Tale As Old As Time — Too Old, Or Timeless? The Latest Beauty And The Beast

I don’t need to wax poetic about the lasting appeal of Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, nor its nigh-unparalleled influence on my generation. It’s a flawless cinematic masterwork (no successive Disney film has yet to touch its venerated quality), and ingrained in our DNA. So naturally, five successful ventures into their live-action reboot experiment, the studio chose it as their next guaranteed cash cow.

The question here was always two-fold. Is this going to be any good? And Is this necessary?

For the latter, of course not. None of Disney’s live-action remakes have been necessary, despite their solid, if unremarkable, quality. They reinvent just enough to put a new spin on familiarity yet never stray too far from established convention. That fact leads to the additional inquiry of how much do we want them to stray. No one’s forgotten Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella or The Lion King, nor are they unattainably locked away in the Disney vault of yore. But if these scrumptious-looking remakes are going to exist, would we prefer something unrecognizable, or something that appeases with its predictability? Something borrowed, something blue?

Despite my existence as a life-long devotee, I’d love to see Disney take creative risks. Oof, how I’d love that. Revamp Beauty in ways we never suspected — introspective, darker, more in line with the original tale and the French films of both old and new (Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black and white take, the criminally under-seen 2014 adaptation), or even Angela Carter’s novellas The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride. Hire a director who understands the subversive nature of fantasy and its monstrous-on-the-surface outsider protagonists, ala Guillermo Del Toro. Don’t take the easy route of making what constitutes as a filmed version of the Broadway play with a bigger budget.

Which brings us to the first question.

It’s great. Of course it is. Disney knows its audiences’ expectations and the winning formula to secure their affections. This new Beauty satisfies to the point of nostalgic tears and pleased applause. In the secret depths of my heart, a shameful admission if I want to be A Good Film Critic, I wanted a by-the-numbers, animation-brought-to-life comfort movie.

Which is exactly what Beauty and the Beast is. Whether that’s enough or an irritant, or both, depends on your perspective.

For the sake of honesty, I was one of the people tearing up. I loved its slavish devotion to something that shaped me, the chance to wallow in cheerful fun and gorgeous atmosphere. I also grimaced at its hiccups, missteps, and lost opportunities. That’s the case for most films, though; criticism/enjoyment is a spectrum. It can’t surpass the original, yeah yeah remakes should stand alone and not be judged in comparison, but with such an open imitation it’s impossible to not examine what works and doesn’t.

The Good:

Acting. It requires special talent to go wrong with a cast comprised of Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, and Ewan McGregor, and it’s no surprise they kill it. Who could ask for more than McKellen’s crotchety Cogsworth or McDonald belting out opera? Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame is a delightfully internal, sorrowful, aching, and puzzled Beast, drawing more from Ron Perlman’s Vincent than his animated counterpart, and for the richer. As for Belle herself, the “genius”-ly cast Emma Watson does indeed convey Belle’s introverted, lonely, mature nature with a fiery touch. Sometimes she feels a tad too similar to that other iconic bookworm in Watson’s repertoire, and singing-wise she’s no Paige O’Hara, but she has some lovely emotive touches despite lacking the sustained vocal power necessary for the role.

The runaway standout, though, is Luke Evans’s Gaston. I’d wager there’s hardly been more adept musical-to-film casting. He perfectly captures the essential duality of Gaston’s arrogant buffoonery and the predatory menace that make him Disney’s most terrifying, realistic villain. Amplifying Gaston’s hunter/former soldier mentality to the point he calls Belle “prey” may be on the nose, but it summarizes beyond doubt the danger of unchecked male privilege. It doesn’t hurt Evans is a London West End veteran with the golden-throated voice to prove it.

Background diversity. When the camera panned out during the opening ballroom scene to reveal a sea of people who weren’t all white, I swooned. The same goes for Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Madame de Garderobe and Plumette. This is a magical fantasy with singing anthropomorphic household items, don’t tell me there can’t be people of color, y’all.

The look. The castle’s spiraling gothic architecture is stunning, ominous and moody with just the right amount of shadow. Every time a petal falls the stone structure crumbles further, dying alongside the rose. Colors explode, cameras spin, dresses whirl, the neverending snow is simultaneously beautiful and haunting. Even the CGI, while obvious, isn’t hideously distracting. It’s a feast-for-the-eyes song-and-dance extravaganza evoking the sensibilities of Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and milked its $300 million budget.

Maternal backstory. If we can’t rescue Belle’s invisible mother from Dead Mom Syndrome, then at least her loss is substantive and felt. (I’d turn to a life of crime for a version with Belle and her widowed inventor mother.) The addition of the Beast losing his mother as well is a nice touch; it advances his isolation and allows him to share a deeper connection with Belle.

Engineer Belle. She’s an inventor, too! And she’s better than Maurice! It may not see much screentime, but she’s more of an outsider beyond “omg she can READ?!”

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The Bad:

Watson’s singing. I can forgive someone who isn’t Broadway caliber, but the autotune is too distracting. Bless Watson for working her ass off, but when she’s book-ended by the experienced Evans and McGregor, she stands out in sharp contrast.

The diversity is just background. Our major players are all still white, and the two black actresses spend 99% of their screentime as CGI objects. And the much-hyped “gay moment” with LeFou barely lasts four seconds. Maybe that’s all they could sneak into a Disney feature, but when you randomly give Cogsworth a wife, it’s time for more than scraps.

Added songs. Maybe it’s because I’m too accustomed to the soundtrack as is, but the new pieces stuck out like sore thumbs. Those Menken-penned melodies are lovely as always, but the lyrics are dull next to the rhyme, rhythm, and soul of beloved Howard Ashman. If you’re going to add a song, use the Beast’s solo from the Broadway version, which, despite lacking Ashman’s touch, is a cohesive addition.

The pace. The animated movie is a lean, brisk 84 minutes. This clocks in at over 2 hours. It feels like they squeezed every ounce of possible material and streeetched it just too far.

Belle as “the other girl.” Even with self-proclaimed feminist Watson as the lead, we still saw the same old Belle Is Special, Other Ladies Are Dumb trope played straight.

And The Ugly:

The damn ballgown. It looks like a prom dress in a film surprisingly committed to replicating era-appropriate styles. In fact, most of Belle’s costumes look like bad Renaissance Faire material.

***

Fairy tales are meant for constant retelling. Some folklore predates the Bible by thousands of years; ever-changing, refracting society as time evolves. This particular film makes a fascinating case study on why these stories endure, challenging originality vs. pleasing money-back guarantees, and how the latter can be impossibly enjoyable when done well.

I dare you not to hum there goes the baker with his tray like always for at least a week.

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