BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Disney has nearly perfected a sure-fire formula for cannibalizing its classic legacy, turning its signature animated treasures into live-action movies for a new, 3D-ready generation. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, like Kenneth Brannagh’s live action Cinderella, manages to hit all the right notes in preserving the iconic scenes and heart-tugs of the original with minimal wandering. It’s gorgeous to look at, it’ll make millions of little girls very happy, and it doesn’t take a single chance with its source material.
Bill Condon’s reworking is a fleshed-out, beautifully rendered piece of color-popping eye candy, and it is a musical through and through. Unlike Jon Favreau’s gloriously risk-taking new rendition of The Jungle Book, which paid homage to the most memorable songs of its original but rightfully left the rest in the rubbish bin, this Beauty is nearly non-stop singing. The performances are calculatedly worthy, led by Emma Watson as the beautiful and book-smart Belle (because homely book-smart girls don’t deserve much attention?), and a CGI’d Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Legion) as the Beast, with a rightfully hammy Luke Evans as the boastful Gaston (made even more evil here with a couple of dark plot additions from the original) and the film’s primary cut-to-chuckles humorist, Le Fou, played by Josh Gad. Le Fou is the current poster boy of homophobic wrath for a couple of very, VERY mild inferences of bromance and a gay undertone that’s played strictly for laughs. More troubling is the inference that just because a man is brawny and brave, he must be a stupid, sexist braggart. How’s that for reverse sexism?
The entire cast is game; Kevin Kline is sentimental senility as Belle’s inventor father, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen bring charm and nuance to Lumiere and Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts is the heart of the household staff. The talented voices of these veterans offer more of a sense of their fates—consigned to become these household objects unless Beast wins Belle’s love—than was in the original movie.
Beauty and the Beast, more than any other Disney princess movie, sparks arguments over feminism, non-feminism, princesses-in-peril, and He-man posturing, largely because Belle is portrayed as being smart. She’s bookish, she doesn’t want the hero type, and she definitely does not need rescuing. Despite the addition of some mommy issues (Beast is able to transport her, via the magic mirror, to her birthplace in Paris, where her mother died of the plague), the most heartfelt and passionate moment in the entire movie is also the most telling; it’s the sublime instance when Belle, feeling resigned to her fate but determined to endure, sees the Beast’s library for the first time. Watson captures the inner glee wonderfully and you can see her heart and soul soaring with newfound access to all kinds of knowledge and stories. Watson has been no slouch in advocating for women’s rights and education, and even has her own book club, and clearly relished sending the message here. It’s a wonderful moment, and for me, the highlight of the entire movie. If anything, the slight here is to the Beast, who can quote poetry and clearly spends much time reading, but is written as if he doesn’t know that much or care that much about his books. Can’t a guy and a girl be smart, you know, together?
This was about as safe a $300-million investment could be for Disney, and despite some new songs and a few story digressions, it takes no stylistic risks with its source. This, depending on your preference for creative license vs. tried-and-true interpretations, will be the test for how much you enjoy the fleshed-out version of the memorable musical that, along with The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King, put Disney back on the map, commercially and creatively, in the late 80s and early 90s. “Live Action” may even be an overstatement, as Disney is producing a hybrid form of live actors and sets heavily enmeshed with digital animation. But Disney himself excelled at and practically created this art form all the way back to his 1920s series of Alice shorts.
So indulge your inner Belle, or your inner Beast, or your inner Cogsworth. Popcorn it up. It’s still a tale as old as time…or, at least until the very next version comes out next week.
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