Beauty and the Beast (2017)

The tale of beauty and the beast is as old as time. (Forgive me. I’ll stop.) The original fairy tale was likely told to reassure young girls that marrying older men was a good idea. That’s icky. I know. Disney updated the story in their 1991 animated film, thankfully, and Beauty and the Beast (2017) adheres so closely to Disney’s 1991 animated version of the classic story, a “Should I see it?” review of the new film hardly seems necessary. If you like the old one, you’ll almost certainly like this one. The plot, briefly, for the fun of it:

A vain prince (Dan Stevens, charming and handsome even unshaven and boasting Hellboy-like horns) and his household have been cursed by an enchantress because of his inability to see beyond appearances. Only reciprocated love will break the spell. There is a beautiful. young woman, Belle (Emma Watson, wooden in CGI scenes but electric when when she gets to act with other people), who dreams of exploring the wider world, but her devotion to her father keeps her in the small provincial, French town where they have only recently moved. She escapes into books instead. Circumstances—the beast’s shame at his appearance and the beauty’s daughterly devotion—bring the beast and the beauty together. Many songs* are sung. A few dances are danced. Much love is fallen into. Meanwhile, the woman’s would-be suitor, Gaston (Luke Evans, wisely never-winking as he embodies Gaston’s clearly over-compensating ego with gusto) – another vain man – plots to force her into marriage. He leads the easily-manipulated villagers on a midnight castle raid. Events lead to the spell’s breakage and love’s ultimate flowering. More songs are sung and dances, danced. This paragraph describes both versions of Disney’s adaptation of the old fairy tale accurately.

This live-action version adds a little to animated film though. These additions fill in some plot vagueries and fill out some character complexities. For example, the reason for Belle and her father, Maurice’s sojourn to this little village is explained. These details make Maurice less of an eccentric and more sympathetic. The reason the villagers don’t seem to know about this great castle in the woods is threaded into the tale, and this fleur-de-lis graces the enchanted servants’ with a bit of pathos beyond their object-ified peril and the villagers’ raid with a touch of tragedy. You may have read that Beauty and the Beast (2017) includes the first openly gay character in a Disney film. This is made explicit in a second-long shot near the film’s end. This character expansion explains why LeFou (Josh Gad, hamming) is so enamored with Gaston, an infatuation that wanes as Gaston’s actions become more villainous and less simply vain.

All of these changes are on a theme, and that theme is the same as that of the central plot – it is important to look beyond surface appearances and learn to love the person underneath.** Self-marginalization hides grief. Self-interest is born of longing. Fear-fueled rage is a way of coping with unspeakable loss. Obsequiousness is one method the vulnerable use to shield themselves against societal abuse. As Belle learns to love the beast, all these masks begin to dissipate. As we say, perfect love casts out fear. Beauty and the Beast (2017) suggests this magic happens both individually and communally.

Adding this new material to the story does make the movie feel a little long, and some of the recreated shots from the animated film work better than others, which is to say some don’t work at all. This live-action film inadvertently demonstrates that an animated film’s camera is much freer than that of a live-action film. But the added character information is welcome as it potentially makes the story resonate with more of us, instead of just the young girls forced to marry older men whom the original fairy tale was likely crafted to indoctrinate. Stories, like beasts, can also be redeemed.

*Three new songs are added – one for Maurice, one for Belle, and one for the Beast. Each song shades in their characters more fully. The Beast’s song is particularly good, since his character is the under-developed in the original film.

**The film also highlights this idea by making a few of the other couples in the film interracial.

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