I have a confession to make. I didn’t really watch Disney films as a child.
Okay, that isn’t completely accurate. Dumbo was one of my favorite movies growing up, and when I was 9, my sister dragged me to the theaters to watch The Lion King for her birthday. Beyond that, though, I never watched any of the non-CGI Disney movies until I was an adult (I have seen Aladdin and The Fox and the Hound in recent years). All those references to Disney movies people make about characters and songs flew over my head, much to the bemusement of my friends.
So when Kevin came to me with the idea of watching the animated version of Beauty and the Beast and then comparing it to the new live-action film, I was intrigued. So he lent me his copy of the Special Edition, which I watched over the past weekend. Other than a few glaring plot holes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. So I went into the theater with reasonably high hopes, and for the most part, my expectations were ably met.
The plot is familiar enough. The Prince (Dan Stevens) refuses to accommodate who he thinks is an old beggar who offers him a rose in exchange for his compassion. Upset, she casts a curse over the Prince and his servants, declaring that if the last petal falls from the rose without him finding true love, he will remain a beast forever – and his servants will permanently become inanimate objects.
It’s in the details that we find the differences between the two. The prologue immediately gives us hints that it won’t be a completely faithful recreation of the animated version. Whereas the animated version began with a male narrator telling the background via stained glass scenes, Bill Condon instead chose to begin with a female narrator, Hattie Morahan (who also plays the enchantress), talking over a live-action scene of the prince holding a lavish dance.
Not so subtly, the decision to have Hattie narrate is part of a larger-arcing attempt to give Beauty and the Beast a more feminist approach. Throughout the course of the movie, it seems that most of the female characters are given stronger voices, both in words and actions. Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) is a doting caretaker, but in the climactic battle, she’s given a larger role defending the castle. Similarly, Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald) is represented with more strength than in the animated film.
Of course, it’s Belle (Emma Watson) who the film focuses on. Considered a bit of an outcast in her village due to her penchant for reading, she is often told by her father to be fearless, and she does her best to do so throughout the film. Rather than shyly decline Gaston’s (Luke Evan) repeated advances/harassment, this go around she outright rejects him. Rather than verbally agreeing to take her father’s (Kevin Kline) place as Beast’s prisoner, she physically forces him to. Condon does everything he can to portray Belle as a strong woman willing to defend her lifestyle, and to a point, he’s successful.
The core of the story and music remain faithful to the original, which should delight fans of the 1991 version. Ewan McGregor does a fantastic job as Lumiere, the suave candelabra and faithful servant of the Prince/Beast. Evan’s portrayal of Gaston deserves some credit here as well; he does a great job of portraying an utterly unlikable guy to serve as a foil to the protagonists. The visuals in the film are terrific, with one exception. With a Disney-sized budget, we expect a visual feast, and we get handsomely rewarded with a gorgeous background of the castle and its surrounding land. The only major gripe about the visuals I have is Beast himself. It’s pretty difficult to convincingly animate an anthropomorphic creature, especially when in the same scene as a real person, and the rendering of Beast falls completely flat. The best way for me to describe him would be a video game rendering from a decade ago in terms of detail and realism. It doesn’t completely destroy the movie by any means, but it can be a distraction in important scenes like the dance or when he and Belle are supposed to be sharing moments.
The live film added some considerable length to its run time (126 minutes compared to 84 for the animated version), so to fill a bit of the space they added four new songs. However, the results are mixed. Celine Dion contributes a new song over the credits, and Ariana Grande and John Legend combined for the duet version of “Beauty and the Beast” that’s pretty fantastic. But the other new songs seem almost out of place, despite being composed by the same person who composed the original soundtrack, Alan Menken. The film does try to address some of the aforementioned plot holes (i.e. in the original, the Prince was 10 or 11 when visited by the Enchantress, what happened to Belle and the Beast’s parents?), but the film could certainly have used some editing to get below two hours without sacrificing much content.
As for the controversy surround the inclusion of a gay character, I found it to be a non-issue. LeFou (Josh Gad) was a pretty flamboyant character in the original film to begin with, and the scene in question is so short and inconsequential, there shouldn’t be a controversy at all. Of course, if someone has an issue with this bit, they probably won’t be interested in a movie in which a woman is willing to fall in love with an anthropomorphized buffalo anyway.
The run-time and extra songs are questionable additions that the film could likely have done without. There’s of course the fact that, despite the film being set in France, nearly everyone in the cast speaks with an English or American accent, but that’s a minor nitpick. What it is, though, is an entertaining film that at time captures the spirit of the original film while doing just enough to justify its production. I brought my friend Kat (a huge Disney fan with me) who echoed the same sentiments, noting how well they kept to the 1991 version (she did say she felt the film was not as feminist as people have alluded to, as well). At the very least, it’s worth checking out if only for another chance to, for generations old and new, be their guest.
Beauty and the Beast gets a B.