Disney’s re-imagining—not remake, as far more was involved in this film than simply translating animated scenes to live-action—of Beauty and the Beast occupies a curious spot in film critics’ hearts and minds. On one hand, it’s very easy to get sucked into the visually appealing, sometimes overwhelming, display Disney has put on and ignore the substance—or lack thereof—in the process. It’s just as easy to try dissecting 2017’s Beauty and the Beast on the basis of it being more shameless shilling on Disney’s part. It is neither perfect cinema nor is it just another cash-grab by everyone’s favorite multi-billionaire animated mouse.
The film starts with Disney’s animated castle, as Disney films do. However, the usual castle is replaced with the Beast’s castle, which springs to life with the pre-curse prince (played by Dan Stevens) preparing for one of what seems to be many high class gatherings he is accustomed to hosting. This version of the story of how the prince and his servants became cursed is fleshed out into visual storytelling from its former monologue over still images, giving deeper character to the spoiled prince and his rather unlikable subjects (all of whom not only scoff at the poor old woman before she reveals she is an enchantress, but then all flee for their rich and morally iffy lives).
This iteration of Beauty and the Beast then remains fairly true to the animated version from 1991. Belle (Emma Watson) debuts to her namesake song, with Watson’s reportedly auto-tuned voice intermingling with those of villagers who may have issues with women reading but certainly no scruples with spontaneous sing-alongs. Gaston (played by Luke Evans) and LeFou (rendered a real life, far more complex version of his cartoon counterpart by Josh Gad) make their first appearances as well. The story goes as it did before for the most part, with approximately forty-five minutes of additional material. The ending, with the prince restored from the Beast and everyone happy to not be highly-animated antiques, is nothing short of Disney musical magic.
Musically, this film is delightful. The classic tunes of childhood movie-watching […] are brought to life beautifully by the cast…
Emma Watson is a strong, brave, independent Belle, but proves to be more than just a direct copy of her animated counterpart. Thanks to additional backstory, audiences are treated to the backstory of where Belle’s mother is, giving a painful look into her and Maurice’s life before the small, quaint, somewhat backwards village. The additions also build on how Belle is treated as an outsider to her village by going beyond illustrating it with the song “Belle”. Yes, the village finds her to be a funny girl, different from the rest of them, and so on, but it doesn’t go far beyond that in the original animation. The 2017 version includes new scenes, showing the villagers disdain and disgust with Belle for reading and trying to teach others to read. Watson’s capacity for becoming her characters translated to a Belle with depth and substance, easy to sympathize with and a compelling reason to see the film again and again.
Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the beast, and how the film handled the character, is easily one of Beauty and the Beast’s best points. He is a pained, flawed character, the product of a miserable past that turned him into a hardened, bitter, and generally awful person (who, then, was turned into an actual Beast). A common gripe about Stevens’ take on the Beast is that he isn’t scary, which is a line of commentary indicative of missing the point.
A cursory Google search, for those still unaware, reveals that the 1991 release of Beauty and the Beast was a parallel to Howard Ashman, who was involved in Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid, and his struggle with AIDS and how it was largely demonized as, well, a sign of monstrosity. The 2017 iteration of the Beast really takes that steps further, showcasing how the curse on the prince and his servants impacted everyone who was, and once was, close to him. He’s not supposed to be scary; he’s supposed to be a sympathetic character, providing understanding for a condition people suffered often in solitude. Stevens’ starts as a closed-off, wounded beast, who gradually becomes a more warm and open, willing to crack jokes and share who he truly is.
Musically, this film is delightful. The classic tunes of childhood movie-watching such as the over-the-top “Be Our Guest” and the sinister “The Mob Song” are brought to life beautifully by the cast (with Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere just as charming and lovable as ever, and Ian McKellan’s cantankerous Cogsworth really stealing some scenes). New tunes added include the beautiful, melancholy “Evermore”, during which Dan Stevens proves he should be a returning staple in at least a dozen more musically-inclined moves, and “Days in the Sun” provides a glimpse of the lives the Beast’s servants miss and long to return to with fair measures of good cheer and hope.
To really split hairs in terms of reviewing Beauty and the Beast, which seems to be the charge of a few film critics who probably also enjoy kicking puppies into active volcanos and stealing candy from small children: Emma Watson’s singing, compared to the rest of the cast, felt somewhat mechanical, as if she were a mechanical figure plucked out of one of Disney World’s rides. Beyond that, it’s difficult to find anything to complain about. Picking at what purpose the extra forty-five minutes serve feels like lazy criticism, as the current media landscape is occupied by audiences hungry for complex visual story-telling. Adding depth to this classic in the way Disney did proved to be greatly beneficial to the story overall. Did Gaston need to be more than just some dumb lout chasing Belle’s affections? Did Maurice need to be more than the nutty inventor? Did Belle’s mother really need a backstory? Given the impact those aspects of the updated Beauty and the Beast, as well as other additions, had, the answer to those should be a resounding yes.
Is Beauty and the Beast perfect? No. However, it is exceptional for what it was meant to do. Beauty and the Beast set out to be a reimagining of its animated feature source material, and it did so in a way that is visually stunning—from the scale and size of the crumbling Beast’s castle to the dance shared between Belle and the Beast to “Beauty and the Beast”—and immersive in its storytelling. No scene feels wasted, and with new humor injected into the film to help cater to all generations, it’s easy to say Beauty and the Beast’s 2017 release should be the template for future live action versions of Disney’s animated films. For those who are interested in a fun, family film: go enjoy this in theaters, and then bring it home for a great stay-in movie night.
By Phil Gorski
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