Live-Action 'Beauty and the Beast' Is Magnificent

Okay, I’ll just come right out and say it: I loved the new live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ movie. Like, goosebumps throughout, sobbing at the end, loved it. I’ll admit that part of it may have been relief, since I’m fairly certain that, had it been bad, I would’ve been forced to watch the 1991 original animated version on repeat for the next thirty years or so. So, there’s that. But, you don’t have to view the movie through the lens of my own Disney fangirl insanity to like it. It’s an objectively good movie. Not a great movie necessarily, but a good one. And it does exactly what a live-action remake of a cartoon should: flesh out the characters and their motivations. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

The movie is both an homage to the original version (with some scenes playing out exactly like the cartoon), and a new, updated, more fully realized movie. Which is basically a dream come true for a Disney geek like me. From the first, now-iconic, number (in which we’re introduced to Belle and her “dull, provincial town”) this world, that had only previously existed in a cartoon, bursts onto the screen in dazzling reality. For me, it was kind of like suddenly finding myself in a place I’d only ever seen before in my dreams.

And it maintained that quality throughout. A cartoon come to life, both stunningly more real, and larger-than-life at the same time. Which made the huge musical numbers (“Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston” and “The Mob Song”) more than worthy of the Broadway stage. I literally had to sit on my hands at a couple points to keep from looking like a total idiot applauding at the end of a musical number. (I know it’s a movie, jeez.)

But the thing I appreciated most about the film was the ways in which they expanded on the characters, their motivations, and their desires. Not just main characters (like Belle, the Beast, and Gaston), but supporting characters (like LeFou, Maurice, and the enchanted objects), got make-overs that amplify who they are. Not only turning them from cartoons into flesh, but making them live more fully-realized, realistic lives.

I’ve got to admit, I was worried about the choice of Emma Watson to play Belle. Not because I object to her as an actress (she actually gives a really great performance in this), but because casting a prominent feminist was an obvious attempt by the filmmakers to quell some of the criticism Disney has received in the last decade or so that its princesses are anti-feminist. It made me pretty nervous that they were going to turn Belle into a sort of stock feminist character rather than a deep and nuanced version of the original cartoon. Happily, I was wrong.

Belle has definitely been updated for a more modern, more overtly feminist audience. But all the changes the filmmakers made resonate with who the original character is, and serve to further explain her motivations and internal life. She’s a girl ahead of her time, living in a provincial French village. Whereas, in the cartoon, this is captured in her love of reading and her refusal to fall for Gaston (the village heartthrob), in this version, Belle is an inventor, passionate about education for girls, and more than capable of escaping the Beast’s castle when she finds herself a prisoner there. But she doesn’t lose her kindness, her willingness to love, or her tenderness for the Beast once she realizes there’s more to him than meets the eye.

And there is more. A lot more. We don’t get much of the Beast’s character in the cartoon, so this version was quite different. But it really worked, and the choice of Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens was a good one. He plays the Beast as much more vain and elitist than the cartoon version, but with a sardonic sense of humor and a hidden insecurity that make him a fully realized, multi-faceted character. And the CGI is so good that you can really see Stevens’s facial expressions underneath the computer animated Beast face, so you feel like you’re really looking at a man in Beast’s clothing.

The one beat the movie missed, as far as I’m concerned, is the transition between Belle and the Beast’s animosity towards each other, and their growing affection. It’s a problem because, in making the characters more realistic, it makes it harder to believe that they would suddenly start liking each other. The Beast’s initial hauteur and refusal to see Belle as anything other than the daughter of a common thief (Belle’s father tried to take a rose from the Beast’s garden), and Belle’s anger and hatred towards him for locking her up make it hard to see how they could ever like each other (let alone fall in love). The fact that they did each (as in the original version) save each other’s lives just doesn’t seem like enough here.

On the other hand, once the transition has been made, albeit clumsily, their relationship is so real and so believable, that it almost makes up for this misstep. And, because these two characters are so much more human than their cartoon counterparts, their love story is that much more romantic, and more grown-up than in the original.

There are a few new songs in the movie, all of which are terrible. It was a fairly ridiculous idea to add them, given that the original songs are now so iconic, and these fall pretty flat in comparison. The only song that didn’t seem completely extraneous was the Beast’s new song, Evermore (sung passably by Dan Stevens), which shows us how much he now cares about Belle and how she’ll stay with him in his heart even though he’s set her free. It’s true, the Beast needs a song, and the sentiment of Evermore is sweet, but the song itself is a dud. Sorry.

But those are really the only significant negatives I can point to. It’s epic, sweeping, romantic, exciting, funny, and fun. It’s a treat for those of us who love the original, and a boon to a new generation of kids who get to experience it all for the first time. Plus, since I don’t have to spend the next thirty years watching the animated version, I now have lots more time on my hands. Which is always a plus. So, in every way, two thumbs up.

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