Seeing as the House of Mouse was built on the retelling of classic stories and fairy tales, it was perhaps inevitable that they would eventually come around to remaking, reimagining and, yes, rebooting their own properties.
This writer actually remembers seeing the original Beauty and the Beast in Cebu; it was a packed house, but this was back in the days when you could walk into a movie halfway and catch the start of the next screening to see what you missed, so seats freed up eventually.
My brother and I got pretty close to wearing out our cousin’s audiotape of the soundtrack that summer, learning every beat, pause, and lyric to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman’s incredible songs. Coming two years after 1989’s The Little Mermaid, we had no idea that we were witnessing what would come to be recognized as the Disney renaissance (detailed in the amazing documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. All we knew was, well, it was magical in all the right ways.
So how does the live action take on Beauty and the Beast, stack up? Read on for 8 thoughts on this tale as old as time:
The History and the Legacy
The 90’s renaissance was a hard-fought vindication for Disney, as the 80’s hadn’t been kind, resulting in the studio coasting on its theme parks and re-releases of decades-old films. Efforts like The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), and Oliver and Company (1988) had underperformed, so Beauty and the Beast’s reception went a long way towards proving that Mermaid hadn’t been a (then-) modern-era fluke.
They needn’t have worried: The film was a critical and box office hit, with an uncolored work-in-progress version receiving a standing ovation at that year’s New York Film Fest. Remembered today as one of the studio’s finest, the visually elegant film remains the first and only traditionally animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
Everything Old is New Again
1996’s 101 Dalmatians, which had Glenn Close chewing the scenery as a pitch-perfect Cruella De Vil, may have came first, but it wasn’t until 2010’s Alice in Wonderland that the Disney animated remake train got well and truly underway. A visually dazzling (yet narratively hollow) mangling of a classic, Wonderland wasn’t sure whether it wanted to be a retelling, a sequel, or some misguided combination of both. Tim Burton’s involvement, however, combined with novelty value and nostalgia, helped turn that film into a hit, powering it to the tune of over a billion dollars at the box office. Despite the inevitable sequel’s (Through the Looking Glass) bombing, Alice’s success had proven that there was a market for live action takes on animated classics.
2014’s Maleficent perfectly cast Angelina Jolie in an imperfect film, a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty (1959) that reshaped the titular character into being simply misunderstood (sigh). Where that film would provoke controversy over its deviations from the beloved animated version, Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016) would fare better at introducing new ideas while showing reverence for their predecessors.
While it can be argued that the new Beauty and the Beast tends to stray on the safe side, to the point of re-enacting classic scenes outright, one can hardly blame the filmmakers for not trying to fix what wasn’t broken in the first place. If anything, it goes to show the enduring strength of the source animation.
A Visual Feast
It goes without saying that this is a handsome production; the filmmakers had a lot to live up to, and when the lights go down, every bit of the $160 million budget is up there on the screen. Nowhere is the feeling of finding out the hard way that Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland doesn’t have anything to explore other than a gift shop or two. This is a living, breathing world, with every tower, tile, rampart, and chandelier rendered in exquisite detail to draw you deeper into the film’s enchanted world.
An Enchanted Cast
As Belle, Watson adds pluck to Disney’s most famous Stockholm Syndrome sufferer, playing the titular bookworm with a self-reliant streak that endears her to the viewer. Watching this Belle fend off the advances of Gaston (a delightfully over-the-top Luke Evans, of Fast and Furious fame) is a joy, as they and the rest of the superb cast give physical form to nostalgia.
Make no mistake, the cast is superb, including Academy Award winner Kevin Kline (De-Lovely) as Belle’s father, Maurice. When we get around to the Beast’s cursed servants, the cast list veers into decadence, with Sir Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings) and Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Star Wars) as Cogsworth and Lumiere, Emma Thompson (Love Actually) as Mrs. Potts, Gugu Mbatha-Rawstage (of Black Mirror’s brilliant “San Junipero” episode) as Plumette, theater actress Audra McDonald as operatic wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche, and Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) as new character Maestro Cadenza.
Which brings us to Gaston’s faithful companion LeFou…
Malaysia’s refusal to screen the new Beauty and the Beast uncut (resulting in Disney pulling the film completely in response) stems from LeFou’s (Frozen’s Olaf, Josh Gad) being portrayed as a gay man.
Going in, one couldn’t help but wonder what the fuss was about, seeing as LeFou’s sycophantic relationship with manly man Gaston has always had an air of unrequited desire about it, similar to Smithers’ love for Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. But where The Simpsons had three decades to play around with that one-way relationship before bringing it out of the closet, Disney just decided to throw subtlety out the window here and just have LeFou be gay this time around. Now, having finally seen the film, I can safely say that the “controversial change” makes no difference to the overall plot, characters, or overall film, and anyone who thinks so should probably have their head examined.
Or maybe they’re just the ones the character’s phonetically punny name was referring to.
It’s a Richer World
In bringing Beauty and the Beast to life in three dimensions, nearly every character has received an expanded back story flesh them out, be it Gaston’s status as a returning war hero or Maurice’s reasons for raising Belle on his own. While the characters remain roughly as caricature-ish as they were in animation, one does appreciate the attempt to explain certain things, such as the collective amnesia that caused an entire town to forget the existence of an enormous castle, its prince, and the hundreds of staff who worked for him. The lone exception to this is the Beast, who is presented less as a brutish rage monster than a melancholic hulk longing to be loved, making him infinitely more likeable. Could have done without the bit about his father, though.
Rest assured, the songs from Menken and Ashman are here in all their timeless glory, along with a couple of new ones that don’t really do much other than add to the runtime. Curiously, none of the additions come from Disney’s own Broadway version or the Special Edition DVD that came out a few years ago.
While your personal mileage on Emma Watson’s singing voice may vary, it is Evans’ Gaston who steals the show, delivering his every number with fine-timbered narcissism. We honestly wouldn’t be surprised if this led to future musical appearances from the guy.
Meanwhile, McGregor still can’t do foreign accents to save his life (Big Fish, anyone?), with his take on Lumiere’s French accent ending up somewhere on the level of Dick Van Dyke’s cockney from Mary Poppins. Rest assured, “Be My Guest” is still every bit the showstopper it was in 1991.
The Magic is Real
Objectively, this writer has yet to be convinced of the need for this story to be retold by this particular studio, but one must admit to a preferential bias for seeing his childhood memories being resurrected in this way. When all is said and done, this is a beautiful retelling of a beloved story, and one well worth experiencing on the big screen.
Tale as old as time, indeed.
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