Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Co-authored with Amy Bowring

Disney is, of course, an evil, money-hungry empire seemingly intent upon subsuming every element of your childhood under its huge and imposing mouse-shaped banner. Beyond the acquisition of Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney has begun to make live-action versions of some of their most beloved animated features, beginning with Cinderella and The Jungle Book. Despite how iconic the original versions of these films are, they are arguably a safe bet and fair game for re-adaptation. Both are well over half a century old. Disney’s latest offering re-tells a tale a mere 26 years old, a tale considered by many to be the high-water mark of the Disney Renaissance of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a movie that was the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Remaking Beauty and the Beast is a curious blend of sure thing and huge risk; there are millions of people primed to love this film, and who will be ready to riot if it fails to live up to expectations.

Since the new film sticks so closely to the plot of the 1991 animation, it is easier to discuss those things which are altered or expanded than to just recount the events. The switch to live-action brings with it several new factors. While voice actors may give an excellent performance, they are subject to different constraints and freedoms than are live actors. How a character looks and sounds can be separated in an animated film, whereas in live-action an actor must encompass both the physicality and the voice. Additionally, the nature of Hollywood casting means that audiences, upon seeing a particular actor, will come pre-packaged with prejudices and assumptions, which can have a real effect upon how the characters themselves are viewed.

This has both positive and negative influences on the characters in the story. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle verges on being a no-brainer. Having skyrocketed to stardom playing a bookish, fiercely intelligent and highly capable young woman, and given her emergence as a prominent campaigner for women’s rights, she suits the ahead-of-her-own-time Belle. Indeed, her iteration is a more empowered and dynamic character. She is not satisfied to remain the token bookworm in her village and attempts to share her love of literature with a local girl, despite being rebuffed by her ignorant neighbours. She feels no need to humour Gaston or to let him down gently, but rather exudes genuine disgust as she sings of the gruesome prospect of becoming his wife. Her imprisonment by the Beast is of her own making, physically forcing herself into her father’s place in his dungeon and, instead of languishing, she immediately begins to enact her promised escape. Watson’s more modern brand of female empowerment puts her more starkly at odds with the small-minded and parochial people in her town, and gives her Belle a slightly harder edge and a quiet loneliness.

Belle’s potential paramours are also greatly affected by the choices of their respective actors. Dan Stevens, as an absurdly handsome human being, makes for a surprisingly photogenic Beast, which does threaten to undermine his proclamations of his own hideousness. While this could frustrate the idea that the Beast’s appearance is an enormous obstacle to Belle coming to love him, Stevens’ charm cannot fail to shine through. This endows him with a warmth and a vulnerability, and helps a great deal with making the film’s central romance ring true. Luke Evans arguably has an equivalent challenge in embodying an equally strange creature. The animated Gaston is an obscenely masculine caricature, brawnier and more beauteous than (nearly) any real person could hope to be. He is designed to look like an idealised man, every inch the dashing Disney prince, with an absurdly theatrical voice to match. While Evans cannot match this cartoonish physique, he delivers a performance of outstanding self-absorption, massive in ego if lesser in stature. The fact that he too is exceedingly easy on the eye no hindrance. Where he exceeds his predecessor is in his darker side. Animated Gaston is a broad, scheming villain. Evans’ Gaston has a real menace, whether when he demonstrates an unnervingly realistic, chauvinistic reaction to his own bruised pride, or when he becomes truly homicidal. In spite of remaining a more comic character in the first half of the movie, his slide towards villainy is more organic in this version.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves well. Josh Gad’s LeFou is given a slightly expanded role and more rounded character, making a joke into an actual person. (His much discussed ‘first openly-gay moment in a Disney film’ is a throwaway moment unworthy of praise, condemnation, or even much attention, and was pre-empted in any case by the shopkeeper’s family in Frozen.) Though his heel-face turn is slightly abrupt, almost to the point of lampshading, Lefou is more likeable for being redeemable. His genuine affection and loyalty are just another casualty of Gaston’s single-minded selfishness. The voice actors portraying the fully-animated characters must work harder considering the transition to a more realistic style. They may represent well the Gothic revival style of the film’s time period, but they are lacking the charm of the line-drawn iterations. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and the others look less expressive, and something is indeed lost. Nevertheless, they remain fairly true to the previous incarnations and Ewan McGregor in particular threatens to steal all of his scenes as the funniest candelabra in cinematic history. Fears that his outrageous accent would mar the film are happily unfounded. While it is a relatively small role, Kevin Kline follows Gad in humanising a previously rather silly character, Belle’s father Maurice. His performance is warm and caring, leaning more towards absent-mindedness than outright eccentricity.

Beauty and the Beast has been glibly called Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie. This is pithy and genuinely funny, but only holds true upon the most superficial reading. It is undeniable that Belle and Beast’s relationship does not begin in an entirely healthy way, and some of his behaviour is unacceptable, if not outright abusive. His conduct is certainly less violent than it was before, seeming more bitter than aggressive. His incarceration of Belle’s father has an actual motive in this version, beyond mere caprice. Harkening back to the original fairytale, it is Maurice’s theft of a rose from the garden that raises Beast’s ire. Unlike the fairytale, there is no chauvinistic demand for a daughter in recompense; Belle takes her father’s punishment by her own will. Affection only begins to build between the two when he takes it upon himself to change, and when he starts to treat her with more respect. It’s not her job to fix him, it’s his job to sort himself out. The longer running time of the new version, as well as the changes made to both characters help to make the romance and its evolution much more convincing. Belle and Beast do not simply fall in love, they first bond over their shared interests and experiences. They share a love of books – why on Earth would a prince with a multi-storey library be illiterate? Both feel a palpable loss over the mothers that they hardly or never knew. Perhaps most crucially, both are acutely aware of their own oddness, and feel abandoned and mistrusted by the wider world, which allows them to find both safety and companionship together. There is also a notable darkening of the enchantment placed upon Beast and his household. While their animated compatriots would merely be left trapped as sapient appliances and implements, in this version they all stand to lose their humanity altogether. When the final petal falls, Beast will become merely a beast, and his staff will morph into utterly inanimate objects. The stakes of the central relationship are heightened, and the price of failure is all the more terrible.

This is not to say that every expansion of the story is an improvement. The malevolent influence of Beast’s father, mentioned only in passing, does better to explain the cursing of the household staff and their unshakeable loyalty to their brooding and abrasive prince. Otherwise it seems like a clumsy and half-hearted attempt to partially exonerate Beast for his worst actions, without having him do any actual atoning. The film begins with the same backstory as the animated version, albeit without the stained glass, with the added element that the prince was obsessed with beauty to the point of intense vanity and materialism. This idea has some potential as a way to exacerbate his despair at becoming a monster, and at his beautiful castle crumbling to ruins around him. Alas, this aesthetic obsession never comes up again, beyond the same old complaints that the handsome Beast is unbearable to look upon. He is fairly unconcerned that his home is falling apart, and he does not seem to value Belle’s beauty very highly at all. To add this to the very familiar preamble to this story and then fail to actually pay it off is a baffling choice.

It would be a grievous oversight to discuss Beauty and the Beast without mention of the music. All of the classics are present and correct, and translated effectively into lavish live-action versions. Some fare better than others through this process. “Be Our Guest”, given its complexity and position as a show-stopper, becomes slightly unreal as a chaotic CGI spectacular, with the questionable running gag that Belle is continually denied her dinner by the pageantry. Emma Thompson has the unenviable task of following the legendary Angela Lansbury in her rendition of the eponymous love song, and falls only slightly short (there is absolutely no shame in this). On the other hand, “Gaston” is pitch perfect. There are elements of the original that would be impossible to convey convincingly or realistically, but the inclusion of the mock sword-fight and Gaston’s feat of lifting both LeFou and one of his swooning female admirers ably communicates the same idea. The small additions, where they are made, tend to work. As far as the new songs are concerned, they are functional but tend to be less memorable. The stand-out is “Evermore”, a sweeping solo by Beast as he finally confesses how much Belle means to him, only after she might be gone for good. The title has a double-meaning: he will always love Belle, and in allowing her to leave he has doomed himself to a dark, eternal fate. Generally speaking what worked before has worked again, and what has been added does not detract.

The only people likely to truly dislike the new Beauty and the Beast are fastidious purists and people who hate magic teapots. While it may not reach the same heights as the 1991 version, it can stand as a worthy companion. The challenges of translation are well met, and the clumsier attempts to modernise the tale are offset by the effective use of the extended running time to make Belle and Beast a more believable couple. A love story can only be as strong as its subjects, and this is an area in which the new outdoes the old. While this film is unlikely to merit an Oscar nomination (for all that that is worth), it certainly does deserve a place at the table of any fairytale fan. It will undoubtedly enrapture a new generation as it brings fuzzy nostalgia to an older one.

 

Beauty and the Beast

Directed by Bill Condon

Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos

Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans

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