With a squad of A-List celebrities starring and the full-brunt of Disney’s marketing force behind it, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the live action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (which has already dominated March box office records) is rocketing toward towards a 1 billion dollar box office gross.
I, a 24-year-old woman, was in the theaters opening weekend (contributing to the film’s $170 million in North American ticket sales), the perfect representation of the film’s expertly-synergized target demographic: someone with happy memories of watching the original animated film growing up, positive feelings towards Harry Potter-alum Emma Watson, and a libido that’s triggered automatically by handsome British actors. It was an involuntary migration to the theater: me, like a zombie seeking brains or the It Follows sex demon, walking slowly but unceasingly towards a delightful family film in which Ewan McGregor would play a candlestick.
This new version—competently directed by Bill Condon—shares so much DNA with the wonderful original that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could see it and not enjoy it. It’s a classic story, and that in conjunction with some excellent performances and a very visible $300 million budget, means that, yes, it’s a good movie.
Even I—the forever-nitpicker, Captain Overanalyze—genuinely enjoyed the movie. I may have teared up once or twice. I would easily see it a second time.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t nitpick.
Unlike 2015’s Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, which retooled a stale story, removing the songs and creating a new aesthetic, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast seemed afraid to deviate from the animated classic in any meaningful way. The changes they did make, then, often came across as stilted and unnecessary in a screenplay that wasn’t altogether different enough for those moments to seem natural.
Whereas the 1991 movie cast Maurice as a portly, eccentric inventor, Kevin Kline’s version is instead a wistful artist with a romantic salt and pepper ponytail. He’s one side-by-side bath away from being in a Cialis commercial. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with going in a DILF-y direction with Maurice until it rubs up against their insistence on reusing the same moments from the original.
In the 1991 version, when Belle comes home and asks her father, “Am I… odd?” her father pulls himself from beneath a jangling mystery invention wearing giant coke-bottle lenses that make his eyes triple their normal size. “My daughter? Odd?” he responds. It’s a laugh line. In this version, Maurice’s answer seems contemplative. Why keep the exact same dialogue if the context no longer applies?
But the migration away from the formerly “crazy old Maurice,” who’s distrusted and belittled by the town confuses his later interactions with Gaston. He’s calm and level headed when he comes back to town to accuse Gaston of attempted murder (lol k)—and when the town does turn against him it seems a strange unearned reflex, as if the plot itself knew it had to get somewhere the story hadn’t established.
There was none of the helpless terror that I remember so clearly as a child, of needing people to believe you but having already lost their trust before you began. It makes even less sense then, that Gaston could persuade the town to lock this clearly not-crazy man away forever in an asylum especially since, unlike the original, Gaston didn’t pay the creepy asylum corpse.
Gaston is one of my favorite Disney villains because he manages at once to be both a glorious caricature of the boorish jock and a relatively three-dimensional character, who is humiliated, made furious from that humiliation, and re-writes a narrative in his own head in which he’s the hero.
In the animated version, his first conversation with Belle tells us everything we need to know: he’s physically aggressive, grabs the book out of her hand, mocks it because he’s confused at a non-picture book, and tosses it into the mud.
At first, the updated Gaston seems… kind of nice. 2017 Gaston goes up to Belle and… asks what she’s reading. She tells him and asks if he read it. “No, not that one, but you know, uh… reading,” he answers, a little embarrassed. It’s not confident anti-intellectual glee; it’s dialogue that would be spoken by the awkward protagonist of an indie-rom com when the girl he has a crush on asks about a band he’s never heard of. He tries to commiserate about the headmaster who gives her dirty looks in town. He brings Belle flowers and asks if they might get dinner. For a film that moments before had Gaston preening and talking to himself in the mirror, Gaston seems uncharacteristically un-villainous.
“I’ve changed!” Gaston says, trying to get Belle to give him a chance now that he’s back from war or whatever. “No one could change that much,” Belle responds, totally undercutting the theme and moral of the movie she’s in.
It’s not that I think Belle has to go out with Gaston—people are allowed to refuse dates from people. Gaston asked, Belle said no, he should respect that. But the original gave us a Gaston who cornered Belle and invaded her personal space, who flung his muddy boots over her books and told her women shouldn’t read because it might give them “ideas.” This new Gaston might have come across as kind of a douche, but he didn’t feel like a Disney villain.
The movie seemed to have realized its mistake and decided to overcompensate by turning Gaston into Snidely Whiplash at the halfway point, tying Maurice to a tree with comically giant ropes that look like they should be used for damsels on train tracks after Maurice spits “You’ll never marry my daughter!” (why are they all so mean to Gaston?!) when Gaston was the only person in town who listened to his story about the Beast and went out to help him go look for Belle.
That plot of Gaston getting angry and deciding to murder Maurice not only seems totally out of character for the version of Gaston they established (even Le Fou seems to acknowledge that “evil” is a recent character development) but it also serves to completely remove some of the subtlest, and funniest, moments in the original animated film.
In the 1991 version, Maurice comes into the tavern “raving” about a Beast, and everyone thinks he’s kind of crazy. And then, the bully comes up with a plan.
“LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking.”
“A dangerous pastime.”
So begins the “Gaston” reprise and some of Howard Ashman’s sharpest lyrics.
No one plots like Gaston
Takes cheap shots like Gaston
Plans to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston
Yes, I’m endlessly, wildly resourceful
—As down to the depths you descend
I won’t even be mildly remorseful
Just as long as I get what I want in the end
That is delightful villainy and it’s a shame they cut it in favor of a guy who gets mad and randomly tries to murder an old man.
(I will say, one change to “Gaston” I do like was the re-inclusion of a verse about how Gaston shoots from behind that was written by Menken and Ashman for the animated version but removed for being too dark. It offers a nice bit of foreshadowing.)
The 2017 version decided to give the Enchantress a slightly bigger part than just a stained-glass figure in the prologue. In this version, she’s been lurking all along, as a homeless woman named Agatha a la Lucy Barker in Sweeney Todd.
It’s… sort of a twist, but what plot purpose does it serve at all? What benefit is there to having her and wasting time explaining her and seeing her? Agatha knows Gaston tried to kill Maurice—she rescued him—and then is there in the tavern while Gaston denied it and tries to call Maurice crazy. Doesn’t this seem like another opportune time for one of her famous “learn a lesson” curses?
She reappears at the film’s end to stand way too close to Belle while she cries over her dead monster boyfriend and then takes her sweet time resurrecting him and the rest of the palace who we all just watched die, just so we could all be tear-jerked around.
This Beast is so dry and erudite that he might as well have been played by Kelsey Grammer. What he isn’t is scary. The animated film took great effort to build tension: the scene of Maurice entering the castle for the first time, or Belle entering the forbidden West Wing are both deliberately paced and dark, and the audience is rewarded for it. When Belle asks the Beast to step into the light and he shows his face for the first time, it’s a jump-back-in-your-seat moment. When he screams at her in the West Wing, it’s terrifying.
This isn’t a choice that’s necessarily bad, but again, it’s confused by an insistence on recycling 1991 moments. This Beast wears a tailcoat and pants all the time—I find it hard to believe that he also sticks his face in a bowl of soup the way the previous Beast did, who was characterized as someone who’s been an animal for so long he’s forgotten how to be human.
I will say that little growl Cousin Matthew did at the end was sexy though.
It’s a minor quibble I have with the original premise of the story itself that it’s not exactly fair that they’re cursed to live their entire lives as furniture because their boss was a dick. In this version, they’re responsible because… they didn’t do anything when Beast’s dad taught him bad life lessons. Still doesn’t really sound fair. I mean, Chip is a child. There was a goddam dog. How were they responsible?
But perhaps more disturbing is how this version specified that all of their family who lived outside the castle magically forgot all about them. Think about how dark that is! The furniture remembered their families, and their families didn’t remember them. Did their spouses remarry? Did children not ask where their mothers were? It makes more sense to imagine that the full families all lived in the castle. Otherwise, what the hell was Chip doing there?
The 2017 movie goes to great lengths to get us to care about Belle’s mother who died and used to live in Paris. It even goes so far as to introduce a magical exposition book that shows us… Belle’s mother died, and used to live in Paris. Turns out, she died of the plague. With all due respect, what does that matter at all? We already mentally fill in the blank that Belle’s mom died—disease seems like a reasonable option, sure. But how does confirming that advance the plot or theme in any meaningful way? If the idea was that Belle and the Beast could connect over their lost mothers, the time would have been better spent showing us that moment, or going deeper into the Beast’s backstory which seemed pretty interesting but which we never really got to see.
I like the small changes to Belle’s character—making her an inventor, a little gutsier, a little spunkier—but I wish they had dubbed Emma Watson’s voice. Watson sounds fine, but that’s part of the problem. Her songs need to be better than fine, belted with heart and spirit, and they’re difficult songs! There should be no shame or stigma attached to using the best actress for the role and having the best voice sing for her. Disney used to do it all the time—Lea Salonga sang for both Jasmine and Mulan. They did it for Zac Efron in the first High School Musical film.
Le Fou Is Gay, I Guess
He dances with a guy at the end for literally .4 seconds.
- “10 years we’ve been waiting,” is cut from “Be Our Guest” probably so people like me don’t get all nitpicky about the timeline change
- No more “and every last inch of me’s covered with hair” 😦
- Also gone? The iconic “Marie! The baguettes! HURRY UP!” from the first song.
- They swap out the moment for “If I Can’t Love Her” from the Broadway production with a forgettable new song called “Evermore” that should have been called “Hey Oscars, Now You Can Nominate Us For Best Original Song.” I have linked to both songs sung by Josh Groban.
- In both versions, Belle throws a snowball at the Beast and he responds by gathering up a giant snowball in retaliation. In the animated movie, Belle throws a second snowball and the Beast drops his giant snowball on his own head. In the new version, he full on clocks Emma Watson in the face with a giant snowball. It literally knocks her down.