor - that is sure to please both longtime fans  and newcomers to the story. It has the infectious, hummable numbers of the original - "Belle", "Gaston", "Be Our Guest", "Beauty and the Beast" - and the same iconic characters belting them out. The mix of real actors and two-plus decades of improvement in CGI makes it a visual spectacle in its own distinct way, and one that, at moments, exceeds the original (the village hunting lodge and the roofs and spires of the Beast's castle spring to mind immediately).

An additional 45 minutes of run-time gives us more backstory on some of the fringier but still memorable characters, most notably Belle's father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Gaston's sycophantic best pal Lefou (Josh Gad), as well as a more thorough understanding of the Beast himself. What was the source of the cruelty that cursed him and his servants to begin with?

It accomplishes all of this without diminishing the quiet, determined strength of the story's protagonist, Belle. The wonderful Emma Watson - someone who walks the talk of her character, a subversive feminist icon of sorts, in real life - is positively magnetic as the heroine. 

I'm happy this film exists - I really am. I was happy to be at court with the Beast before his transformation and to go to Paris with Maurice and an infant Belle to understand what brought them to this poor, provincial town. 

But going to those places and learning more about those characters in its own way made the animated original seem all the more perfect a film. We didn't need to know the Beast's backstory to see him as worthy of redemption. Seeing the Paris of Maurice's youth and better understanding his connection to his daughter was a pleasant lark, but it still felt like a lark.

This iteration of Beauty and the Beast isn't what I would call excessive, but it is not essential in even remotely the same manner as its predecessor.

The truth is, that's not as great a criticism as it might seem. Built-in Oscar biases aside, the 1991 original was the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award because it is one of the best films ever made. Condon, Watson, and company were never going to reach those heights. The fact that their excellent work here threw the original in to even more stark relief is a feat all its own.