The Long View: Beauty & the Beast

Disney faced a unique challenge in remaking “Beauty and the Beast.” The most beloved of Disney’s animated classic films (sorry, “Little Mermaid”), “Beauty and the Beast” carries enormous cultural weight. Unlike Disney’s recent live action remakes of classic films, “Beauty and the Beast” is so adored and so well-known that there isn’t much leeway to either improve or change the original without, respectively, gilding the lily or outraging fans.

While the previous film was “perfect,” said director Bill Condon in a Disney featurette, he wanted the chance to make a “live action, photo real version,” and to turn Belle into “a 21st Century heroine.”

On the first count, “Beauty and the Beast” succeeds. It creates a heightened, lavish version of 18th Century France, from the popping colors of Belle’s village to the silvery snow and burnished gold of the Beast’s castle. The castle servants have lost their goofy, Disney-animation style and now look like real pieces of furniture who just happen to talk. Lumière (Ewan MacGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) could really be a candlestick and clock.

This sort of extreme devotion to realism works in some cases, but it backfires when it comes to characterizations. I miss the histrionic, exaggerated expressions of the animated Lumière and Cogsworth (I’m not super impressed by the voice work, either).

These self-interested, glossy fixtures just don’t have the same heart as the originals.
The human cast is stronger. Emma Watson is a splendid Belle, combining sweetness with spunk, toing the line between modern informality and period dignity. Dan Stevens is a little too cuddly through the eyes to make for a convincing monster, but he’s commanding and aristocratic. Luke Evans surprised me with his comic timing and gravitas as Gaston. All of them have good voices, though none can compare to Belle’s Wardrobe, played by opera singer Audra MacDonald.

Weirdly, 21st Century Belle’s character development has not become more sophisticated. Accusations of Stockholm syndrome won’t be going away any time soon. The film dilutes the moral impact of its message by lessening the Beast’s individual guilt. The servants blame themselves for not correcting his youthful lawlessness. The Beast’s mother died when he was a child, and his father was stern and cold, training up his son to be loveless.
That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s the classic “bad boy with a sad past” line. Spreading the guilt around doesn’t actually make the Beast less guilty, it just gives him more excuses for actions for which he, and he alone, is responsible. Word up, boys: your tragic backstory doesn’t mean you can kidnap Emma Watson and hide her away in your man-castle.

Another puzzling character beat is that Belle’s relationship with the Beast is pitched as her way of growing up. “I was innocent and certain / now, I’m wiser but unsure,” she sings, in a new song. “I can’t go back into my childhood / one that my father made secure.” But there’s a difference between facing danger and embracing danger. She mistakes unjust imprisonment for a desirable, character-building experience.

These sorts of quibbles would seem less significant if the film itself wasn’t so intent on creating internal consistency. It makes sure to fill in such vital plot holes as: Why is there no Mr. Potts? (There is!) Or: how did no one notice the huge castle in the middle of the forest? (Magic, duh). Or: Why does Belle borrow books from a bookstore? (In this version, it’s a library maintained by a priest). Abandoning the original’s fairytale logic paradoxically makes the plot holes loom larger.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with “Beauty and the Beast” is that while it posits that it’s a new story in a new medium, it relies heavily on iconic moments, images, and even lines quoted verbatim from the famous original. It doesn’t have the freedom to be creative, and it shows.

– Hannah Long

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