Beauty and the Beast
I’m a child of the ’90s. I’m saying this because, like so many girls growing up in that decade, I grew up with the veritable Golden Age of Disney animated movies, and the one that always reigned supreme for me was “Beauty and the Beast” (1991).
When I was a toddler, I would pop my BELLE GOLD DRESS VHS (as I called it, certainly in capslock) into the player, plop myself in front of the TV and watch in perfectly rapt attention as a misunderstood bookworm stood up for herself and for the people / Beasts she loved in no uncertain terms. Then, when it was over, I’d pop the VHS in the rewind machine (remember those?) and do it all over again.
Over and over. All day, practically every day. When I was little, nothing was more important or influential to me than Belle.
Right up until Hermione Granger came along, that is. My childhood role models most definitely fit a certain mold, and it’s because of them that I grew up with my nose perpetually stuck in a book.
As a result, you’d think it’d be difficult for me to review this new version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), or that it would even be difficult for me to like it. Honestly? I loved it, and that’s not just my finely aged, 26-year nostalgia talking. This new “Beauty and the Beast” is a decadent live-action musical and a worthy addition to the Disney canon, whether you love the original like me or not.
Directed by Bill Condon (“Mr. Holmes”) and written by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”), “Beauty and the Beast” is strongest when it adapts and expands its source material as opposed to slavishly recreating it.
There are only a few instances of dialogue that feel stilted because they were directly lifted from the original and not changed to fit the new tone of the remake. Overall, though, “Beauty and the Beast” succeeds in blending the 1991 animated movie with original content and nods to the 1994 Broadway musical, the 1946 film by Jean Cocteau and even the original 1740 fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve to create a synthesis that feels both new and familiar all at once.
This is most strongly felt in the characters. Each of them, from Belle (Emma Watson) to the Beast (Dan Stevens, “The Guest”), from Maurice (Kevin Kline, “The Last of Robin Hood“) to LeFou (Josh Gad, “Frozen”), from Gaston (Luke Evans, “The Girl on the Train“) even to the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan), is more lifelike than their animated counterpart.
The most meaningful expansion is the backstory regarding the death of Belle’s mother and Maurice’s retreat to a small, provincial town to keep Belle safe, which is paralleled by a dead mother and a cruel father in the Beast’s childhood. Although I’m not such a fan of the recurring Dead Mothers of Disney trope, this addition feels right because it gives Belle and the Beast something very solid in common besides their both being outcasts and loving to read. (Yes, the Beast can read in this version. He is a Prince, after all, and he had a very expensive education.)
Also meaningful? A thoroughly diverse cast, from secondary characters down to extras, something that started in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” (2015) and grows here to include not just one but multiple interracial couples. As more of these remakes are greenlighted and Disney gets a little braver, perhaps we’ll see a non-white Ariel, Rapunzel or Snow White? Maybe we’ll even get a live-action version of “The Princess and the Frog” starring Janelle Monáe that, after “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” audiences might connect with more? I legitimately got shivers thinking about it. Make it happen, Disney!
The same fullness augments the servants of the Beast’s castle (an even wider cast that includes Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald), who are less cutely animated anthropomorphic household items and more ornate antiques that have the ability to walk, talk, and put on a show for which Vegas would kill.
They look less human here because that’s part of their plight (and a plot point borrowed from the Broadway musical): With every petal that falls from the Beast’s cursed rose, they become more and more inanimate. This makes the Beast’s curse doubly tragic and poignant, something the original animated movie lacks and this one needs to make all of the castle’s inhabitants that much more sympathetic.
Meanwhile, the true unsung hero of “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t unsung at all — it’s the music, written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, with new songs by Menken and Tim Rice. The cast does very well with the original score, reinterpreting the classic songs to fit their own styles and vocal ranges without making them unrecognizable or, heaven forbid, bad.
“Gaston” is a standout thanks to the inclusion of lyrics penned by Ashman (who died of complications from AIDS shortly after “Beauty and the Beast” was completed and won a posthumous Oscar for the title song) that were cut from the original because they were too risqué, but “Be Our Guest” is also totally, magically delightful. You can absolutely hear McGregor’s joy as he sings one of Disney’s most bombastic numbers, both for Belle’s enjoyment and for ours. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes.
Of the new songs, “How Does A Moment Last Forever” is touching (especially when sung by Kline, not so much with Céline Dion’s version over the credits), and I have mixed feelings about “Evermore,” the Beast’s showstopper where he laments letting go of Belle because he loves her … but he’s kinda mad about it? It’s a little tonally weird, and almost feels like an outtake from 1996’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” However, both fit acceptably well into a score I’ve had memorized since I was two. I’m not sure if I can find a higher compliment than that.
However, “Days in the Sun” is probably the best of the new songs because it straight-up made me weep in the theater. It’s a melancholy song that takes the place of “Human Again,” a cut song for the castle servants reintegrated into the 1991 film for a DVD release, and “A Change in Me,” one of the best songs from the Broadway musical. The combination of the servants longing for happier days and Belle confronting her naiveté is heartbreakingly beautiful. If nothing else, this film is worth seeing just for this one song.
“Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t get everything right, of course. I saw it in IMAX 3D, which works wonderfully for a movie like “Kong: Skull Island” but fails with this one by blurring background detail and panning shots to the point where I got nauseated. The movie handles the Stockholm Syndrome aspect of Belle and the Beast’s romance a little better than the original, but the undertones are still there. LeFou may be Disney’s first confirmed gay character, but he’s still a stereotype, and his “big gay moment” that’s garnering so much controversy is literally a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot.
But all told, “Beauty and the Beast” is a successful remake for me and for Disney, just as good as — if not better than — “Cinderella.” It makes me excited for the upcoming remakes of “Mulan” and “The Little Mermaid” because things can only get better from here.
Though let’s maybe try to forget that Guy Ritchie is directing the live-action “Aladdin.” I still don’t know if I can deal with that.