Come on. You know the story of Beauty and the Beast.
The story of Belle, a beautiful young maiden, ahead of her time and anxious to have more than just a provincial life, who, in exchange for saving her father, is held prisoner by a beast. The beast used to be a prince, but after he was cursed by an enchantress who saw the beastliness in his heart, became the beast and his servants became household objects. Belle and the beast fall in love, and the spell is broken.
Why this story has endured as a classic for so many years, despite criticisms about bestiality and Stockholm Syndrome, is probably because of this: we love stories about nerdy guys and hot chicks. Look to Back to the Future, Spider-Man, most of Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen’s entire film careers. Not that it hasn’t happened the other way around, but it’s a common trope that works. When you add that and a beloved 1991 Disney animated film with one of the best soundtracks of all time, that went on to be a musical, it makes it a pop-culture staple.
Fast forward to 2017, when Disney, down on its luck after only making seven billion dollars at the box office last year, decided to release a new live-action Beauty and the Beast, a film that nobody knew they wanted, but now enough people are pumped for to give it a $170 million domestic opening. That’s superhero movie level numbers we’re talking about! Turns out if you stall making a female superhero movie long enough, girls will turn the next available role model into one.
So does this new Beauty and the Beast do the original justice? Is it even necessary? And is Emma Watson (Harry Potter franchise), as Belle, a super-character?
This Beauty and the Beast follows all the same beats of the original. You’ve got everything from Belle’s singing on the mountain, to Maurice being locked up, to the Beast and Belle having dinner, to the iconic ball, to Gaston taking the mob to the castle. There are even shots that are direct replicas of the animated film. The primary appeal of this remake (besides the cast) are the details added. We get to learn about Belle’s mother and why Belle and Maurice moved to the village. Gaston and LeFou get more scheming time. The Prince’s curse is reenacted.
If that isn’t intriguing enough, then there’s the cast. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as the Beast, Luke Evans (The Hobbit Trilogy) as Gaston, Josh Gad (Frozen) as LeFou, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. Those are some pretty stellar actors, and most of them bring their A-game.
However, the real heart of the film is Emma Watson. Her version of Belle wouldn’t be here without Paige O’Hara’s animated Belle, but Watson makes the role her own. The character isn’t reinvented at all, but instead, small details build upon the character’s foundation. For example, Belle loves to read. But reading is a bit of a passive activity. Does she do anything besides read? This script builds upon that, giving Belle another hobby- inventing. She invents a washing machine that allows her to teach a girl of the village to read. It makes perfect sense within the story, and it pays the utmost respect to the original.
Besides Belle, another staple of the original is the music numbers, and they don’t disappoint here. Almost every song had me wanting to get up from my seat. While leaving the theater and coming home, I attempted to dance with every friend I was with. They were not as enthusiastic about dancing in front of the theater as I was, so I sang to them instead, which I’m sure they appreciated.
An infectious feeling of joy flooded through the movie. It was an immersive experience. During a tense moment, I looked back at the rest of my crowded theater. The stranger beside me was tearing up, behind me a couple were gripping hands and sitting on the edge of their seats, and in front of me a little kid was slapping his father’s knee whispering, “I told you so, I told you it would happen!” Simply put- I felt the story. Any logical fallacies from the original (wait, why is Gaston so beloved in this town?) are solved (ahh, war hero!) so I can enjoy the themes a little more. The film explores how Gaston is able to manipulate the fears of the villagers. Maurice points out to Belle, “Small town can mean small minds, but it also means safe.” The love between Belle and the Beast has more ground than, “you saved my life, I saved yours, so we’re even-steven.” They have things in common, similar worldviews and backgrounds and outlook. The original makes it clear the characters get together in the end because it’s a fairy tale. This movie makes it clear it’s a fairy tale because the characters get together in the end. The story feels less predestined, a little less certain, and therefore, takes you on a journey.
But let’s get to the real questions, shall we? Because it is one thing for a teenager to like this film. Will you, hypothetical adult reader of this review who probably has memories of seeing this film as a kid or at least is really cynical, like this film?
Is Beauty and the Beast a cash grab?
Yes. To be fair though, everything made by major studios is.
Is Beauty and the Beast an unnecessary remake?
Depends. It’s unnecessary in that we have a fantastic animated film already, plus a French 1946 version for the brave of heart (I watched it in preparation for this film. It is stunning aesthetically, and ahead of its time, but is unintentionally hilarious if you watch it in the right, or maybe wrong, mood).
Here is how I see it: This new Beauty and the Beast is a companion piece to the original animated film. It’s the extended director’s cut. It fills in any holes from the original, gives it some updates, and offers some more nuanced performances that only live-action can really do. I don’t think it is here to smash your childhood between its fingers and light Howard Ashman’s legacy on fire. It’s here to expand and deepen the messages the story provides. It allows you to embrace this tale as old as time in a new way.