“Now find it in your mind’s eye and feel it in your heart”
This latest Disney epoch consisting of live action remakes/re-imaginings of their classic animated tales has the studio utilizing a few different creative motivations. The best has thus far has been their ability to find ways to create something wholly new and better from the blueprints of those that didn’t age well (The Jungle Book‘s basic sing-along and Pete’s Dragon‘s archaic values). Then there’s the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school with Cinderella wherein the filmmakers saw fit to deliver a more or less direct adaptation from its cartoon counterpart. And following behind that is the “reinvention” model of taking existing properties and expanding their worlds a la prequel (Maleficent) and not suite sequel (Alice in Wonderland)—a category of commendable risk if not much success.
With many more in the pipeline, the game has been discovering which category each will eventually fall. The original idea for Beauty and the Beast was to go the risky route of trying something new. The producers hoped to move towards a more dramatic environment sans songs like Universal and Snow White and the Huntsman. Whether you believe that they “couldn’t crack it” or that eventual director Bill Condon talked them into retaining the musical elements because he wouldn’t sign-on otherwise, the end result appeared to take a 180-degree turn into shot-for-shot remake territory. And frankly that would have been the best option. The 1991 version is a masterpiece, one proving so successful that the Broadway musical made few changes. Alas, this new cinematic iteration makes a lot.
I feared this would be the case considering the runtime is forty minutes longer, but I hoped it wouldn’t feel forty minutes longer. I was wrong. Not only do the filmmakers jam four new songs in (the additional tunes written for the Broadway version aren’t used except for an instrumental cue), they also add unnecessary subplots and seemingly slow the tempo of every melody we’ve already learned to love previously. It proves darker despite an almost identical trajectory—Belle (Emma Watson) offers herself as Beast’s (Dan Stevens) prisoner so her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) can go home, which in turn leads Gaston (Luke Evans) to the castle for a showdown wherein only Belle’s love can save the day—and as such plods along with cynicism rather than optimism.
The animated version is nothing if not full of promise. This young woman sought more than the life of an illiterate housewife like everyone in town and the Beast wished for a second chance to prove his compassion after an Enchantress cursed him to look like the blackened heart beating in his chest. Fate put them on a collision course that screenwriter Linda Woolverton deftly pared down to its most crucial plot points for a smooth progression that let the music take us. Gaston became a stand-in for what Beast was (a vain, narcissistic man who cares not for those his decisions harm) and we watched as the former’s jealousy and the latter’s newfound empathy impacted their futures and their relationship with Belle. It was distilled to perfection.
By comparison, the new screenplay (begun by Evan Spiliotopoulos and re-written by Stephen Chbosky) feels as though it is what Woolverton improved. You know those “extended editions” of movies where the director refuses to allow the studio to say “director’s cut” because it’s really the same movie with scenes he or she purposefully deleted added back in? That’s what Condon’s Beauty and the Beast feels like. Do we need to know about how Belle’s mother died? No, but we’ll get it anyway to find common ground with the Beast even though their fathers (hers raised her to be good, his to be bad) are already the comparison that matters. Do we need Gaston to be evil? No, but wouldn’t having a bona fide villain make things dramatically exciting?
This is the biggest error of many because making Gaston evil ruins his purpose as a character. We can no longer see him as the “settling” option for Belle in town. He’s no longer just a vapid brute acting off ego rather than malicious intent. The idea that he’s a doppelganger for the Beast’s former self is erased too because the Beast didn’t threaten to kill the Enchantress when she arrived at his door looking like an old beggar. He just turned her away. This Gaston, however, probably would have raped her and left her to the wolves. No longer merely a hunter, he’s been rendered a killer. He’s a man who uses the death and destruction he wrought on the battlefield of war as his “happy place.”
He’s so deplorable that best friend LeFou (Josh Gad) can’t sing his praises and let the town join in. He must instead lay down coins to buy their participation. LeFou is a pimp for Gaston’s self-absorption and transforms from likeable scamp to pathetic opportunist as a result. A potential moral compass for Gaston, he acknowledges everything wrong and yet keeps quiet. If Gaston is Hitler, LeFou is the Nazi doing what he’s told no matter how heinous. And don’t you dare say it’s “out of love” because this LeFou is more blatantly homosexual than his animated counterpart. Making him openly gay doesn’t provide social or political commentary. The film makes him gay to be the butt of jokes and that’s not the message kids should be sent.
Gad’s LeFou could have been a win for civil rights beyond a publicity blitz talking about Disney standing tall against bigoted citizens in Alabama. He could have been a worthwhile depiction of homosexuality rather than a tool to normalize snickering at his effeminate qualities. He could have simply existed as a harbinger of unrequited love, his being a fool simply stemming from him being a fool and not flamboyancy. Look no further than the decision to cast Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette to naturally inject two interracial couples, (pairing off with Stanley Tucci‘s Maestro Cadenza and Ewan McGregor‘s Lumière), as a reality kids need to see because some of their parents won’t. LeFou was a missed opportunity like much of the film.
The only addition I can praise is that of letting the Enchantress’ role expand beyond simple catalyst. Doing so may feel a tad fabricated with the injection of town beggar/spinster Agathe (Hattie Morahan) as a contemporary analogy for the Enchantress’ test simply to show how vile Gaston is and how kind Maurice is by comparison, but it helps get the point across. Showing compassion isn’t just a trait princes and kings need, it’s one for simple hunters and loyal fathers to embrace too. It also bears mentioning that Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) is allowed a thoughtful monologue about how she, Lumière, and Cogsworth (a wasted Ian McKellen) weren’t innocent in the Beast’s transformation from innocence to entitlement either. Like LeFou, they stood by and let malice win.
Beyond that, however, everything good is thanks to the source material. So have your kids watch the animated film since it does those things correctly without all the wrong. Watson is fine as Belle and Stevens as Beast too—although I would have liked his awkwardness and idiosyncrasies (which do appear despite the CGI) to shine brighter than forced rage. The supporting cast of inanimate objects is fun when onscreen, which is surprisingly not often—afterthoughts to a story that proves to be more about Gaston’s undoing than Belle and Beast’s romance. And like Alice in Wonderland before it, just because something looks amazing doesn’t mean it is. The art direction is impeccable and the musical numbers invigorating, but sadly they serve a whole that can’t measure up.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures