So I didn’t see the new Beauty and the Beast live action film this weekend because the boys in the house wanted to see Power Rangers… (we regret nothing!) So I’m handing over this Spoiler Alert to my lovely wife Naomi, who took the Schmoo and Peanut and their Nana to the theater last Sunday. Take it away girl…
When Beauty and the Beast first appeared in 1991, Disney was a studio that had just begun to get its footing back (it would subsequently lose their creative footing again, but just for a few years things started going right.) Beauty & the Beast came two years after the wildly successful Little Mermaid (’89) and would be quickly followed by Aladdin (’92) and The Lion King (’94). Based on a 18th century French fairy tale, the film tells the story of young Belle who is imprisoned by a Beast until the two fall in love, breaking the curse the Beast has been suffering under because as a youth he was rude to an Enchantress. It is a well known and beloved musical and a hard act to improve on.
The new live action film goes all out on star power, Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) plays the lead as Belle and is surrounded by an impressive cast of Hollywood elite, including Kevin Klein (Belle’s father), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ewan MacGregor (Lumiere), and Sir Ian MacKellen (Cogworth).
The film does a lovely job at both bringing most of the original animation to life while giving it a realistic foothold needed to transfer the film into live action. It changes a few details and characters to make the necessary realism work. Maurice, Belle’s father isn’t a hapless inventor who creates a new-fangled wood chopping device: instead, he’s a widower artist who makes intricate mechanical music boxes (of the sort that a wealthy member of the aristocracy might actually fancy).
Director Bill Condon also does his best to fill in a few plot holes with just a few extra spots of exposition here and there: How is it that this enormous fantastic castle is right near this village but no one seems to know about it? Well, that’s because the Enchantress put a spell around the whole castle to make everyone forget it and to symbolize this, the castle is trapped in a circle of perpetual winter. More importantly, the film nixes any mention of how long it’s been since the curse was put in place- something the 1991 film did badly (seriously, in the 1991 film, they outline that the curse has to be broken before the prince’s 21st birthday AND they are also very clear that the curse has been in place for 10 years….. so we’re left to understand that this curse was placed on a ten year old boy???? WTF Enchantress…)
Artistically, Beauty and the Beast is nicely done. By placing the story into 18th century France, it allows the set and costuming to take on a particular character. The architecture is full grand rococo: ornate, overdone, superficial, and excessive. The characters at the beginning of the film wear masquerade-like makeup and powdered wigs. It fits well with the story arch of the rotten prince who turns away a haggard-looking guest. This also allows the film to be showcase a more formal dance style rather than an anachronistic waltz.
The one downside to this, of course, is that some of the us know our history and it’s quite obvious that the Beast/Prince is definitely one of the guys who’s going to get his head chopped off come the French Revolution. This is particularly awkward in the final scene of the movie when our now-redeemed Beast has been transformed back into the Prince and then throws a massive ball….which shows off all the superficial, aristocratic excesses that got him in trouble in the first place. I’m just saying: if he really learned his lesson, maybe he could tone-down the fancy ball a bit before all those poor townspeople come with their pitchforks.
The biggest issue I had with the film was the acting. For a film packed full of people-who-are-really-good-actors, there were many, many times where I felt I needed to whisper, “here’s where you should show some emotion” or “you’re supposed to look upset”. The worst culprit to me was Kevin Klein who I think was trying to play “distracted older man” and just came off as stilted character, though there was a lot to be desired in Emma Watson’s performance as well. I’ll give her a small break, though- nearly all of her screen time was done with to-be-added-later-CGI so perhaps we’ll forgive a little less than stunning presentation.
Of course, we can’t leave out the review without mentioned the gay character. Disney caught a lot of slack for having LeFou, Gaston’s obsequious sidekick, be a gay character: a theater in Alabama refused to screen the film and Disney had to withdraw the release of the movie altogether in Malaysia when it ran afoul of the Film Censorship Board. There was also some criticism from the LGBTQ side for queer-coding a villain.
The reality: LeFou is only just barely gay in the Disney universe. IMHO: Disney is still much too sensitive to its international audience and has much further to go to develop a pro-LGTBQ voice.
There are probably only about three split-second moments where you might even notice the subtle references, though there’s a lovely part of the finale where a young man bumps into LeFou during the final dance and they smile at each other (and presumably start dancing with one another). For the rest of the film, LeFou is an easy-going buddy hanging out with his crush, Gaston, trying to keep the easily-angered Gaston calm and helping cheer him up when needed.
Is LeFou a villain? LeFou isn’t blameless, but he’s no villain. His most dishonorable moment, when he lies to protect Gaston, is done at threat of violence (from none other than Gaston himself). As the mob moves towards the castle, LeFou is clearly having second thoughts about being a part of any of it and (minor spoiler alert…) he jumps to other side in the battle for the castle. Honestly, LeFou was my favorite character. He seemed to be the most real, the most interesting, and ended up being a not-so-bad-guy at the end.
All in all, Disney did a fairly good job of translating its beloved classic into a live-action film in a manner that is sure to create a whole new generation of love-sick fans. I know my daughters both loved it and quickly started to memorize every lyric so they could begin to endlessly sing every song. There’s going to be a lot of “Be Our Guest” in our house for a while….
Thanks to Naomi Nelson for this fine reviews
All Image Credits: Disney