Still magical. Yet, there’s something there that wasn’t there before, and that something is meh.
If you’ve seen the 1991 Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast as much as I have, you’re probably just as nervously excited for the live-action version as I was. The 1991 film was the first animated feature to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar Award, and for good reason: it was smart, magical, romantic, and broke down animation barriers. The new live action version had to stay true to these things, while simultaneously amping up the drama, the romance, and the magic, and still embracing its classic songs (“Bonjour”, “Be Our Guest”, “Beauty and the Beast”, etc.). For a while, it was scarily unclear if the new version would be a musical at all. Once announced it would be, however, the producers needed to cast actors who could sing, and employ special effects that didn’t ruin the fun-loving side characters like Lumiere, Cogsworth, and, of course, the central character of the Beast. While the new songs and expanded character backstories are jarring and uninspired, the majority of the new Beauty and the Beast is still full of magic and romance, and does the original and Disney source material proud. The film also marks a pivotal point in Disney’s aspiration to have one of the industry’s most inclusive, and ethnically and racially diverse, modern film portfolios.
I’m not going to summarize the story of the film, because the majority of everyone alive should already know it by now. The intelligent and beautiful Belle is appropriately played by the intelligent and beautiful Emma Watson (Hermione Granger in Harry Potter), and the closed-off, temperamental Beast is played by pretty British hunk Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey). Belle’s tradesman father is played by Kevin Kline (De-lovely) and the brash, arrogant Gaston is played by Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). The casting of Beauty and the Beast, a critical point of contention throughout the pre-production process, is near perfect. Watson brings a welcome sophistication and subdued patience to Belle, which is a good idea, considering that the doe-eyed animated Belle was a bit too subservient for a modern adaptation. Equally, Evans brings a very interesting angle to Gaston, clueing us into a frustrated, post-war traumatized sensibility to the flamboyant womanizer we know so well. We can still love to hate him, but I found myself sympathizing a bit more than before. His bar-dancing number with his comical buddy LeFou, played by Josh Gad (the voice of Frozen’s Olaf), is still wonderful amusement.
Let’s return to the pros and cons of the new Beauty and the Beast for a moment. I was uncomfortable whenever the story or songs took me in a different direction than the animated version. The new music is unmemorable and simply fills in some backstory and precious running time minutes. I also found myself missing the wide-eyed cartoonish-ness of the silly side characters. Here, they are made to look as realistic as possible, and the effect is that they’re a little less funny and emotive. Luckily, the Beast and Belle are wonderful in their scenes, and Gaston provides some of the missing humor. This delicate balance has been prevalent throughout the recent strong entries in the live-action Disney remake series over the past few years, with Cinderella and The Jungle Book leading the pack; however, Beauty and the Beast seemed like the toughest adaptation yet (that is, until The Little Mermaid is inevitably announced). The former titles didn’t stray as far from their animated counterparts as Beauty and the Beast, and that is ultimately where the latter is weakest. You don’t mess with a good thing! However, if Beauty and the Beast had simply been a frame by frame recreation of the 1991 version, then I’d likely be suggesting here that more risks should’ve been taken. It’s a double-edged sword. At least the iconic ballroom dance scene is just as immensely beautiful as it was 26 years ago, and I’ll be the first to admit that I had a few tear drops forming…but they didn’t escape. Maybe that’s the best gauge of how good this new version is — did it make you cry like the original? Or just almost cry? Almost is better than not at all.
One of the most interesting aspects of the new Beauty and the Beast film is that it confirms how Disney is approaching diversity in its movies, which is in a manner that should be mimicked by all studios immediately. Yes, LeFou is Disney’s first admittedly gay character, a point that is played subtly for 4/5 of the film and then pronounced in a very brief and touching moment near the end. The fact that some theaters are boycotting the film due to the character is absurd and sad. However, I want to draw attention to a far more important characteristic of Beauty and the Beast — the casual and undramatized inclusion of an abundance of diverse actors in smaller roles. This was a bit the case in Cinderella as well, though it’s more apparent here. In Beauty and the Beast, there are multiple black actors in a wide-range of small roles and there’s no extra special attention paid to that fact — as it SHOULD be.
What’s great is that children will see these movies and think that interracial marriages and diverse looking townspeople are societal norms. Disney still holds a dominant power in every child’s upbringing, and seeing them approach diversity in this manner brings me hope. Consider also the diverse leading actors in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One, the main lead in Moana and the plot of Zootopia, or the news about the upcoming live adaptation of Aladdin, and it’s crystal clear Disney is making a conscious push in the right direction. Beauty and the Beast may be a tale as old as time, but its intention is far from traditional.
Beauty and the Beast opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, 3/17.