Since the plot is so well-known, I'll touch on details and minutiae that made this film more meaningful for me. Like many, many others, I loved the original animated version, but, still, it IS a cartoon. The difference in the empathy and emotion drawn forth by having human actors is amazing. I FELT Kevin Kline's aching sense of loss for his beloved dead wife; Belle's impatience at the constricts of living in a provincial village; Gaston's insufferable self-love, the Beast's anguish at the predicament that he KNOWS is of his own making, the castle's inhabitants grief and regret at not having helped the prince be a better person..
The settings recalled the real darkness of the original French fairy tale. The prince is a prisoner of his own arrogance, selfishness and anger, and the intricacies of the Beast's cursed castle show that so well, metaphorically: everything is entangled and entwined with sharp, brittle branches and dark, dark, dark. The scenes where Belle and he begin to interact to get to know each other become well-lit and brighter, as if the Beast is slowly letting go of his own destructive tendencies. The mob scene is truly horrifying, as I could feel the hatred that Gaston is whipping up, and the villagers so quickly fall for. The obvious "lessons" are here as well: appearances are not all there is to a person as well as (sorry, Lloyd Weber fans) love changes everything.
The humor is still here, as is the wonderful score of the original. But the score is so much more lush and full, and the three new numbers enhance both the plot and the character development very well. The opening prologue shows in just a few minutes how shallow and self-satisfied the prince is. "How Do You Hold a Memory" is so achingly sad (and I'll be some imagineer at Disney had a fabulous time making the clock that Belle's father is working on). "Days in the Sun" could be about any regret of not grabbing every chance you can to learn about and/or live life as fully as your circumstances allow. And what can be said about "Evermore"? As many versions of this fairy tale as I've read and/or seen, nothing else captures the agony of the Beast's finally finding love and realizing that, for his beloved's happiness, he must give her up, knowing full well what that will mean to and for him. Yup, I cried.
"Beauty and the Beast" has always been for me, the quintessential romantic fairy tale. This rendition captures all the romance, pain, love, and self-sacrifice that the best fairy and folk tales offer in explanation of the human condition.
A couple of small details: Belle's favorite book is "Romeo and Juliet," a play written in the 1600s, and the fact that her mother dies some twenty years before of plague (probably the Black Death), which they assert happened in the mid 1300s. I have just finished listening to a set of lectures on the Black Death (available from The Great Courses), and that outbreak was neither the first nor the last outbreak of the plague. The plague (of which there were three variations) returned many times through out the centuries. Cases still appear today, in the US as well as other parts of the world.There are antibiotics now to stop it, but the symptoms are so little known/recognized and the disease so fast-acting that those who contract it often die before a correct diagnosis is made.
The library in the town is not well stocked with books. Historically, it wouldn't necessarily be: even though printing had been around for a century or so, books were still nowhere as readily available as they are today. As well, not many people in that town would be literate nor interested. Remember that Belle was harassed for teaching another little girl to read.