REVIEW: Despite its modified content, live action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has little of its own to say

It’s a story you’re already familiar with: a cursed prince, an inventor, and his beautiful bookworm daughter, an enchanted castle, a magical rose. Though there have been many iterations of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ over the years, none are as well-recognized nor as beloved as Disney’s 1991 animated film.

The new live-action adaptation borrows a bit more from the original fairytale than the animated film did, especially in regards to the circumstances leading to Belle’s imprisonment. In this version, Belle’s father is imprisoned not for entering the castle, but for stealing a rose from the Beast’s garden. The rest of the story unfolds as you would expect: Belle offers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, the Beast rescues Belle from a pack of vicious wolves when she attempts to flee the castle, the two of them eventually fall in love.

Though the broad strokes of the story remain unchanged, there are some additions and minor deviations that help to distinguish this new movie from its predecessor. The soundtrack features two brand new songs strewn amongst the old classics. (As for the likability of these new selections, your mileage will likely vary.) There is a surprisingly enjoyable interlude inserted into the bridge of the song Gaston. Certain minor characters take on a slightly more prominent role, particularly in the film’s final act.

The script also makes some adjustments to characterization, largely to increase the likability of previously irksome characters. Cogsworth’s wariness and obedience to authority has more of a long-suffering quality to it, in lieu of the condescending grumbling of his animated film version. Gaston’s righthand man, LeFou, is made to be more sympathetic and is occasionally allowed to have an opinion.

Most notable of the characterization changes are that of the film’s two leads and the fairly blatant attempts to craft a more even-handed portrayal of their relationship with one another. As a response to Belle’s dry humor, the Beast is given more of a personality, one that allows him to crack the occasional joke. The movie also takes the time to delve into their backstories, particularly in regards to their parents, and the new information adds some much-needed nuance to these now overly-familiar characters.

Belle has also been slightly updated for modern audiences, mainly in terms of the noticeable, albeit largely superficial attempts to give her more agency. In an early scene, she tries to teach a village girl to read despite vocal disapproval from her elders. She also makes more of an effort to escape the castle in the first couple days of her imprisonment.

But any feminist message this film might wish to impart inevitably shrivels under the knowledge that the most questionable aspects of the plot remain largely untouched. In contrast to the original fairytale, which featured a kind and hospitable rendering of the Beast, the Disney version of the Beast continues to be moody, immature, selfish, and even abusive. After all, when seen under the most unforgiving lens, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is essentially the story of a woman who falls in love with her kidnapper, and small demonstrations of Belle’s agency do little to change this.

Perhaps in response to this line of criticism, Disney injected mild doses of progressiveness throughout the film, and the storm of publicity surrounding this movie has ensured that everyone knows it. Much of this is bolstered by the film’s lead star, Emma Watson, whose public feminist reputation helps to counter the more archaic or uncomfortable elements of the plot.

The positive PR has been particularly aggressive in the weeks leading up to the movie’s release. As of late, much of it is centered around the character LeFou who is hinted to be gay in the film’s closing scenes. In an interview with Attitude, a gay lifestyle magazine, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ director Bill Cordon described the scene as “a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”

The problem is that that “gay moment” is so fleeting you might miss it if you glance away from the screen, and it’s so unsubstantial that you might not know what to make of the scene even if you do happen to catch it. Despite some attempts to add some complexity to his character, LeFou is largely depicted with irreverence throughout the entire movie. His flamboyant mannerisms are depicted as a comedic contrast to Gaston’s douchebaggery brand of masculinity. His innuendo-laden comments about Gaston are played for laughs. If I hadn’t already been exposed to the avalanche of press about the “gay moment” in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, I would have assumed that it was just another queer bait-y joke to cap off a movie full of them.

Therein lies my biggest criticism of this film: despite all the additional content and minor modifications, I never felt as though the live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ did anything in the way of genuine risk-taking. Too much of it feels beholden to the animated movie, and so the end product feels inherently unambitious as if the goal all along was to merely evoke the greatness of the animated movie rather than be a great film all on its own.

Compare this to last year’s live-action ‘Jungle Book’, which at the very least had the courage to be substantially different from the animated movie in tone, if not also in its more overt environmentalist message. The live-action ‘Jungle Book’ had a voice separate from that of its animated predecessor; in contrast, the live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is more of an echo.

All this begs the question of whether this particular story is the one we most needed to revive, mostly unaltered, in this current day and age. There’s a certain weight given to the narratives that we as a society choose to tell and retell, and the importance of the messages those narratives convey. I can’t help but wonder, do we really need another story about a woman who learns to love a man who initially treats her with nothing but cruelty? Or conversely, a story about an unattractive man who is saved only after winning the love of an attractive woman?

It’s especially frustrating because I can’t claim that this movie is devoid of merit. The quality of the singing is good, especially compared to other recent movie musicals. I cannot stress enough how gorgeously detailed the set design is, particularly the interior of the castle. There’s a ton of creativity in the depictions of the furniture, who in my opinion are the most enjoyable aspect of the movie, and the animation for Lumiere is especially fluid and fun. It really is visually dazzling.

I just wish it dared to do something, anything differently.

Author: Helen from Overlooked

Editor: Han Angus

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