While The Little Mermaid is credited with kickstarting the Disney renaissance of the 90s, I’d argue Beauty and the Beast kickstarted the trend of awesome Disney princesses, the princesses who were actually the heroines of their own stories. The pre-1960s heroines mostly had things happen to them rather than making any decisions of their own, and while Ariel certainly made decisions and effected change, it’s tough to call her a heroine when her actions hurt everyone around her and were made out of selfishness. Belle is more in the vein of future fantastic ladies like Mulan or Frozen‘s Anna. Belle was significant to me and other young girls growing up in the 90s who saw in her a model of both strength and compassion. And now she’s back to be a model to a whole new generation of young girls, albeit a generation that has a lot more options along those lines than I did.
For anyone who somehow missed out on the Beauty and the Beast story, here’s an extremely condensed version, as I’d rather spend this review talking about this particular movie than its primary plot points. The story centers around two people: Belle, an avid reader who is deeply misunderstood in her small-minded village, and the Beast, a prince who was cursed to take on a monstrous physical form because of an act of selfishness. They meet when the Beast imprisons Belle’s father for stealing a rose from his garden and Belle offers to take his place. Over the course of the film, the two begin to find they have more in common than they think and begin to form an unusual friendship with the help of the castle servants, all of whom were transformed into household objects. The Beast performs his first unselfish act in letting Belle leaving in order to go take care of her ailing father, and she in turn comes back to help him when the villagers (led by handsome war hero Gaston) storm the castle to kill the Beast. Her love for him breaks the spell, the Beast and all his servants regain their human form, and Belle and the Prince live happily ever after.
Now that that’s out of the way, how does this film do? How does it compare to the original? Is it best judged entirely on its own?
A recent rewatch of the original 1991 animated film convinced me that it is very nearly a perfect movie, so this one had its work cut out for it. Let’s talk about the positives first. These are excellently-produced musical numbers. Emma Watson‘s “singing” leaves much to be desired, but everyone around her makes up for it by being pretty much amazing. There’s an infectious energy, especially to Luke Evans as Gaston and Ewan McGregor as Lumiere the candelabra. McGregor’s rendition of “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopper, and possibly the highlight of the entire film, managing to capture the delightful enthusiasm of the original without mimicking it too closely. Evans is equally impressive in the much darker “Mob Song,” where he furiously whips up the crowd into a murderous frenzy. (I only wish they’d given him a more comedic chance to shine by including “Me,” a musical number written for the Broadway adaptation that Evans would have nailed.) He and the strong ensemble also make the opening number “Belle” one to love in spite of Watson. Oddly, musical theatre veteran Josh Gad fails to bring the same energy to his signature number, “Gaston,” and I’d have thought the one thing Gad could have been counted on to bring was energy!
The story goes out of its way to close some of the original’s loopholes, especially in creating a more coherent narrative of the prince’s enchantment. Many an Internet article has been written about the problems with that wonky timeline, so I won’t go into it here, but it’s simplified here in a way that makes sense. I also like the new subplot in which Gaston tries to humor Belle’s father in hopes of getting his approval to marry Belle. It’s an interesting way to approach that part of the story, and entirely consistent with our villain’s character.
The movie also looks lovely, for the most part, especially in its set design. The perpetually wintry castle is a stunning backdrop for the budding romance, and the shops and taverns of the village perfectly match the atmosphere of a town too small to hold someone like Belle. Occasionally I found the CGI distracting, but on the whole it worked and brought all these characters to life well.
Now on to what didn’t work so well. Emma Watson is not particularly special as Belle. Her subpar singing definitely doesn’t help, but she doesn’t bring anything new to the role — disappointing, since I anticipated a lot more. This may, however, be a symptom of the film’s bigger problem: It doesn’t understand quiet drama. One of the greatest charms of the original was that the big, lavish musical numbers were interspersed with simple, understated scenes of our leads interacting, learning about each other, enjoying each other’s company. There’s honestly very little hint of a romantic attraction until the film’s end. Their relationship is much more a quiet, blossoming friendship that just naturally becomes more. It’s what keeps the woman/beast romance dynamic from getting creepy, it’s what lets us see what their lives together could truly look like.
Not so here. This film is determined to turn every scene into a Big Dramatic Scene. Belle can’t just tend the Beast’s wounds and extend compassion to him, she must solve the mystery of why the Beast is so mean! The Beast and Belle can’t just read books together, they must literally travel to another location through magic and figure out how Belle’s mother’s died! The Beast and Gaston can’t have a straightforward fight at the end on the castle balcony, they must somehow jump madly from castle turret to castle turret screaming at each other! The Beast can’t die and come back to life at the end, because even that is not dramatic enough, we must also have a two-minute scene of every single servant we’ve seen slowly dying! DRAMA!
It’s disappointing. So much character development and growth can be shown through these quiet moments, but since these characters are perpetually in a state of heightened stakes, there’s nowhere for them to go when the stakes are actually raised. It also ends up uncomfortably sexualizing parts of the story. There have long been jokes about this being essentially a bestiality story, but the original avoided that by centering their relationship on their friendship and only transitioning toward romance in the final scenes. But here, friendship is simply not dramatic enough. The musical number “Something There” now seems less about someone realizing she may have found a kindred spirit in an unexpected place and more like Belle is having a sexual awakening.
I left the theater with great ambivalence. While I was elated by the performances of our side characters and would happily rewatch some of those musical numbers for days, the script’s insistence on constant high stakes is not only exhausting but undermines the narrative’s actual drama.
Would I recommend it? I think I would, though I would immediately recommend the animated version as a follow-up to anyone who was new to it and disappointed. There’s plenty to like in such a strong ensemble cast, and I suspect it will still capture the hearts of young girls as the original captured mine 26 years ago.