The talented Emma Watson steps into the famous golden dress to become Belle in Disney’s live action re-imagining of their critically acclaimed 1991 animated feature.
I love Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast and have seen it countless times. Despite being vastly let down by Maleficent and Cinderella, after being blown away by The Jungle Book I was eager to see how the Mouse House would bring one of my favorites to life. I went in eager. I left with a growing list of things I disliked about this film.
If you don’t know this tale as old as time, I suggest you stop reading now and do yourself a favor by watching the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. There are many adaptations of this classic fairy tale, but Disney’s first version can hardly be topped.
Everything seemed to be in place for an amazing cinematic experience. Disney can seemingly do no wrong at the moment, the cast is to die for, and the themes behind a strong female lead are ripe for exploration. 90’s nostalgia is strong, and the trailers have been pretty much pitch perfect. So what went wrong?
Set aside for a moment that the mostly British cast doesn’t even pretend to be French other than the extremely enthusiastic Ewen Mcgregor as Lumière. That didn’t bother me nearly as much as perhaps it should have. Is Emma Watson’s singing voice perfect? No, and you can tell that she had some post production help in that department. Still, part of the world of film, and forgivable. No, what is wrong here is every little change to a fan favorite fells forced and tedious instead of breathing new life into an old classic.
Much has been made of this version of Belle celebrating feminism and empowering women. She does – in the same way that The Big Bang Theory celebrates nerds and empowers scientists. Except that show still manages to be entertaining enough that I still like it. Instead of giving an already strong female character more depth, this version turns into something that feels like extreme pandering to fulfill market research of what the public wants in a female heroin. Every box is checked. From teaching illiterate young girls to read, to being a brilliant inventor, to using her intellectual dignity to shoot down unwanted advances. And it all feels fake, heavy handed, and needless. Belle was never a helpless damsel who’s character needed beefing up.
Every new song is as generic as they come and, unlike the originals, utterly forgettable. There are a number of weird tangents and plot changes added and made that seem to exist solely to differentiate this from the ’91 version. They add backstory we have no need for and feels completely out of place. The bright spots are the nearly intact songs and moments lifted from the original, with everything in between feeling like sad filler trying far, far, too had to be relevant and special. There’s something there that wasn’t there before, but it makes the story feel like less instead of more. Gaston’s character seems more pathetic than villainous most of the time, and the townspeople are even given somewhat of a pass as it seems like they don’t particularly like him that much either and are just along for the ride thanks to some subtle moments during the tavern song where it appears LeFou is actually bribing people to go along with the celebration of his hero. Of course when the plot necessitates they blindly follow him into battle against the Beast, they do so no problem.
Much ado has been made of Josh Gad‘s LeFou being gay and having “an exclusively gay moment,” whatever that means. Well, like the for some reason oft-mentioned Shakespeare might say, it’s pretty much an ado about nothing. There is a blink and you miss it moment (though there are certainly subtle hints throughout about his nature) that could just as easily be played for laughs as anything else – as could a moment involving another character). Frankly, I’m a tad offended that the subtext here is to suggest that there are “exclusively gay” reasons for a man to dance with another man. It seems insulting to men, both gay and straight, to make such stereotypical assumptions. To be clear, I’m mostly referring to the way Disney et al. has treated this scene, not the moment itself as, like I said, it’s barely worth mentioning if not pointed out so many times. It just goes to show how desperate Disney was to check all the progressive boxes here without bothering to make them fit in nicely with the story.
That leads me to one of my biggest complaints about this version. So much time is spent developing Belle, giving her a more complex back story and stronger ideals, that precious little time is given to the Beast (Dan Stevens) other than to give him a sappy sob story to make you feel bad for him. So little time is given to him, to his development back into a metaphorical and physical human, that it seems rather, well, shocking, that this strong-willed intelligent woman in Belle would fall for him. He’s shown almost no reason for her to even give him a chance. It’s not quite the toxic relationship of Fifty Shades, but it still comes off more than a little icky. The animated beast showed more emotion and growth in a couple of facial expressions and lines than this CG version does in the entire film. The few moments meant to be touching end up dreadfully goofy at best.
The realism given the situation also makes a lot of other things weirder. It was weird enough to think of an old man drinking out of a little boy and all the other philosophical and disturbing questions that come from people enchanted into objects in the cartoon, but when we have live actors and a concerted effort to make things grounded and realistic, well, it replaces magic and wonder with something else. There is also way too much exposition in the castle staff constantly discussing and worrying about the curse and how they don’t have much time left and they will cease to be living after the time is up etc. It is both distracting and disturbing.
It’s not all bad though. Luke Evans, for example, is fantastic as Gaston, even if he’s not the size of a barge. The parts of the movie that hew close to the source material are quite enjoyable and well done despite a few changes (political correctness, updates, realism, no real reason sometimes?). The scenes were too dark for my taste in the 3D showing but most of the sets and art direction seemed lovely from what I could see of them. See it in 2D if you want to see it. If anything, this movie serves as a reminder of just how good the animated film is. I don’t know if it’s partly because I simply know it so well, but the only enjoyable parts, as I said, seem to be the parts that are more or less a word for word copy. The animated adaptation was already distinct and complex enough to set it apart, there was no reason this couldn’t have simply been a gorgeous retelling of that film with some artistic license taken. It could have also been a great opportunity to really dive into some of the deeper themes and the characters of Belle and the Beast. You can’t have it both ways, Disney, and so this is an ambitious clunker that shouldn’t prove satisfying to neither new audiences nor nostalgic ones.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“Why was everyone British?”
Brother Hamster says:
“More like Beauty and the Bland. Both main characters are terrifically dull and constantly overshadowed by the FAR superior supporting cast. Also I defy you to tell me exactly what time period this movie was supposed to be set in.”
My rating: Two out of five hats
Beauty and the Beast enchants 4,210 theaters, including IMAX 3D, March 17