A Tale as Old as Time, But in Keeping with the Times

[Review and Analysis of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Live Action Remake]

WARNING: I will be tackling the major differences between the 2017 live action and the 1991 animated film Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”, so there will be spoilers throughout this review. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and you do not like spoilers, I suggest that you watch the movie first and then read this.

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In 1992, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also grew to be one of the most beloved Disney films of all time. This prestige and popularity gave much hype to the live action Beauty and the Beast (2017) for better or for worse.

Generally, reviews are positive. Most established and up-and-coming critics have given a balanced assessment of the film. Many viewers seem to have enjoyed watching the film and have been praising it to high heavens in social media. But there are some who believe that the changes and additions made by Disney were unnecessary and that the animated film was already perfect and much better than the live action version.

Perhaps much of the disappointment came from expecting the live action to (ironically) be a real-life replica of the animation, an accurate rendering of the animation’s mise-en-scène and storyline. This expectation is unavoidable and understandable, but we should give the 2017 remake a serious yet considerate re-read or re-view. After all, if fans call the animated 1991 Beauty and the Beast movie as “perfect”, then that would be too hard to rival. Thus, replicating the original may not even be the point of the exercise.

What then could have been the purpose for the changes and additions? Were those goals met? What are the implications of turning an animated film into live action? Without making one a standard for which the other needs to live up to, what new meanings does the 2017 film add to the tale of Beauty and the Beast?

Beginning with the obvious, one casts real-life actors and actresses when one makes a live action movie. However, the purpose of casting real people need not stop at adding corporeality to the movie but can also be an opportunity to “humanize” the story. It seems that more than just reliving the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, director Bill Condon, together with the cast and the crew, tried to add more humanity to the tale.

To achieve that, the people who worked on the 2017 remake took the time to add tenderness to pivotal moments and highlight the context that made the characters into who they are. It’s a move that, I believe, is quite brilliant considering that one crucial, repeated theme of the live action version is distinguishing what is human from what is “beast”, what is humane from what is boorish.

A critical element of fiction that was reworked for this play of humanity to shine is characterization. Thus, this review and analysis will focus primarily on changes to characterization and on how the other additions in the new production contribute to reworking this element.

Maurice

Belle’s father is my favorite character in the live action movie. Kevin Kline brings more gravitas and ingenuity to Maurice. This is evident even from his very first scene where we find him tinkering with a miniature windmill house, which is an apparent imagination of his family, complete with his beloved wife in their old home in Paris.

Kline’s Maurice is artistic and tender, but he is not cowardly nor erratic. He is steadfast in saying no to Gaston’s intimidation tactics, repeatedly insisting that he will never force or trick her daughter into marrying Gaston. Contrast that to the animation where Maurice actually asks Belle “What about Gaston?” in response to her not finding anyone to talk to.

Also, unlike in the animation where Belle and her father are trapped in the basement and Chip had to help them escape, here Maurice actually tries to think of a solution and, with help from Belle, unlocks the door of the wagon where they are kept captive. He may not be an inventor as in the animation, but he retains his handiwork and resourcefulness. This time the skills of his hands are directed to a different purpose: to draw important experiences in an attempt to make them last forever. This way, Kline’s Maurice becomes the bard-like-figure that reminds us of how love, which brings out humanity, is the element that makes moments memorable.

Probably, this perspective on love is the reason why the song “How Does a Moment Last Forever?” has been included and why this motif plays each time a character recalls a life-changing moment from the past like when Belle visited the Paris of her childhood and when the Beast recalled the death of his mother. This song adds a bittersweet yet hopeful layer to the act of remembrance and complements the romantic grandness of memorialization embodied by the titular theme.

LeFou

Even before we have seen Josh Gad’s take on Gaston’s sidekick, there had already been controversy regarding his portrayal because it was revealed that the remake’s LeFou is gay. While some insist that there is only one gay scene (which they claim is LeFou finding himself dancing with another man for a split-second in the final ball), I have seen more hints of his queerness. Not that it’s too explicit for a Disney movie. I may be wrong here but for me the scenes have been Disney-filtered enough that an inattentive viewer or a clueless child may miss the queer undertones.

Disney’s new take on LeFou is an attempt to include the LGBTQ community and represent challenges they face. For instance, LeFou’s being a sidekick to Gaston may be his way of being around the man he is attracted to, but it can also be interpreted as his way of being accepted in the village. By being perceived as the best friend of Gaston, he can conceal his sexuality from the villagers and gain some popularity in the village. And, until Mrs. Potts’ affirmation of him, LeFou may have perceived popularity as acceptance and his unhealthy relationship with his “boss” Gaston as a good compromise.

Some may find the gay interpretation of LeFou as too much while others may find it too filtered. But either way, one can rest knowing or be pacified realizing that Beauty and the Beast is no Brokeback Mountain. At the end of the day, it’s a Disney film with a target market of both young and old.

Gaston

This Gaston is more evil than the animated character. The 1991 Gaston was an arrogant, empty-headed macho. While even then he was bad enough for planning to put Maurice in an asylum just to blackmail Belle into marrying him, Luke Evans’ Gaston pushes it further: he openly disrespects Maurice, punches the old man, and leaves Belle’s poor father in the woods to die in the cold or get devoured by wolves. In the climactic fight scene, he also doesn’t stab the Beast once after having been given the chance to live, he shoots him thrice as if one mortal wound is not enough.

This inhumanity of Gaston is very much emphasized in the movie. Looking at the sequence of frames in the climactic fight scene, after the Beast remarks that he is no beast, that’s when Gaston shoots him behind his back. It goes to show who the real beast is, and this insight has been planted and developed throughout the film.

In the reprise of the song “Belle,” our heroine describes him as boorish. His sidekick LeFou, contrasting Gaston from Belle, says that the lady he wants to marry is well-read while he is “athletically-inclined”. Now, just to be clear, there’s nothing bad about being athletic and sporty. But reviewing the tone of LeFou, it sounds like he just doesn’t have anything nicer to say. At the end of the day, all that Gaston has is physical strength and beauty. Sadly, the flesh is just one part of our human make-up. How does Gaston fare in other areas like intellect or heart? Well, he fares even worse than the Beast. He is motivated by desire and lust, he is very impulsive and impatient. Clearly, he doesn’t have the faculties to control his temper, and finally no heart to stop from doing the wrong thing nor wisdom to push him to do the right thing.

Gaston is evidently different from Belle and Maurice, and he shares a few more things in common with the other two parties that oppressed our well-loved father and daughter: the Beast and the villagers. The Beast, prior to discovering love, judged Maurice as a thief and locked him up in his castle. He would often lose his temper. But he is different from Gaston even from the beginning because he never actually goes in for the kill, even with the wild wolves. He also grants Belle’s request to hug her father even just for a moment. On the other hand, the villagers in this remake, are more than just gossipers who call Belle “funny” or “odd”. Here, they actually throw away Belle’s self-made washing machine along with all the clothes she is washing. They also mistreat Maurice by mocking the old man and later on connive with Gaston to put him in an asylum. Without a doubt, the villagers’ values are in the wrong place even before Gaston incites their fear and persuades them to attack the Beast’s castle. Still, unlike Gaston who actively schemes against anyone who threatens his pride and manipulates anyone with a weaker will, the people of the village are just a mob, comprised of people who do not know any better.

Having stressed the inhumanity in Gaston, one might ask: shouldn’t Gaston be the one cursed? Why did the enchantress punish just the Beast? In the animated version, the enchantress appears in the beginning only once and is never seen again. Here, in the live action movie, Hattie Morahan’s Agathe is more active and present.

Agathe, the Enchantress

I have seen Agathe several times in the live action movie: when she curses the prince who consequently becomes transformed into a beast, when she helps Maurice and takes care of him, when she testifies in the tavern about the existence of the Beast and the cursed castle.

I get the impression that, in the remake, the enchantress is posing tests to people’s characters and has been engineering certain circumstances to happen even when we do not see her do it. For instance, as Maurice journeys into the woods, a tree falls and blocks his way. This event leads him to take a different route and he ends up in the Beast’s castle. However, when he travels with Gaston and LeFou, the fallen tree is no longer there, so Maurice gets slightly confused. As a result, Gaston loses his temper and leaves Maurice to die. Then, like an all-seeing eye, Agathe comes to Maurice’s rescue the next day.

Did she also test Gaston? Possibly, but I can’t be too sure. Yet just to put the idea on the table, maybe the purpose of her saving Maurice is two-fold: the old man doesn’t deserve the fate Gaston put him to and it could be Agatha’s way of giving another chance to test Gaston. Unfortunately, Gaston humiliates and abuses Maurice for another time and incites panic and anger into the villagers in order to encourage them to join him in killing the Beast. For what purpose? To salvage his pride. Finally, when Gaston mortally wounds the Beast after having been given the chance to live by the latter, no curse is needed to test Gaston and so this arrogant man gets his due.

The Beast

Dan Stevens gives us a more endearing Beast and gives us an idea of why Belle may have fallen in love with the character. Unlike in the animated movie wherein Belle often teaches the Beast how to do certain things (reading, dancing, eating), Belle only reminds the Beast of how to do these things in the remake. It seems that, as Belle discusses things which the Beast used to do as a prince, he gradually remembers his humanity as evidenced by his comment about almost forgetting how to dance (but still ending up able to do it) and his comment about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (which reveals to us a well-read, cultured Beast). Clearly, Stevens provides us a Beast that can keep up with the intellect and interests of Belle. This time, Disney does not just give Belle the choice to love whoever she wants, but also gives her a love interest which she deserves.

Also, he is given a backstory which explains why he grew up as a hard-hearted lad. His mother died when he was still a boy (and this allows him to sympathize with Belle’s growing up without a mother) and he has serious father issues (which could be a reason for his anger at Maurice but would later be a reminder for him not to judge Belle because of his first impression of her father). I would agree with other reviews that this Beast is less scary but perhaps that is the point. One can get used to the looks of the Beast. But what makes him frightening is his temper arising from his unresolved issues, his hardened heart filled with pain and hate.

The Servants Turned House Implements

In the animation, we do not hear about the servants’ families living outside the castle and, besides Mrs. Potts and Chip, the relationships of the servants with each other haven’t been highlighted as enduring and time-tested. I understand that this was implied in the animation, but the withering away of the house implements toward the end of the remake adds more sorrow and complexity to the seeming fate of the whole castle. We witness every house implement trying to stand beside their most beloved in that castle and professing their love for each other as if giving a final attempt to prolong the moment and to stand beside their beloved forever even as lifeless objects. Thus, when they turn to humans again, we share even more in their joy, for even as “objects”, we have felt their soul. 

Belle

Finally, our heroine Belle.

Even in the 1991 animation, Belle’s characterization has already been well-developed. As one of the early feminist female leads, she has already been known as strong, intelligent, brave, and loving. As expressed by a famous quote from a different literary work, Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince, “what is essential is invisible to the eye”. Belle abides by this idea and sees past the beast-like appearance of the prince.

Emma Watson’s Belle maintains the qualities we have already loved about the character, but highlights a little more her resourcefulness and ingenuity. The remake’s Belle shouldn’t be mistaken as experiencing Stockholm syndrome.

Remember the rope she created out of the ribbons that Madame Garderobe used to dress her up? Since her first day in the castle, she has already thought of a way to escape. In fact, she did try to escape and nothing in the enchanted household was able to stop her from doing so, but realizing that the Beast was badly injured after saving her from the wolves, she decided to nurse him back to health.

By the time the Beast recovers his health, Belle has already started to notice their similarities and her discoveries continue in the coming days. They both love literature and dancing. They both lost their mothers at an early age. The Beast has an intelligence on par with Belle as shown in the scene where he deduces the reason for the death of Belle’s mother. But if they are so similar, what is the edge of Belle?

Watson’s Belle highlights that what makes the character shine is not her bookish intelligence nor her physical skills nor her courage to fight wolves and save her loved ones. She can do all of those and these set her apart from the villagers. But the Beast is also learned, physically strong, and brave enough to protect his beloved. What sets Belle apart from the Beast are her wisdom, understanding and psychological strength – qualities that allow her to persist in times of adversity and help her not to succumb to hatred and sorrow. If she didn’t have these qualities, she would have gone crazy in the village and she wouldn’t have seen the hidden beauty in the Beast’s heart because then her sadness and dissatisfaction would have blinded her. These, I believe, are the qualities that the Beast had to learn from Belle.

All in all, the remake is quite progressive. It’s essentially the same story, but now with a context that allows Disney to update their well-loved narrative in keeping with the ideological developments of the last 20 or 30 years. The 1991 Beauty and the Beast may have been, as some fans say, spectacularly perfect for an animation of its day, but the 2017 live action remake adds new layers to this tale as old as time and makes it touching and relevant to its new audiences.

No longer is love just romantic or focused on princes and their princesses. The 2017 remake espouses a love that is more inclusive of people whom certain societies may deem odd… like the strong, intellectual and feminist Belle, the tormented Beast, people of color like the librarian, and members of the LGBTQ community like LeFou. Maybe, we cannot all agree and not all of us will like the changes incorporated in the remake, but these updates may well be the reason for this Disney narrative to live on to the next generation.

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