As a Disney fan, I tend to side-eye their live-action adaptations of the classics with some trepidation. I have loved most of their animated classics – it’s easier for me to list my least favourites than to come up with a fixed top ten – but their live action adaptations tend to be a bit of a mixed bag. Maleficent was pretty good, looked great, shook up the expected story well. Cinderella felt pretty pointless, with emphasis on the pretty. Then they started announcing adaptations from their golden age. My era. The stuff I grew up with. I was, to say the least, concerned. So of course I had to rush off and see Beauty and the Beast for Mother’s Day weekend!
The new Beauty and the Beast is directed by Bill Condon and follows a similar plot to the first Disney version of the story. Petulant prince rejects ugly old lady and ends up turned into a Beast with his entire castle cursed and forgotten. Flash forward to small village where book-obsessed Belle is considered weird by all her peers and she doesn’t think much of them either. Her father (some sort of toy inventor/artist in this version) goes to market but gets lost, captured by the Beast who sees him as a thief. Belle finds out and trades places with him. Eventually comes to appreciate the Beast for what is inside him rather than outside but, due to stuff going down in the village with her father, accidentally causes the entire town to come a-pillaging. Magical furniture people save the castle but Beast dies. Then Belle admits that she loves him and the spell is reversed. Yay!
I will admit that one of my favourite things to do is to compare an adaptation to what has come before, and folktales offer a special kind of fun. My BA dissertation basically did that in depth with Cinderella (hence my dissatisfaction with Disney’s re-adaptation) and I’m planning to do something similar if I continue on with my education. (In case you hadn’t guessed, here’s a heads up that this review will probably be a long one!) I find the passage of folktales very interesting, the way they change as different media becomes dominant, and Disney is a huge mover and shaker in that domain. Many theorists (hello Zipes) really hate Disney for that reason, feeling that they take away the core message to make it more commercial or suit their uneducated audience. Like, I’m paraphrasing there but many of these guys have really unfavourable opinions of Disney and the people who like it. I, meanwhile, see Disney’s re-working of folklore to be similar to that of the Grimms or Perrault. They all have adapted tales to target messages for their audience. The Grimm Brothers were pretty Christian-centric, roping hefty consequences into any un-Christian wrongdoings. Disney works to be family friendly, aiming to capture the widest audience it can, and therefore does sanitise elements from the supposed originals – that are actually adaptations themselves – and re-works them to be more cinematic.
This focus on what an audience needs becomes more interesting when looking at Disney’s new re-adaptations of their own content, because they are no longer as American-centric as they once were. The biggest film market is now in China, forcing Disney into a more global perspective. Has this affected the way that Beauty and the Beast has come out? In some ways, I would say yes. They are still promoting a lot of the ideals they support, such as the strong feminist leanings shown in their first version, but the way they’ve done it feels like it reflects what’s happening in the world better than a straight adaptation of the 90’s film would. Certain plotlines – which I will discuss below – seem especially relevant. Most interestingly to me though is the fact that they’ve roped in more of the fairytale plot from Villeneuve’s Le Belle et Le Bete. Belle asks her father to return with a rose (a key part of the French tale that is omitted from the 90’s Disney version) and it is this request that sets everything in motion, rather than the Beast’s unreasonable temper. Their choice to bring in more of the Villeneuve elements indicates that Disney may be listening to some of the criticism it has received previously and hopefully sets them up for a more globally acceptable re-adaptation for Mulan in 2018.
Anyway, I could go on about folklore and adaptation-y theory stuff all day but that would probably be boring to everyone else, so back on with the review! As with most Disney films, Beauty and the Beast is very character-centric. Their actions and, most importantly, reactions are what move the plot along and give it heart. Your connections with the characters is integral to any Disney movie because, chances are, you know this story. Interestingly, in this version of Beauty and the Beast, Disney has taken this and run with it. They have taken the time to give a detailed backstory to almost every character, from Mrs Potts to Maurice. And it somehow doesn’t weaken the plot! I lauded Sing for its successful handling of multiple interwoven character stories and I must do the same thing for Beauty and the Beast. It’s very well done.
Beast’s story is slightly expanded from Disney’s first version of Beauty and the Beast, showing him throwing lavish parties but not welcoming a haggard stranger. Cue cursing and woe. It is also implied that much of his attitude comes from his father after his mother died when he was young. Interesting but I wish they’d expanded that further. It feels a bit like it was left hanging but perhaps they only included it to reflect Belle’s own story because she too lost her mother young (like, baby young).
Belle also has a bit more going on than the first Disney Beauty and the Beast, with a heftier feminist slant. Her backstory is nicely woven in with her father’s, having to move from Paris to the small village because of Plague and not fitting in due to her bookish tendencies. She is an inventor in her own right all of a sudden (because apparently Emma Watson felt that it was important for Belle to have these skills that had originally been allocated to Maurice) and it kind of works to show their closeness. Unfortunately, while Watson was not as bad as I had feared, I am not a huge fan of the new Belle for a good half a film. The 90’s Belle came off as idealistic with only a touch of arrogance (see her opening number). Watson’s Belle is the opposite – she thinks very little of all the villagers, is constantly the one who has to solve all problems, and comes off as judge-y. Watson’s acting – and even singing – was fine but I honestly didn’t find this Belle likeable until “Something there…”, pretty much two thirds of the way through the film.
The relationship between Belle and Beast in Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast works pretty well. Belle and Beasts relationship in the 90’s film was always one of my favourite elements of the film – it was well constructed compared to some of Disney’s previous ventures – and this re-adaptation builds on that solid foundation to make something heartfelt and genuine. This film irons out some of the inconsistencies of the previous adaptation, such as former prince Beast not being overly educated, and flips them so that they work with his character. Beast becomes a very well-read character who learns how to understand the texts through Belle, building both their characters and their relationship through a love of books. It’s honestly one of the best things about the new Beauty and the Beast.
As with the previous Disney adaptation, this Beauty and the Beast has Gaston as its villain. He retains his arrogant, uber-macho hunter persona but there’s actually some subtle rational given for the adoration of the villagers. Gaston is not just a dashing hunter being fawned over for no reason and is instead apparently a war hero as well as captain of the village guard. This gives some much stronger reasoning for the fangirls, for whom he is definitely desirable marriage material, and also for his attitude. Add to that Le Fou’s interference, paying random villagers to join in the bolstering of Gaston’s ego, and you suddenly get a lot more understanding about his popularity. Unfortunately I do feel that the paying aspect weakens some of the original ideas – he stops being as threatening because he hasn’t captured the hearts of the village through pure charisma – and makes for a somewhat less impressive villain. And let’s be honest, his death scene feels clunky as hell.
The extension of Le Fou’s storyline in the new Beauty and the Beast is another of my favourite things about the story. In the first Disney adaptation, Le Fou is largely an annoyance and is merely there to fawn over Gaston. This film makes him into Gaston’s best friend and most fervent admirer who, yes, is a little in love with him but doesn’t try to get anything out of that affection. He just wants Gaston to be happy, whether that involves paying other villagers to help him literally sing Gaston’s praises or bravely suggesting that Belle may not be the perfect girl for him. Le Fou easily has one of the most interesting character arcs in the film and I think it is actually one of the ones that is easiest to identify with. After all, who hasn’t eventually realised that someone they admired isn’t that great? His story can also be viewed as hugely relevant to our time, both as someone who has to pick himself up after losing faith in the one he idolises and as a potential LGBT+ character. I say potentially because honestly, for all their talk about an exclusively gay moment, there is only a two second shot that could be interpreted that way. However I think that his confusion about his feelings for Gaston throughout Beauty and the Beast, whether gay or not, are hugely relevant to today’s society and I’m very glad that they included this storyline.
Another important element of this new Beauty and the Beast is the extension of the enchantress’s curse. While in the first Disney film, we know that the last petal’s drop will fix the various cursed characters in their form, this one adds further detail that makes it all more emotional. You see, not only will Beast be trapped in his new form when the last petal falls, all the enchanted residents, from Lumiere to Chip, will become purely furniture. They won’t have personalities, won’t be alive, and Beast will be alone. Pretty heart-wrenching, right? The re-vamped enchantment now also causes the rest of the world to forget about the palace, the former prince, and all its residents. This creates a heart-wrenching subplot, with hints dropped into the opening number, and clears up some of the confusion about how no one knew the palace existed in the previous film. Expanding the lore in this way makes for some interesting implications and sets this Beauty and the Beast apart from its predecessor. It will be interesting to see if future adaptations take on these new elements in the same way that they have borrowed from the 90’s film.
Disney’s 2015 adaptation of Cinderella kept close to their earlier one – like, no huge changes to plot or character – but did choose to remove most of the musical content from the original. Yes, there were homages, but ultimately it was a pretty normal film. This Beauty and the Beast went in the complete opposite direction. It is filmed like a musical. The direction and choreography is reminiscent of the Les Mis film because it feels like you can picture it all happening just as seamlessly on a stage as you can on the screen. I feel that this was a very good choice as it allows for the integration of the songs that Disney fans love, brings in new numbers to round out the story and allow for those Best Original Song nominations, and rationalises some of the more awkwardly staged moments (looking at you first act). It works well for most of it, and I loved “Something there…” especially for it’s musical-ly romance building, but then you get to Be Our Guest. Be Our Guest, as it appears in the 90’s Beauty and the Beast, does not fit in with the new film. And yet they put it in with almost the exact same sequencing and it completely breaks the believability of the film. When you’ve got an established set of rules (such as, here is the one feather duster we love and no, that hairbrush is not alive) and they are broken for one solitary musical number, it just frustrates me. Worst moment in the film. I get why they wanted to keep the song but I feel like they could have done it in a way that fitted with the world this film creates, rather than trying to keep too close to the 90’s Beauty and the Beast.
My other biggest irritation in Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast, on top of hating the new Belle and some issues with the fidelity to the previous film, is down to what actually happens on screen. The animation is lovely and actually integrates well with the whole staged/musically idea. The setting and costumes are generally pretty beautiful (even if Belle does spend half the first act flashing her underwear tot he world – no wonder the villagers don’t like her!). The problems come when they try to do sweeping shots that are probably made to bring in some 3D moments. I saw the film in 2D. The first time Belle sees her room, I had to close my eyes because it physically hurt me to watch it! There was no way to focus during the sweep and the camera was blurred for a good forty seconds. I had to turn to my sister to check that it wasn’t my eyes and I had plenty of time to do so because that damned shot last so long. They have a couple of these moments that are short enough to forgive but that first one should have been cut out.
SO, I probably should have warned everyone that this was going to be a long one, right? Overall, I appreciated the new Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for what it was. It was a pretty good adaptation that used a number of sources and brings in some developments of its own. The biggest problems in the film seem to be down to their confusion about how true they should be to their previous film, leaving certain elements that are weakened by their inclusion or changes. Worst of all, it gives them a protagonist that just isn’t likeable. It’s a watchable film but I’m not sure that the new bits that I love make up for the others that I dislike and truthfully I would probably still prefer Disney’s first Beauty and the Beast. At least it gives me some hope for when they attempt Mulan in 2018, right?