Disney recently released the live-action retelling of the 1991 classic animation Beauty and the Beast, the tale of how an educated young woman from a provincial French town falls in love with a cursed beast. While this plot definitely had room for Disney to step on some toes as they navigated some major problematic or sensitive themes, for the most part director Bill Condon excelled at crafting a spectacular version of this classic tale with a fresh, contemporary flavor with minimal bumps in the road.
Emma Watson’s performance as Belle was refreshing and empowering, a huge departure from the original portrayal of Belle. In the past, Belle has been seen as a smart bookworm, someone who is independent for her refusal to marry Gaston (the handsomest man in the village). However, the kid-friendly, ninety-minute original animation refuses to really engage with feminist issues or even the implied Stockholm Syndrome once Belle is taken prisoner in the Beast’s castle. Disney’s new version refuses to turn a blind eye, at least attempting to promote a feminist agenda: the 2017 version of Belle is both a teacher and an inventor, and she tries to teach a child to learn how to read before being persecuted and shamed by the town for doing such an act. She unabashedly rejects Gaston’s affections, calling him “boorish” and “brainless” in a manner that leaves no room for equivocation. Watson infuses necessary independence and respect into Belle’s character to inform audiences that Belle is actively fighting for equality. Her independence and empowerment is something that is no longer a quirky personality trait but a necessary right.
The producers also attempted to tackle the issue of Belle and the Beast’s human-animal relationship by adding special effects to make Dan Stevens’ human face more visible in the Beast’s face. There is an extended prologue which shows the Beast in his human youth, and the household members (Lumiere and Mrs. Pots) make reference to the prince’s past life in order to remind everyone that the Beast is truly human underneath his curse.
On top of these contemporary refinements to the original, Disney used its massive budget to round out and enrich the original stylistically, and the results were truly impressive. The musical numbers are long, glorious sequences of larger-than-life cinematography, set design, and Broadway-worthy singing that on their own make the movie worth watching. The autotune on Emma Watson’s voice is a little too obvious in a few high notes, but she still delivers on most of the songs, and altogether the soundtrack is incredible.
In addition to technical refinements and added special effects to the original blueprint, Disney also added in multiple new scenes or details to the original to make the plot more complex, less confusing, and to answer the lingering questions that the original version never quite explained, such as the absence of Belle’s mother. There were also obvious strides to make the cast more diverse.
That being said, there was one major problem that Disney royally butchered: LeFou. LeFou is Gaston’s sidekick, who is confirmed as gay by the end of the movie. Obviously, this should be a good thing, and Disney is fully asserting that LeFou is their first openly gay character, instead of making allusions to gayness and then trying to cover it up (basically Ryan Evans from High School Musical). However, most people right now are deeply unhappy, considering who LeFou’s character is and how his characterization will be perceived by younger audiences. LeFou is portrayed as a villain: Gaston tries to kill Belle’s father and LeFou doesn’t stop him. He is also portrayed as silly and over-the-top, as Gaston’s pathetic, goo-goo-eyed number one fan. Is this really the first image we want little kids to think of when they think of gayness? I’ll let you answer that one. I understand that Disney was trying to do a good thing, but they took two steps forward and one step backward; we will need to see better efforts on their part for promoting acceptance for all sexualities in the future.
Even though this is true, Beauty and the Beast was still a thoroughly enjoyable movie, and it was really nice to see Disney at least try to address some contemporary issues. In terms of cinematography, production, costume design, and acting, the movie was masterful and is absolutely worth buying on DVD. I haven’t stopped listening to the soundtrack all week. Overall, Disney was able to put a modern twist on a classic tale we all know and love without sacrificing the original charm, and if the movie sales are anything to go by, they’ve been quite successful in this endeavor.