Though maybe not as old as time, the tale of Beauty and the Beast is anything but new to us – it is consistently ranked as one of Disney’s best animated features, and until Up (2009) came on the scene at the 2010 ceremony, it was the only animated film to ever be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category. So when the 2017 live action adaptation was announced, there were high expectations for, well, everything. The music would have to be just as beautiful, the animation would have to be just as mind-blowing, and the characters would have to amuse and amaze us the same way they did back in ’91. It’s already difficult to remake a film so that it measures up to the original, let alone enhances the experience with new music and new story lines that bring the narrative more into the twenty-first century (though still takes place in a more medieval France), but does that mean it is impossible to have a remake as good as the original, no matter what new spins and twists are added? Maybe so – the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is not as good as its predecessor. That does not mean, however, that it is not a beautiful, magical, and altogether unforgettable adaption of the Grimm fairy tale that enchanted us as children, or that hearing a story you already know is a complete waste of your time. The little details are enough to envelope you all over again, and you’ll still feel comfortable enough to sing along to “Be Our Guest.”
A young and vain prince (Dan Stevens) in France is obsessed with surrounding himself with beauty, until one night he approached by an old beggar woman to allow her shelter from a storm. When he turns her away, the old woman reveals herself to be an enchantress, and curses him and his entire castle for his lack of care for his fellows. The prince takes the form of a monstrous beast, the castle is shrouded by magic, and his staff is erased from the minds of all who know them, with their only hope of being released from the curse being the unlikely event of the prince falling in love, and being loved by another. Some years later, a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson, in the role everyone has dreamed for her since she became our Hermione back in 2001) lives in a small village with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). She draws the slightly accusatory gaze of the townspeople almost daily by openly showing her love of reading, learning, and occasionally creating her own inventions. She is constantly pursued by Gaston (Luke Evans), a handsome war veteran who misses the violence but lavishes in the affection of the townsfolk, including his buddy LeFou (Josh Gad). One day, when Maurice gets lost and finds himself at the prince’s castle, he attempts to take a rose for Belle and is thrown in a cell. Belle follows him to the castle and trades herself for her father, bringing hope to the servants-turned-household-items who believe she could be the person to break the spell on them. As the beast and Belle learn how to be around each other and begin to understand one another, Maurice searches for a way to rescue his daughter and Gaston plots to marry her, no matter what the cost.
In the twenty-six years since the original Disneyfied Beauty and the Beast film was released, the world has progressed, and there are many new additions to the tale of Belle and the Beast that reflect this. Belle as a character has always been one of the most feminist princesses, but now she’s even more so, taking on the moniker of inventor that was originally held by her father, as well as updating her wardrobe to be more functional (boots instead of flats) and less constricting (taking the corset out of her dress). Audiences are also being placated with quick fixes to several plot holes that have been noticed as the 90s kids grew up and started looking too closely at their Disney movies. For example, the idea that no one in the village seemed to realize that their prince (who would have been kind of a big deal in the time period) was missing for several years? A clause is added to the enchantress’ curse that not only puts the entire castle in almost another dimension (it’s snowing there in June, as they are quick to point out), but removes everyone within the castle from the minds of those who love them, so no one realizes they are gone. And the prince being about eleven years old when he was cursed, since the original story said that he had to fall in love by “his twenty-first year” and Lumiere sang “ten years we’ve been rusting”? The line is changed so that Lumiere just says “for years we’ve been rusting” and there is less of a specific time requirement or passage that is noticeable (which also helps the fact that there’s a little boy teacup who definitely wouldn’t be possible if the curse had been going on for ten years). Honestly, some of these fixes are so easy that it’s a little odd they didn’t fix them twenty-six years ago.
New songs have also been added to the lineup of some of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (rest in peace)’s greatest work – in the idea of the Broadway musical, Beast is even given his own song to strengthen him as a character, though it is not the beautiful “If I Can’t Love Her” but “Evermore”, and Belle’s haunting rendition of “Home” is limited to a side plot and an idea in favor of a small piece to share with Maurice entitled “How Does a Moment Last Forever”. This does mean that some of the other musical numbers (namely “Be Our Guest”, which is easily the best song of the film) are almost lessened, partially because it’s difficult to make live-action look as magical as animation, partially because the actors chosen for the singing parts are actors before they are singers (and even Ewan McGregor, the new Lumiere, is so hindered by his ‘French’ accent that his usually decent singing voice is thrown way off) and it makes the big numbers seen rushed and clunky, and a lot because of the fact that the filmmakers this time around really love their 360º spins to catch the entire room that may give you a bit of a headache. They are still the songs you love, but something about them seems just a little bit off.
The largest (and most public) change for Beauty and the Beast is the one most tied with today’s political climate – the decision to make LeFou gay for Gaston. Now, in all honesty, he’s really not that gay. There are two, maybe three, moments where you can stop and say “oh yeah, he’s gay” for absolute certainty, but that’s really no worse than the character was in the original cartoon. But the fascinating nature of LeFou’s relationship with Gaston isn’t that it’s a gay relationship – it’s that it’s almost an exact parallel of the relationship between Belle and the Beast. Both center around a character who see qualities in their potential partner that they like and make them believe that the other can be a better person, and that they can help them become that better person. Where Belle sees the kindness behind the Beast’s ugliness, LeFou sees the strong, confident and impressive man behind Gaston’s pigheaded and selfish nature. The difference is that the Beast wants to change and Gaston does not. That leaves LeFou to decide whether or not he can continue to be friendly (or in love) with someone who is not willing to meet him halfway and at least try to open themselves up to change. Where the original film seemed to open itself to criticism of Stockholm Syndrome, this new development seems to cautiously breach the topic of abusive relationships in a different way. Gay or otherwise, it’s an interesting approach to the story we were already wondering about.
We as audiences consistently tell film studios what we like to see in our movies, and today we tell them that we like remakes. We tell them this so vehemently that Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s fifth live action remake in recent years, and there are at least ten more rumored to be in the works. Will they be as good as the originals? Well, Beauty and the Beast was not, though not for lack of trying. It was still beautifully created – the castle and servants-turned-furniture were sights to behold – and everyone who loved the original will get chills down their spine when the opening theme plays and the narrator begins to tell you the tale of the Beast’s enchantment. But there is just something different about the songs you knew and loved as a child, and honestly there’s nothing wrong with that. The tale as old as time (or, you know, as old as the Grimm Brothers) has been updated a bit, and we can’t go back to our childhoods – we can only move forward.
4.5 / 5
Noooooooo ooooooneeeeeee wows like Disney, takes a bow like Disney, makes all our hearts go ker-plow like Disney!