Sunday, March 19, 2017

In Which I Review Beauty and the Beast (2017 Movie)

When I was five, my mom took me to see Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast. Being so young you'd expect that I have few memories of this experiences but it turns out I have quite a few. I remember loving "Be Our Guest;" I remember crying when I thought the Beast died at the end (side note: I still cry during this part whenever I rewatch) and I remember completely and utterly believing that I would someday grow up to be just like Belle. I know I'm not the only one; girls in my generation align themselves with Belle quite frequently. She's smart, ambitious, desperate for a life "out there" and more or less tells the patriarchy to stick it where the sun don't shine. Unlike the older Disney princesses whose hallmarks traits include being good, proper, pretty, but ultimately in need of rescue from a prince, Belle was my first real example of what a strong female could be, someone who drives their own story, makes their own choices, and is every bit as much of the hero as the male prince. Plus, you know, that gold dress is really awesome. In recent years, Disney has been working overtime to take their much beloved animated classics and turn them into real life; some are successful (Cinderella) and some, while visually arresting, fall flat in attempting to bring something new and different to a story that needs updated (The Jungle Book). When the Great Mouse announced that they would tackle Beauty and the Beast, and Harry Potter's Emma Watson would be playing my younger self's icon, it seemed like a recipe for greatness. But is the magic I experienced at the age of five present in this live action film? Grab your teapot, your candlestick, and your clock and let's go! 

General Thoughts

This is a tale as old as time (sorry, lame joke I know. It's low hanging fruit but totally within my reach) and all the classic moments are found embedded in this new version. Where the story differs, though, is in trying to provide more character motivation that isn't necessary in an animated Disney film largely aimed at an extremely young audience. In the animated movie, the Beast is understood to be beastly even from a young age but without any given reason. While it is true that the privileged and the rich can exhibit traits like vanity and arrogance, there is usually something lurking beneath the surface to explain those characteristics. Here, the Beast is given an appropriate backstory (unsurprisingly it involves a dead parent and a less than ideal other parent) which compares and contrasts nicely with Belle's own tragic backstory and rearing under a far more kindly father. In the animated movie the titular Beauty and Beast have little in common except their circumstances of being literally locked up together but here, in this live action movie, the two can bond over their own loneliness. Belle even remarks that her village is as lonely as the Beast's castle. The two are also outcasts and that further bonds them. While Belle, in both the animated and live version, is loudly (and in sing-song style!) told she's odd and out of place, the animated Beast is shown to have a good dose of friendliness with his servants through their own damnation and desire to see the curse broken. In the live version, though, in order to parallel with Belle, the Beast's relationship with Lumiere, Cogsworth and the like is awkward and stilted because the Beast does not know how to interact with these people he's condemned to a life of objecthood. What's even more interesting here is that the various servants feel that they are responsible for the Beast's situation given that they did not save the young prince from his wretched father. This overwhelming guilt fleshes out the servant characters who's only original purpose was to provide Belle a window into their enchanted life and help explain the Beast's internal thoughts when he's incapable of doing so; this in turn helps them to feel more human as opposed to just enchanted objects who sing to you over your dinner.

The other nice throughline in the film is a strong feminist statement about the capability of women in a man's world. This should not be unexpected given that Disney's Belle is one of the first modern princesses who takes action to run her own narrative and is not solely depended upon a man to be the actor in her story. It's not a secret that Belle longs for a life outside of her provincial one but here it's achingly apparent that the patriarchy is hindering Belle's happiness. Gaston has always been a brute but his overbearing personality is all the more seen in this film when he thinks Belle's resistance only makes the prize more worth having. There are moments from the Disney film that are recast to give Belle more agency; for example, in the original film it is Chip who breaks Belle and Maurice out of the cellar but here it is Belle using her hairpin to help pick the lock and aid in the escape. At another time, Belle actually tries to escape her imprisonment at the Beast's castle instead of accepting her fate, which is a departure from the animated film. Likewise, while Belle goes toe to toe and retort for retort with the Beast, she is moreover shown to be his intellectual equal; they may not agree on if Romeo and Juliet is the best Shakespeare play or not, but Belle does not suffer from lack of imagination, independent thought, and understanding found in a more prestigious and male oriented education. There are also smaller moments in which Belle does math, invents the washing machine, and tries to teach a little girl to read despite the schoolmaster disliking women reading immensely. The fact that Belle and the Beast bond over long walks, books, and poetry shows that the her beauty is found within, not just without. She's a fully formed character and not a set of values meant to change the Beast into a man.

What I Liked/Did Not Like

--I need to start with the biggest controversy surrounding the entire film: the character of LeFou. In the animated Disney film, LeFou is the comedic sidekick to Gaston and his only role is to prop up the villain's ego and not be disgruntled over the treatment he receives. It's not a great character but LeFou does serve to show how terrible Gaston truly is--a man who beats up and bullies his best friend isn't a man to write home about. In this new version, however, the movie decided it was time to give LeFou some extra flavoring and so they made him subtly gay. This is the first openly gay character in the Disney universe but it was also made a bigger deal by the producers than is depicted on screen. It wasn't really until the end scene when the film openly showed LeFou as homosexual; until then, however, while it was never explicit, Josh Gad and the writers depicted LeFou in what can only be called overtly cliche homosexual hallmarks. He's flamboyant though you can make the argument it's keeping with a cartoon character. I will say, however, that LeFou was not the spineless twerp he is in the animated film; in this modern version he has a strong conscious and is a voice of reason to Gaston's brutish neanderthal nature.

--This is a visually stunning film. The colors--either natural or garish--are rich and eye-popping and the graphic design is breathtaking. Pay close attention to the costumes in this film. A lot of color themes are worked throughout; in the early story the prince and palace are shown in harsh bright colors, almost unnatural and otherworldly. Belle is rendered in her hallmark blues and natural tones though she stands in contrast to the vulgar townspeople who are in shades not found in nature (though, tellingly, they are found in the Prince's castle before the enchantment). The Prince himself wears his normal blue coat but it slowly changes until he becomes more human and his blues are picked up in Belle's wardrobe.

--Speaking of, the Beasts's final powder blue outfit was delicious and I'd love to own it.

--However, whatever was going on with Belle's iconic blue dress was distracting. Was it tucked into her waist? Is that the design of the dress?

--"Hello. And what is your name?" " a hairbrush."

--The incorporation of some of the original French fairy tale was a really nice touch.

--All the actors did a bang up job but Emma Watson and Dan Stevens did particularly well. However, while I love Emma Thompson generally her depiction of Mrs Potts was a bit too cliche. Mrs. Potts is supposed to be kind and motherly but I was overly distracted by Thompson's over the top cockney accent. Honestly, would it have killed them to get Angela Landsbury back?

--It does bother me that the library scene was not recreated exactly as it is in the animated film but the continuing motif of being intellectually compatible and bonding over the library books made up for it.

--Between his career defining work on Legion and this wonderfully nuanced and careful portrayal of the Beast, I sort of fell a little in love with Dan Stevens.

--All the classic songs are here and done with aplomb, though "Be Our Guest" was noticeably slowed down. This is perhaps made up by the soaring solo performance by the Beast as Belle leaves the castle; it gave me honest to goodness shivers.

Final Grade and Thoughts: A-

The changes made serve the story well but are not so frequent as to distract Disney fans who came to relive some early 1990s nostalgia. The themes that made the animated movie so strong are here aplenty ready for new young girls to grasp on to.


  1. Yeah, Disney should have kept their mouths shut when it came to LeFou. The gay reveal would have had so much more impact if it hadn't been spoiled - because it was spoiled, everyone is viewing LeFou through the lens of being Disney's first openly gay character from the first moment he's on screen, rather than simply watching and judging the character based on his personality and actions like all the other characters.

    Also, why no mention of Kevin Kline's Maurice in the review? Many people seem to agree he was one of the highlights - not only did he play the part wonderfully, but Maurice was just so much more interesting here - he felt more like a human being and not just the goofy absent-minded bumbling dad caricature . plot device that he was in the original.

    1. Not mentioning Kline is not an indication of Kline's performance,promise! He did do well, far less bumbling and way more pathos. I also liked that he could tell that Gaston was the wrong guy for Belle (the Disney version he says something like, "What about that Gatson? He's a handsome fella." when Belle laments not having anyone in town.