Out of the Second Dimension: Tale as Old as Time
Disney has released several live action adaptations of their more popular animated movies and characters over the last few years. We saw the secret story of a sorceress in “Maleficent,” and a glamorous retelling of the most magical love story of all time with “Cinderella.” Disney’s new “Beauty and the Beast” is a new chapter in this loose franchise though, being the first to be a direct adaptation of the actual Disney movie. “Jungle Book” drew from the stories by Rudyard Kipling, “Alice in Wonderland” similarly being based on unused concepts from “Through the Looking Glass.” “Cinderella” only used the names of Disney’s movies’ villains, and “Maleficent” was simply based on a popular character. “Beauty and the Beast,” however, is unabashedly animated, taking its plot, visuals, and music directly from Disney’s 1991 movie.
“Beauty and the Beast,” both this new version and the original, is a loose adaptation of the 18th century fairytale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and more famously abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. It tells the story of a beautiful woman held captive by a beast, having traded her life in imprisonment for her father’s. She falls in love with the beast, and as he’s about to die, confesses her love for him, breaking the curse he’s under and transforming him back into a handsome Prince. The Disney version introduces more cursed characters, turning the Beast’s servants into objects related to their role in the castle, and a romantic rival for Belle who ultimately becomes the villain (the original story not having a villain – the beast dying from heartbreak).
The media build up to Beauty and the Beast was, at least, confusing. First came a look at Belle in her iconic golden gown, which appeared to leave the Audrey Hepburn inspired look behind for a more modern prom dress. Then came the infamous doll from the Disney Store, which not only made Emma Watson look like a chicken pox patient, but was based on concept art that the production continued to develop, leading to differences between most of the products and the actual costumes seen in the movie. Next came the “Beauty and the Beast” pop single by Ariana Grande and John Legend, which sounded more like a karaoke cover of Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s 1991 version, feeling incredibly dated when coupled with a movie being touted as an update of an old classic. Finally, there was the controversy around LeFou’s sexuality, which was blown so incredibly out of proportion it’s not even worth discussing. Altogether, it didn’t look like Disney knew how to package this movie; is it modern or retro? Is it luxurious or simple? Is it even cohesive?
Somehow, it managed to be all of that without becoming a jumbled mess. Modern touches on an entirely nostalgia based movie, with luxurious design but simple cinematography. This new movie rarely strays from Disney’s original while incorporating elements from Villeneuve’s fairytale, such as Maurice stealing a rose and the Beast’s castle being in a different season than the rest of the world, and introducing all new concepts. It’s a glowing tribute to a movie that proved the return of Disney Animation, and a wonderful reminder of a film many of us loved growing up.
Disney’s original “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 1991, has become one of the most beloved movies of all time, and one of the most critically acclaimed as well – it was the first animated movie to receive on Oscar Nomination for Best Picture, Pixar’s “Up” being the only other similar nominee to this day. The praise is impressive, considering how “Beauty and the Beast” had a troublesome production, with a rushed timeline half the length of most movies produced at the time, resulting in it having the most mistakes out of any movie from Disney Animation Studios. Most of these mistakes were animation or visual mistakes, but some were bigger plot holes, which the new “Beauty and the Beast” took the opportunity to fix.
The new movie is at its best when its fixing the mistakes of its predecessor, or providing more context for the original story. The confused timeline of the original, where the Beast was cursed at age 11 but somehow has portraits of himself as an adult everywhere, is retooled to be less specific. We hear more about his beastly behavior from his servants, and feel their guilt about not having done anything to prevent his bad behavior. We see snippets of Belle’s life before moving to the poor, provincial, and learn what happened to her mother – though her missing mother never seemed like much of a mystery in the original film. Some of this backstory is unfortunately provided through the weakest addition to the movie, which is that of a magic book that can send its readers anywhere in the world. More magical objects in the castle is fine, but the parameters of its magic are confusing; are they actually there or just seeing things? Are they in present day, or back in time?
The visuals of the film are spectacular, with every moment from the original being elaborately brought to life. The servants are all beautifully designed, if inconsistent in the case of Lumiere (is he a candlestick or a walking metal man? Pick one or explain that he can change), and really make sense as “live-action” interpretations of the cartoon. “Be Our Guest” is a mind-boggling, holographic experience, that really hit me with the feeling that I was seeing one of my favorite animated movies being literally brought to life. The only misstep in the movie’s visualization is Belle’s costuming. While her village and “Something There” costumes are consistent with the rest of the movie’s cultural tone, her yellow gown and finale dress stand out as fairly modern party dresses. While this is probably meant as a subtle visual nod to Belle being ahead of her time, she looks very plain and out-of-place when standing next to anyone else.
The biggest hurdle the movie tries to clear is one many of these animation-to-live-action adaptations have to tackle; characterization. In animation, everything has to be exaggerated to be believable; movements, features, and personality. On some of the bigger personalities from “Beauty and the Beast,” the transition from cartoon to live action is actually fairly smooth; Gaston is still an over-the-top brute, and LeFou is a comically bumbling idiot (now with a redemption arc). The enchanted servants also translate well, but mostly because they’re still animated, just in higher definition. Unfortunately, our title characters are the ones that suffer.
Emma Watson plays Belle with subtle sweetness, but pales in comparison to the Belle we see in the animated version. The drawn Belle is bursting with emotion; books energize her like nothing else while still engulfing her completely, she speaks and acts out with passion when her father is wronged, and her changing opinions of the beast are always evident in her expression. Watson’s energy is there, just dialed back from where the original Belle was. The Beast is similar, having had his personality turned from a ten down to more of a six. The potential is clear in both of them, they have just been watered down, probably to be more “believable” as real people.
While Belle might be emotionally flat, she is at least active within her own story. She tricks her father into leaving her behind at the Beast’s castle, and then formulates a plan for escape. Like the cartoon character she’s based on, she speaks up for herself and her wants and desires. After seeing recent adaptations of cartoons, I was worried about what might become of Belle. 2015’s live action “Cinderella” had its heroine accept her life of imprisonment when her step-mother locks her in the attic, while the 1950’s animated movie it was based on had Cinderella literally kicking and screaming in attempts to be heard, knowing she deserved better than what Tremaine had in store for her. The 2016 Hartford run of “Anastasia” stripped its title character of the spirit and fire present in the 1997 version, reducing her to a sniveling vagrant more concerned with finding love with either the hero or the villain than she is with finding her family, unlike the Anastasia of the animated movie. I was concerned this new Belle would somehow lose her agency as well, but the filmmakers instead took what they saw Belle do in the original and built upon it in believable ways.
The music is mostly unimpressive, either being straightforward remakes of the originals (albeit with some inexplicable Middle-Eastern influences during “Be Our Guest”) or autotuned karaoke covers that sounded more like something from “Glee” than a high-budget movie musical. Emma Watson and Dan Stevens might be talented singers, but there’s no way to know with all the digital processing their voices went through on this soundtrack. Watson actually sounds very nice in the new songs written for the movie, though having her sing alongside Audra McDonald during “Days in the Sun” is a huge mistake, but likely would have been no matter what Hollywood starlet had been cast as Belle.
One of the more uneven parts of the movie is how much social commentary the production team clearly tried to squeeze into it, briefly touching on a multitude of issues. While movies are certainly an important outlet for social commentary, with “Zootopia” proving that Disney especially shines when highlighting modern day issues, commentary can feel cheap if not genuine. Belle is ridiculed and bullied for being intelligent, which is certainly relevant today but already made clear by the entire song from the original movie where the town ridicules Belle for reading. The Beast now dies as a victim of gun violence, which was surely intended as a message about gun control but falls short of actually being one. Then comes the “exclusively gay moment” director Bill Condon was so excited about, which is at most sub-textual, and not even the “gayest” moment of the movie – that goes to The Wardrobe launching the drag career of a young Frenchmen. LeFou being the first bit of LGBT representation in a Disney movie is probably well-intentioned, but horrendously executed (you’re going to make the first gay character a villain whose name means “The Fool” and sings about being illiterate?) and disastrously publicized. The only new moment of social commentary that feels truly genuine is how the movie supports interracial romance when it is revealed in the end that both couples we see under the curse (Mme le Garderobe with Maestro Cadenza, and Lumiere with Plummette) consist of white men and black women. Both couples passionately kiss when they are returned to their human forms – the first time white people and people of color have kissed in a Disney movie.
As its own movie, I’m not sure how “Beauty and the Beast” can stand. While it tells its own cohesive story, so much of it is based on nostalgia and people’s love of the original. It does many things right, even improving upon parts of the original, but as a whole it doesn't out-do the '91 film, and I don't believe it's supposed to. Disney is a money making machine that sustains itself on characters from decades old movies, and what better way to revive interest in those older characters than reimagine them for a new audience? Now, because of this new movie, adults who think they’re too old for the original are revisiting it, and children who haven’t been introduced to “Beauty and the Beast” yet are learning about it. Yes, this new movie has had one of the biggest opening weekends of all time, but how interested is Disney in actually keeping it around? “Cinderella,” “Maleficent,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Jungle Book” have all come and gone, and are now almost nowhere to be seen in Disney’s larger brand, but the original cartoon characters live on. The Alice and Cinderella of the 1950s still wander Disney Parks, with the “Mistress of all Evil” Maleficent still lurks in recent Disney fiction from novels to video games. This beautiful new “Beauty and the Beast” will certainly best the competition at the box office this month, but a year from now it will probably have faded into the background, allowing Disney’s original Belle and Beast from the 90s movie to step back into an even bigger spotlight.