A spoiler-free primer…
I was nervous to see the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast for a multitude of reasons. Because I found the recent Cinderella underwhelming, if not downright creepy, in pretty much all aspects – with the notable exception of Robb Stark in prince pants (thank you casting and costume directors, both women btw). Because I was worried that my age, my ever-growing feminism, and the live-action characters would make the Stockholm syndrome aspect more pronounced. And also because, of all the Disney movies, many of which I claim to be my favorite, my childhood is anchored to this one on a higher level. It came out when I was 9 years old and in full imagination mode. My friends and I would play the soundtrack, which included the score, and act it out from start to finish in my living room in Blacksburg, Virginia. A blanket was the bed Melissa/Belle threw herself onto as she wept when Beast yelled at her. Our patio door opened into the sunlit library. My open palm was the magic mirror. To do this day, every time I walk up a hill covered in grass and flowers, I want to run up and over it, but not to sing “The hills are alive…” Instead, it’s “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell.” So yeah, I was nervous to see it.
Here’s the basics. I predict that you will like this movie if:
1. you liked/loved the animated version and can accept some slight updates, not all of which improve the story but all of which are understandable
2. you like a good fixer-upper guy
3. you are self-aware of your own background and how it affects the way you love people, and appreciate knowing other people’s backstories
If you’re having doubts, I predict you will like this movie, even if:
1. Dan Stevens has always and will always be Matthew Crawley, swoon, sigh, and how can we ever forgive him for leaving Downton Abbey‽
2. you’re concerned about the message that holding a person hostage can be the start of a love story
3. you might sing aloud in the movie theater
And now come the spoilers…
I had a lot of feelings during the 2 hour, 9 minute run time. And yes, I stayed through the end credits to hear Celine Dion sing, as she did in the credits of the animated film – a nice touch. Dan Stevens’ singing downright shocked me, he’s so good I could hardly tell the difference when Josh Groban sang Beast’s song during the credits. That solo is a fantastic new addition; it’s Beast who gets to be overly dramatic, dashing around turrets and looking through pretty much every doorway as Belle rides away, still wearing the yellow dress. And speaking of Belle, Emma Watson is perfectly charming, and is given more to do than the previously mentioned throwing herself onto the bed dramatically. This Belle ain’t got time for that, she’s too busy making a rope ladder to escape.
There were in fact only two voices that I missed from the original – the opening narrator and Mrs. Potts, both of whom are voiced by Emma Thompson in the new version. I have no issue with the actress, she’s amazing. But in this case, it was just too high a hurdle. I am fully onboard with the changes to the lines in the opening sequence. We get more backstory, including “fixing” plot holes like how old the prince was when he was cursed and how the villagers managed to forget that there was a castle and royal family. But considering so many of the lines were the same, and that I know the narration not just word for word, but inflection by inflection, it fell a bit flat. That her voice was also not quite as suited for a teapot as Angela Lansbury’s is also not her fault, but I did notice it – every single time she spoke or sang. And considering she is supposed to be a steady and comforting presence, not to mention the voice behind the ballroom classic “Tale as Old as Time” – well, it’s just noticeable.
But enough with the negativity, so many other aspects of the movie are enchanting. The removal of a few moments is understandable, instead of birds perching on Beast to show that animals trust him, it’s now a brief one of him and Philippe bonding. Actual Disney princess-level friendships with animals just don’t work in live action (see previous mention of Cinderella) unless it’s done as satire, like in the perfectly-titled Enchanted (“It’s always good to make new friends.”). But important scenes of grandeur still manage to delight – thankfully the culinary cabaret of “Be Our Guest” is just as enjoyable without the whimsy and questionable physics possible with animation.
For all the hoopla that was made in early reviews of Belle being the inventor in the family instead of her dad, the on-screen payoff is brief. Had I not read about it in advance, I might not even have caught the few seconds that show only boys attending school while the girls do laundry. That the villagers put a stop to her progress gives them a mean-spirited feel, rather than just being quaint. I guess it’s to make life in the castle seem more like an upgrade, and it does do that. But let’s be honest, the fact that the priest is the most progressive of the townsfolk is questionable.
And again, with all the discussion about LeFou being the first Disney character whose homosexuality is cannon, and it being “important” enough for some theaters to refuse to screen the movie, it is an underwhelming development. Ending up as dance partners with another man is hardly definitive. Proving that there’s no small parts, Stanley (introduced with the line “You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley…” in the tavern song) finds his authentic self thanks to the opera-singing wardrobe. Though just because one character enjoys dressing in women’s clothing and one has a crush on a manly hero, doesn’t mean them ending up thrown together in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment will lead to love. In fact it seems unlikely, and so this “gay scene” “controversy” can go jump in a lake as far as I’m concerned.
LeFou’s added character bio, however, is welcome. Yeah, he’s still Gaston’s biggest fan and constant companion, but he’s almost more like Gaston’s publicist or handler – shunning the fangirls, calming his fits, and providing his alibis. And though there are multiple instances of new lyrics being added to classic songs, the most haunting belongs to LeFou, with “I fear the wrong monster’s been released” in the mob song “Kill the Beast!” (Sadly this bumps one of my favorite lines “Fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong!”). Josh Gad leans in to the role and makes LeFou believable every step of the way, even if I did picture him as a snowman every time he sang.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about how Luke Evans perfectly plays Gaston. I will just repeat it for emphasis and move on. Luke Evans perfectly plays Gaston. He makes both the darker and the more relatable moments added for the character intensely felt. And though I don’t necessarily miss the “every last inch of me’s covered with hair” line, I wish the writers had found some way to remove his shirt.
On to larger themes, the closing line of the narration is so dramatic – “…for who could ever learn to love a beast,” but it does the story no favors. What we’re getting at here, and what is much more clear in this live-action version, is that the real problem is that Prince Adam (forgot that was his name, didn’t you?) was a douche, and hasn’t improved since being cursed – now he’s a moody, self-loathing douche. The longer run time means we get to see more of the baby steps to his transformation. Right from their first meeting, he is already questioning his assumptions, and though he fights it, it’s clear that being around someone capable of love is changing him. Wearing nicer clothes, sleeping in a bed, having conversations, and not eating his food face-first are small touches to show he’s progressing. Which is useful because the castle has also been cursed with eternal winter, and so that cinematic trope of a montage of the changing seasons to show that time is passing isn’t possible. The final transformation, the physical one from beast to human, remains as underwhelming in live action as it was animated. Though now instead of “uhhhh, somehow he was hotter as a beast” it’s “uhhhh, Matthew needs a haircut.” Also, blue bows are not a good look, though I did appreciate the callback.
The literal transformation of two-dimensional characters into three dimensions is too perfect a metaphor to ignore when comparing the animated and live-action movies. With this new version, I can now tell you why Maurice raised Belle the way he did, how Adam became a douche, and the many ways in which they will save each other.
And we haven’t even gotten to my favorite part – (ohmygodohmygod) that final line. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a beard, but this ending is perfection. Instead of some generic “…and they lived happily ever after” we got:
Belle: How would you feel about growing a beard?
Adam: *growls enticingly*
Seriously. This exchange convinces me that:
1. she acknowledges the trials he went through to become a good person
2. he has accepted this journey and is thus not doomed to repeat it
3. they are gonna have hot sex
So yeah, happily ever after.