Riding the tide of live action adaptations of age-old animated favourites comes Disney’s latest, most highly anticipated offering, a tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast.
The canny folks up at Disney Studios knew they had a challenge on their hands with this one. The Disney princesses have experienced equal amounts of love and hate over the past couple of decades, with one camp of die-hard fans having grown up with the magic of the fairytales, and another camp of liberals who criticised the franchise for everything from bad feminism to promoting empty consumerism. Beauty and the Beast in particularl has been extremely polarising, with Belle as the reigning favourite amongst the Renaissance era of the Princess line (a category she shares with Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan), but also being vilified for supposedly promoting Stockholm Syndrome.
Bill Condon and crew rose to the challenge with a cast to die for. Emma Watson, known to her legions of Potterhead fans as Hermione Granger, and dons the golden gown as Belle, Dan Stevens brings the Downton Abbey debonairness as the Beast/Prince. Luke Evans takes a break from his swashbuckling fantasy hero roles to don the bad boy avatar of Gaston, with Josh Gad as his trusty sidekick, and the picture is complete with Ewan McGregor and Ian Mckellan as Lumiere and Cogsworth. With pop-culture heavyweights such as these in the credits, one can be sure that theatre seats will be filled.
The next hurdle was to transcend the original animated version, a task that has flummoxed many prior attempts at retelling this timeless tale, but on this score, the film has done pretty well. Visually stunning, with set pieces that need to be seen to be believed, it looks perfect. The old favourite tunes have been given an update, and a few new numbers were introduced, to produce a score and soundtrack that doesn’t disappoint. If Emma Watson’s acting and activism hasn’t won you over yet, her singing just might. Having said that, the writing updates given to the film may give some pause.
How to toe the line between beloved fantasy and modern politics indeed. This new Belle is as bookish and as feisty as the old one, but she’s been given the additional layer of being a sort of inventor, like her father. The Beast is fleshed out as a child of abuse that grows up to be vain and selfish, and then is cursed until he’s rescued by the love of a good woman. Gaston is more than your village thug, he’s a bloodthirsty war veteran who probably has a bad case of PTSD. If you think the backstories end here, you’re sadly mistaken. From Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline), to the talking candlestick, clock, boudoir, piano...everyone has a story behind the story you’re watching. Halfway through the story, the main plot is bowed down with the weight of all this history – none of which is properly fleshed out.
If one is to step aside from the original and view this remake in isolation, the problems become apparent. All the fierce feminism that Emma Watson is famous for, shines through within the first bars of the opening scene, which is why it really requires a suspension of disbelief to imagine this character softening up to the boorish beast long enough to make a worthy man out of him. The whole history of why she and Maurice are living in such a small-minded village is also told in a bit of a rush and seems too pat. And even if you ignore the whole Stockholm Syndrome argument, it’s a little hard to swallow the classist undertones.
Having said all of that, it’s impossible to escape the legacy of the animated version, and as such, the nostalgia factor and technical mastery make the minor writing quibbles easy to tune out. So whether you’re looking for a family-friendly film to watch with your loved ones, or trying to relive the magic of your childhood, or just in the mood for a little romance on a movie date, this is the film for you.