If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. That seems to have been the watchword with Beauty & The Beast. While there has been some tinkering around the edges of the 1991 animated classic to give everyone a bit more of a backstory, and to slightly soften some of the creepier Stockholm Syndrome elements, largely this live-action version is incredibly faithful. That goes as far as parts of the film being pretty much a shot-for-shot remake.
Inevitably, this will have some crying foul, seeing this as a cynical attempt by Disney to churn out another money-grabbing live-action take on one of their best films. Well, the fact is – yes, it is. But do you know what? I don’t care.
It seems almost pointless giving a rundown of the plot, as I can’t imagine that anyone reading this won’t know it. But once again, Belle (Emma Watson) is a misfit in her village, where girls are expected to be brainless and pop out babies, but she’s interested in books and ideas. However, the brawny and arrogant Gaston (Luke Evans) has set his sights on marrying her.
Things take an unexpected turn when Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) ends up the prisoner of a Beast (Dan Stevens) who lives in a secret, enchanted castle in the forest. Belle agrees to take her dad’s place, which leads to an unexpected romance between the beautiful young woman, and the surly, angry Beast.
Add in the talking tableware, a rose slowly dropping its petals and lots of singing, and you have a film that’s remarkably similar to its predecessor.
The fact is, tinkering with it anymore would probably have been a mistake. Although it will lead to accusations of redundancy, Beauty & The Beast is one of the greatest animated movies ever (it’s in my Top 10 favourites film ever), and so if you’re smart with a live-action interpretation, you do your damnedest to capture the same lightning in a bottle. And largely it works.
The songs are still great, and while Emma Watson and Emma Thompson (as Mrs. Potts), don’t quite make you forget just how good Paige O’Hara and Angela Lansbury were, they certainly acquit themselves well in the musical numbers. Dan Stevens is also good as the beast. Although the CG he’s covered in sometimes isn’t quite as expressive as the actor might have hoped, he adds an extra layer of humanity and humour to the character, which is a surprisingly welcome addition. With the likes of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the servants turned household objects, it’s certainly a fine ensemble.
What director Bill Condon also works hard at ensuring is that there’s still a real sense of magic about the movie. Quite often live-action fairytales merely serve to underline the artifice, and the more fantastical elements end up seeming cheesy – a problem I had with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella – but with Beauty & The Beast the film creates a universe where anything might be possible.
Although the extra backstory for each character isn’t really necessary, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Whether it’s the revelation of what happened to Belle’s mother, or why the Beast turned into the callous person who ended being cursed by an Enchantress, it largely fits the film without seeming too much like filler. A few of the new songs however do seem unnecessary, although there are a couple that deserve their place in amongst Beauty & The Beast’s brilliant score.
While some will still have issues with whether the story is as feminist as it purports to be on the surface, it’s given some extra context here that helps it seem less problematic. That includes more explanation of what a limited world for women Belle is fighting against, where she is essentially as trapped as the Beast, cursed by a society that gives her no options. Although there is still a bit of weirdness about this being a romance between a female prisoner and her male captor, there is a little more here to underline that the Beast’s real journey here is from treating others – whether servants or women – as commodities and possessions, to seeing them as real people. Belle does not need to change – the world around her does.
By the end, the villagers aren’t rising up against the Beast as much as they are rising up against difference, change and, on Gaston’s part, the feeling that his position of ultimate male privilege is under threat. That was always there in the earlier versions, but it’s easier to see here.
And I can’t really write about Beauty & The Beast without talking about the ‘gay moment’ at the very end of the movie, which has become a cause of international intrigue in the last couple of weeks. It’s kind of interesting, as when director first Bill Condon mentioned it to Attitude, I suspect he had no idea the furore it would cause. Before seeing the movie, I wondered whether the filmmaker’s early revelation about the ‘moment’ was pre-planned to prevent any sort of puffed-up, overblown tabloid outrage when the movie was released, but now I don’t think so. It really is a ‘moment’, a very tiny one, which would barely have registered to most.
What is actually a much bigger part of the movie, is that the whole arc of the character of Gaston’s loyal acolyte Lefou is a decidedly queer one. It’s done in the way Disney and Hollywood has been doing for years, where there’s nothing explicit, but for those tuned into it you can see that Lefou’s journey is one of realising what he really wants, both in love and life – and that perhaps he’s really more like Belle and the Beast than the ugly status quo of Gaston and his cronies. The gay element of this is certainly not as coded as it’s often been, but I wouldn’t be surprised that if you polled audience members who hadn’t heard about the ‘gay moment’, most would assume you were talking about a couple of things that happen earlier in the movie, and which have been happening in family films for decades.
For those who have been paying attention, what’s going on with Lefou is absolutely clear (although some have said Lefou was always gay, even in the 1991 version, personally I never really saw him that way, but here it’s a different matter). Coupled with the theme of realising that difference is often something to embrace rather than reject, and there is a decidedly queer element to the movie. I’m almost loath to write that, just in case any of the people who are already screaming that the movie is ‘gay indoctrination’ read it and take it as evidence they were right. They’re not right at all. In fact another way to express the main theme of the film, is that Beauty & The Beast is a movie about learning not to be a giant asshole – that’s not gay indoctrination, it’s just basic manners and respect. But apparently, some people would prefer their kids not learn that.
It’s also worth trying to see the film in IMAX 3D, as rather than leaving in its original aspect ratio (2.35:1), as happens with most films shown in the format, the entire thing has been opened up to IMAX’s 1.9:1 ratio, meaning that on a truly massive screen it’s impressively immersive. Indeed, at the BFI IMAX, where I saw it, it takes up so much of your field of vision it’s occasionally a little overwhelming. Mostly though it does a great job of taking you deep into this magical world. The 3D is also fairly well thought out. As with many films, it does fall down on certain panning shots (which is partly due to the limitations of the technology used), but most of the time it gives the film an added texture and is certainly a lot of fun during the big musical numbers, such as Be Our Guest and Beauty & The Beast.
Although I’ve been keen to see this live-action Beauty & The Beast, I have been concerned that it would end up trampling on the memory of 1991 movie. By being almost a homage to that film, it certainly doesn’t, and the film possesses a genuine charm and heart of its own. It certainly put a smile on my face.
Overall Verdict: Whether animated or live-action, Disney’s Beauty & The Beast retains its magic. It may not be a better film than its predecessor, but it’s a good one.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac