Emma Watson is Belle of the ball in ‘Beauty and the Beast’


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LOS ANGELES: It is a tale as old as time (or one dating back to the 1990s, at least): Disney dusts off an animated classic, adds bells, whistles and real people, and everyone makes a fortune.

Since Jason Scott Lee annoyed purists as a grown-up Mowgli in “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994), the company has churned out numerous big-screen live-action remakes of its hand-drawn favorites, recouping $4 billion worldwide.

The latest to get the Mouse House makeover is “Beauty and the Beast,” set for release on Friday with an all-star cast led by Emma Watson, 26, who grew up playing Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” films.

No movie will arrive in theaters this year weighed down by as much expectation, in the wake of a 90-second trailer that generated a record 92 million views in its first day online.

“Beauty and the Beast” — which revisits the smash hit 1991 cartoon starring the voice of Paige O’Hara as Belle — had a whopping $300 million production and marketing budget but shouldn’t struggle to turn a profit.

It is already the fastest selling family film in history, outpacing previous record-holder “Finding Dory,” according to online ticket seller Fandango, with analysts projecting a $150 million opening weekend.

It could also be the most controversial Disney remake in history — and the bar is higher than you might think — having weathered all manner of social media storms over its production and stars.

Among the more trivial controversies was an angry fan reaction to the design of teapot character Mrs Potts, who doesn’t have a spout for a nose in the new version as she did in the animated classic.

– Capturing hearts –

More recently, critics made snarky remarks about a revealing Vanity Fair photo shoot by Watson, claiming that exposing flesh wasn’t in keeping with the United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador’s feminist image.

And then all hell broke loose when it emerged that Le Fou, the sycophantic sidekick to antagonist Gaston, was being portrayed by comedian and actor Josh Gad as a gay man, making him Disney’s first ever out LGBT character.

The move sparked an international controversy, with at least one theater in Alabama refusing to show the film and the Russian government considering a ban before settling on an adults-only rating.

“What has this story always been about for 300 years? It’s about looking closer, going deeper, accepting people for who they really are,” director Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Twilight: Breaking Dawn”) told journalists in Beverly Hills last week.

“In a very Disney way, we are including everybody. I think this movie is for everybody and I think on the screen you’ll see everybody, and that was important to me.”

Six years after the last of her eight “Harry Potter” movies, Watson — who turned down Emma Stone’s Oscar-winning role in “La La Land” — is taking on by far her largest role as an adult.

“The tagline of the movie is ‘a tale as old as time’ and it’s true,” said the actress — a fan of the 1946 Jean Cocteau version as well as the 1991 film — at the star-studded US premiere in Hollywood on March 2.

“It’s been retold in so many different ways… but I think there’s just something about the Disney version that was really a telling of it that was so inspiring and really captured people’s hearts.”

– Activist –

She and co-star Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as the Beast lead a stellar cast including Oscar winners Kevin Kline and Emma Thompson as well as Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Stanley Tucci.

Watson told the Beverly Hills news conference that the character from the 1991 movie had helped shape the adult she became, and she wanted her version to embody the same spirit and values.

“I love that in our version Belle is not only odd and doesn’t fit in — you see her reading and you see her not really a part of the community. In our film, she’s actually an activist within her own community,” she said.

If you’re not a big fan of Disney’s live-action remakes, you might want to crawl under a rock for the next few years, as another 13 are in various stages of production.

“Cruella” and “Mulan” are both scheduled for release next year, and Tim Burton’s “Dumbo,” Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin” and Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” are due to follow.

“The Little Mermaid” will see Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame collaborating with legendary Disney composer Alan Menken, while two remakes of “Peter Pan” are in the works along with new versions of “Winnie the Pooh,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Sword in the Stone.” -AFP