Disney’s live action turn on “Beauty & the Beast” is finally here. After the success of “Cinderella” and the “the Jungle Book,” the big question is does Disney have another live action success on its hands?
The animated “Beauty & the Beast” is one of the most praised and beloved films in the Disney vault. It’s also one of the most problematic films, with many criticizing the story for bestiality and stockholm syndrome, not to mention the major plot hole of how did the town not realize there was a freaking castle just down the lane from them?! However, I feel like all of us critics are just the town people in Belle’s little provincial town in “Beauty & the Beast.” We all can’t stop prattling on and judging away while Belle’s just trying to find happiness in her little sliver of the world. Why can’t we accept that?
The live action film doesn’t completely recapture the magic of the original animated film, but it comes pretty darn close, relying heavily on charm and nostalgia. Like the Lily James’ “Cinderella” before it, much of 2017’s “Beauty & the Beast” is frame for frame a remake of the animated version. What is updated or changed is a seamless blend of the Broadway rendition, the French novel and even a splash of something new. For example, that pesky plot hole about how the town’s people missed the presence of a giant castle nearby — explained and even a key plot point in this version. You’ll also find a refreshing amount of diversity in this town rather than a whitewashed cast (not all period pieces have to be all white). Perhaps one of my favorite changes though, was seeing the trio of Gaston’s fangirls turned brunette instead of blonde, helping alleviate yet another stereotype.
Perhaps the best thing this rendition does is deepening the back story of many of the characters. For example, Gaston and LeFou fought in a recent war, and much of Gaston’s war success is why he holds such a position of respect and power in the town despite being an arrogant jerk. The Beast’s back story, meanwhile, reveals why his servants are so loyal to him despite being stuck in the curse with him. It makes him a much more sympathetic character. And for the first time, we learn what happened to Belle’s mother. The back story expansions of both Belle and the Beast help give the two characters something more to bond over than just the library and a snowball fight. They’re both outsiders who have lost something dear to their hearts. They just had two very different reactions to their loss. Seeing the two reveal deep insecurities to the other makes their love story much more realistic.
Of course, what would Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” be without the music? Alan Menken returned to the score to make minor updates and the music continues to be a character in and of itself. While it will be hard for some to separate their love of the original music and singers with what’s heard in this version, strong performances from singers like Audra McDonald, Luke Evans and Josh Gad really make a mark on this production. My biggest surprise favorite was Dan Stevens as the Beast performing “If I Can’t Love Her”, one of the inclusions from the Broadway production, which really helps deepen the Beast’s character development. While Stevens is mostly buried in costume and computer effects for most of the movie, this performance really helps carry his emotion and acting chops. Sadly, the much anticipated “Be Our Guest,” was a little lackluster compared to the animated version, mostly because much of the humor between Cogsworth and Lumiere was scaled back. In fact, much of Lumiere and Cogsworth featured role in the animated version was scaled back in this live action version, so sadly the talents of Ewan McGregor and Sir Ian McKellan were underutilized. Emma Watson, while not the strongest vocal performance in the cast, made up for her average singing with fantastic acting and charisma.
As for the new “controversy” this film supposedly has surrounding the inclusion of Disney’s first named gay character, LeFou, that’s all just ridiculous and a bit of a pity that it has become such a focal point in discussion about the film. Josh Gad’s LeFou has so much more going on than just a little lust for Gaston. Much like other characters, LeFou is given much more depth than the animated version allowed and Gad does a remarkable job showing how LeFou isn’t as his name says – a fool. He’s actually quite conflicted and often finds himself struggling to support Gaston’s mean streak despite wanting to be loyal to his friend. That’s what everyone should be talking about.
No matter what version of “Beauty & the Beast” you grew up with, this film is beautiful and fun. It has something for everyone and will leave you humming your way out of the theater.