Super-big spoilers. Beware.
Disney’s live action remake cycle continues apace with Beauty and the Beast, so of course, I popped along to see it, rose in hand and ‘Be Our Guest’ in my heart. It’s a very enjoyable film with some standout moments and glorious production design, but it’s comfortably the weakest of this run of remakes and certainly the one that compares most unfavourably with its predecessor. So rather than a simple review, I figured the best approach to Beauty and the Beast 2017 is to compare it to Beauty and the Beast 1991, because there’s a lot to be learned about both films, and the process of remaking stories, by doing so.
“For who could ever learn to love a Beast…”
Beauty and the Beast 2017 (henceforth known as B&TB17 to save my achy fingers) is largely a very faithful adaption, with only a couple of new songs and fleshed-out backstories offered by way of major additions. However, there are some subtle alterations dotted throughout and while they’re only small, they have a pretty significant impact on the story’s focus and meaning.
The first is the prologue. In B&TB91, Prince’s Adam’s descent into Beast is told by a male narrator who plays no part in the rest of the film, and plays out through stained glass windows. However, in B&TB17, the narration is given by Emma Thompson (who voices Mrs Potts), lasts a good couple of minutes longer, and is played out by the flesh-and-blood actors.
It’s a very minor change, and a legitimate choice on the part of screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and director Bill Condon, but it shifts the focus of the film dramatically. The masterstroke of playing this story out on stained glass windows is it builds no connection between the audience and The Beast. It positions this element of the story as what it is: backstory and exposition. We’re being told what we need to know without getting an insight into just how horrifying Adam’s metamorphosis into Beast is.
This changes in B&TB17. Adam’s story is no longer exposition, it’s fully fleshed-out tragedy. It gets the film off to entirely the wrong start, building up the emotional connection with Beast before we’ve met Belle. With the film later giving us an insight into how he became so selfish and cruel (a dead mother and nasty father) and an entirely new song (the powerful ‘Evermore’), B&TB17 seems more his story than Belle’s: a story of redemption for a flawed man rather than empowerment for a lost woman.
It’s important to state here that I’m not suggesting anyone involved in B&TB17 has intentionally shifted the focus. Belle is still a strong woman, she still gets all her defining moments, and like Beast, she too has a new backstory. Indeed, at times, this film enhances the feminism of the original by showing Belle inventing a proto-washing machine, and teaching a young girl to read. There is, however, a notable difference and it’s hard not to notice who the screenwriters are here.
B&TB91 was written by Linda Woolverton (who also penned Maleficent), while the new version is written by two men: Chbosky and Spiliotopoulos. Woolverton’s take doesn’t entirely sideline Beast and nor does the new version entirely sideline Belle, but it’s difficult – if not impossible – for a film to perfectly balance out two leads: there’ll always be one who subtly takes the limelight. By making the aforementioned subtle changes, and by making him less sympathetic when he first meets Belle (in the animated film, he offers Belle a room rather than keeping her in the dungeon; here it’s Lumiere, much to Beast’s anger), B&TB17 becomes Beast’s redemption story because, I assume, that’s what sings most clearly to the male writers.
This switch in focus underlines why it’s so important to get more women into significant roles in Hollywood. No matter the intentions or skill of male creative talents, they can’t bring the same insight into their female characters as women can, and that does play out in the final product. Would Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph have featured the kind of compelling female characters they do without Jennifer Lee? Would Moana have made the decisive switch from focusing on Maui to focusing on Moana without producer Osnat Shurer? Would Maleficent have been a more straightforward Sleeping Beauty remake without Woolverton’s script? They wouldn’t have been sexist, I’m sure, and nor is B&TB17, but that’s not the point.
Without a woman in a strong and significant position, those films would be very different in subtle ways, and could potentially have meant less to the female audience members who have related to them. I’d be interested to hear what young girls who’ve never seen the original Beauty and the Beast but have now gone to watch the remake think. Do they come out feeling like they can do anything and be anyone, like Belle can? Or do they come out feeling sympathy for Beast and his story of redemption? Unlike the original, I have a feeling it’s the latter.
The film’s depiction of Belle herself also plays into this. To my mind, two moments define Belle’s character: the song ‘Belle’ (of course) and ‘Be Our Guest’. The first establishes her yearning, while the second shows us how she reacts to getting what she yearns for. You can nail one but not the other and still succeed, but if both don’t work, your character’s in real trouble, and sadly that’s what happens with B&TB17 .
A core part of the problem is Emma Watson. A tremendous ambassador and justifiably vaunted hero for millions of young women, Watson is nevertheless a limited actor. Give her pure and straightforward emotions to play, and she soars. So in the reprise of ‘Belle’, when all she has to convey is disgust turning into joyous ambition she’s fine. Likewise in ‘Something There’, when all she has to convey is a growing sense of affection, she’s great too. But Belle’s a complex character, and the two core moments I’ve mentioned feature complicated emotions that Watson can’t quite tap in to.
Let’s take ‘Belle’ first. On paper, this is a pretty insulting song. Belle journeys through her “little town” passing judgement on its “little people” who go about their boring business “like always”. A bit stuck up for sure, but a vital part of success here is complexity. Belle has to seen bored, but she can’t seem boring. She has to seem cut off, but she can’t seem distant. She has to want more, but she can’t dismiss the villagers as being less. In B&TB91, Paige O’Hara’s beautifully warm voice and the energy of the character animation combine to convey this. She seems to regard the villagers with genuine affection, and while she’s disconnected from them, it’s because she’s dreaming up an adventure. She’s bored, but by no means boring. Yearning but not critical.
Watson simply doesn’t have the range to convey this delicacy. She plods through the scene, rather than bounding through it, and when she gets wrapped up in her book (“It’s my favourite part, you’ll see…”) she looks like she’s reading the back of a cereal box rather than an exciting bit of a beloved novel. This may have been a conscious choice on Watson’s part (Belle does need to convey some boredom here), but it’s undoubtedly the wrong choice. More than any other ‘I Want’ Song, ‘Belle’ dictates the character for the rest of the film. It’s not only our defining insight into her hopes and dreams, but it’s the first impression we get of her. It needs to be a good one, and Watson’s performance sadly isn’t.
She’s not helped by a small but significant change to the script that redefines Belle’s journey. In the original, Belle’s asked about the book she’s returning to the library, which here is noticeably smaller and contains just a handful of books to make the town seem even worse and its people even stupider. She replies with a description of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s a masterstroke from lyricist Howard Ashman, highlighting her desire to escape the “little town” into something bigger (a giant’s world) and emphasising her desire for adventure. She wants to go to the kind of ‘big’ place Jack goes to.
In B&TB17, however, the book is changed, with Belle saying it’s about “two lovers in fair Verona”. Obviously this is Romeo and Juliet, and it’s referenced again later when Belle tells Beast that it’s “my favourite play”. If we take that book to be a symbol of Belle’s hopes and dreams, this change is pretty disastrous, as it entirely reshapes her motivation. She’s no longer wanting adventure, she’s wanting romance. She’s no longer looking for something independent from other people, she’s looking to be one half of a partnership. It strips away a certain amount of her agency.
Of course, Belle references love in B&TB91’s rendition too (“here’s where she meets Prince Charming…”), but it’s almost incidental. The love she’s describing here is a result of the adventure she yearns for – it’s something she encounters after discovering herself through adventure, and therefore much more empowering. By giving Romeo and Juliet such prominence, the writers have again conveyed a truth more relevant to Beast than to Belle. The reference is there to represent a transformative tale about love crossing even the biggest of barriers, and heighten the sense of redemption Beast feels as the story progresses.
“Try the grey stuff…”
‘Be Our Guest’ acts as a semi-official reprise of ‘Belle’ in so much as it’s the character encountering the “adventure in the great wide somewhere” that she longs for. It comes at a critical point in the film, with Belle having been treated appallingly by Beast and refused dinner. Any normal person in that situation would try to escape, and indeed that’s exactly what the Belle of B&TB17 tries to do. What keeps her in the castle is ‘Be Our Guest’, where she realises two things: (1) Lumiere and co are pretty damn decent and need her, and (2) she’s finally found what she’s looking for.
Again, Watson is confronted with a complex emotional scene, and again she can’t convey its full breadth. This is, in part, because she struggles with non-verbal reaction, and as Belle’s silent throughout the song, that’s a pretty big problem. There’s clear decision-making here on Watson’s part. In B&TB91, Belle is very animated (no pun intended): she laughs, sings, and claps along with the song, and Watson seems to have made a conscious choice to underplay it for fear of being seen to overact. But instead, she seems bored, doing nothing but smile with coy admiration at Lumiere and co.
Where’s the enjoyment? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the sense that Belle’s heart’s desire has finally come into fruition? Sadly, Watson simply can’t convey those things and admiration and sympathy for her new friends, and so Belle’s decision to stay – previously made because she realised she could achieve her dreams in the castle – switches to being about helping Lumiere et al. Like her relationship with Beast, Belle’s growth has become most relevant to us through how it reflects on other characters rather than herself. That may not be how it was intended, but sadly that’s how it plays out. Watson sadly doesn’t have the range to equally convey both sides the emotional equation of this scene.
“My what a guy…”
Beyond Belle and the Beast, Gaston is the film’s third most significant character, and in the animation, he’s one of the most unique villains in the Disney canon. Possessing a specific kind of evil, he’s a hateful misogynist who embodies the most corrupt of patriarchal values. He’s “the best” man in town because he’s the strongest and the most handsome. Because of this, he deserves the best woman, and that’s the most attractive one: Belle, whose name, of course, literally means beauty. When she refuses his advances, he attempts to corner her with a proposal and later hatches a plan to have her father Maurice committed so he can blackmail her into marrying him.
This is Gaston ’91’s defining act of evil, and it’s an inherently misogynistic one, but it’s removed from the new film. Instead of trying to have Maurice sent to the asylum (which would have been more difficult here as B&TB17’s Maurice is less obviously eccentric), he offers to help him find Belle. He and LeFou travel with him through the woods in search of Beast’s castle before the endless journey and Maurice’s uncertainty about the castle’s location get too much for Gaston. He abandons the plan and confesses that he only joined Maurice because he wants to marry Belle. When Maurice tells him that this will never happen, Gaston punches him, ties him to a tree and leaves him to the wolves.
Again, this is a very minor change, but it’s a significant one. No longer is Gaston a hateful misogynist whose defining act of evil is to try to own a woman, but a more generic kind of evil: an attempted murderer. This fundamentally shifts Gaston’s dramatic purpose. In 1991, he was the personification of everything Belle is fighting against: the cage she must fly from to live the life she wants. In 2017, he’s the mirror image of the Beast: the man who’s a monster contrasting with the monster who’s a man. As a result, the story again feels more geared around Beast’s journey than Belle’s and the final conflict is less about Gaston’s outrage at having been rejected in favour of a hideous beast and more about a masculine battle of wits: the good man v the bad man.
Why the change? It’s pure speculation, but Gaston is a real money spinner for Disney. Since 1991, he’s become a mainstay at the theme parks, indeed one of the most popular meet and greet figures the parks have because of his entertainment value. He’s a dumb lunk who says and does idiotic things that we can all laugh at. Releasing a new film where he’s unequivocally a misogynist represents a threat to that. It’s kinda like showing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark walking out of a concentration camp. Suddenly, the pantomime bad guy has become a little too real, the evil a little too tangible. The laughs we experience at the parks would seem hollow if we’re reminded too clearly of Gaston’s misogyny, and that would hit profitability, so it’s not a surprise that the character’s been tweaked. It’s just a shame that those tweaks, as so many of them here do, come at the expense of Belle.
“Tale as old as time…”
Over 2,500 words into this blog I’ll admit that there’s a certain redundancy in comparing the two films (sorry!). They were made at very different times and, obviously, in two different forms: like-for-like comparison is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly important. B&TB17 is a charming, sweet, and sometimes very moving adaptation of the classic story. I’ve seen it twice now and will undoubtedly pick it up when it’s released on Blu-Ray. I may have spent this entire piece critiquing it, but I can still highlight Tobias Schliessler’s sumptuous cinematography, Alan Menken’s soaring score, and Bill Condon’s expressive direction as wonderful elements of a lovely film.
As an adaptation of an era-defining Disney masterpiece, however, it’s severely lacking. The remakes Disney is currently engaged with are interesting and worthwhile, with some reinventing the original without necessarily improving it (Maleficent and Cinderella), and others transforming the flawed source into something incredible (Pete’s Dragon). Beauty and the Beast does neither and so sits as an awkward companion piece. It highlights the advances the art of cinema has taken in the quarter of a decade since the original, but sadly, serves mostly to show how impressive that first outing truly is. Some enchanted roses, it seems, will never wither.