I’m sure everyone knows the story of Beauty & the Beast. The original animated Disney classic made waves in 1991 for becoming the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. I mean, there’s a whole generation of kids (myself included) that grew up the film! So, when I heard they were making a live-action movie, I was a little skeptical. The trend in filmmaking nowadays leans towards creating the feeling of nostalgia, and when done wrong, the remakes can bomb ruthlessly at the box office. Upon hearing that Emma Watson would be taking the role of Belle, I was surprised and curious because she is well known for being very picky about the projects she attaches herself to. A few teaser trailers and months later, I was determined to go see it in theaters. My main concern, despite the excitement and buzz surrounding the film, was that it was going to just be a simple retelling as a live-action of the original animation (much like the Cinderella remake a couple years ago). It’s great to see what CGI can do but that doesn’t make a film interesting.
I am so thrilled to report that the 2017 remake is everything I could have asked for and more. It’s clear from some of the shots, that the director, Bill Condon, decided to pay a bit of homage to the original animation. But, from there he used it as a stepping stone to elevate the story to new heights. And how does he do that? He gives the characters context and autonomy, and raises the stakes. This is very much a retelling made for the 21st century. Yes, it is a fairy tale, but it reflects some very important realities that I hope the newest generation of children will grow up with.
First, I would like to discuss the changes that have been made to Belle’s character. In the animation, she was considered different and weird simply because of her love of books and reading. She was outspoken in the sense that her education allowed her to express her own opinions, but was tied to her town because of her genius yet highly eccentric father who she was entirely dependent on. Emma Watson’s version of Belle is the definition of independent. Yes, she values reading and education but she’s also extremely innovative and an inventor in her own right. She remains in the town out of love for her father because she knows that all they have is each other after the passing of her mother. I find the decision to create such a tragic backstory for their family so interesting. It makes so much sense that Belle was born in Paris, the universally recognized symbol of European culture, that then forcing her into the small-minded French countryside would of course make her feel stifled and out of place. What I really admired about this Belle was her refusal to accept situations that compromised her independence and the unapologetic ways with which she made her decisions. As I mentioned above, what makes this film so great is that each of the characters were given autonomy. They were not ruled by their circumstances or even by the magical aspect in some sense. Animated Belle in many ways became a victim of her circumstances. Live-Action Belle was an opponent. She made multiple attempts to escape the castle, she was more aggressive in her stance to reject Gaston, she took the initiative to find out about her past despite her father’s silence on the matter. It was very clear that she was in charge of every single decision that she made. And for that I have a lot of respect.
The Beast underwent one of the most interesting transformations between animation to live-action that had nothing to do with his physical appearance. In the animation he is extremely mysterious. Yeah, we know that he is a prince who was very arrogant and rude but became kind by the end of the film, but what else do we know about him?? Live-action Beast is a different creature altogether. Like Belle, he too was given a more fleshed out backstory. His kind mother died when he was very young, leaving him in the care of his father who was apparently a vile human being that tried to corrupt the gentle child into becoming just like him. Because there is not much early mention of the witch, I got the sense that Beast didn’t really blame her for the transformation (unlike in the animation), but rather blames himself for not being a better person. Self-loathing is evident in every aspect of his being — the way he dresses, the way he eats, and the way he portrays himself to other people. They judge him immediately when they see him, so he just subverts their judgement by becoming what they believed him to be before they can hurt him. And so he existed until Belle arrived. What I enjoyed about their relationship is that while the other characters immediately see Belle as a potential candidate to break the curse, Beast viewed her solely as an uninvolved party (and then friend) to the curse. This made their eventual love ring more true (and it once again emphasizes Belle’s role as an individual agent rather than a means to an end). I love that they were able to grow closer, not only because of Beast’s kindness towards her, but also because of their shared love of literature. He is just as smart and well read as she is, and the fact that they are able to connect intellectually is just wonderful. I honestly liked him a lot. His character proved to be so much more than a one dimensional character controlled by a curse. He was instead a character with complexity and history that we can relate to. And he got a song all for himself! Him singing alone in the tower as Belle left was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. It is a scene we do not get in the animation and Dan Stevens’ portrayal of loneliness, abandonment and love really brought the performance over the top.
As for the supporting characters, yes. Just yes. Well, except for Gaston because if you thought he couldn’t be more reprehensible of a person after watching the animation, then you thought wrong. His actions get way worse and more violent in the live-action. Consider yourself warned. The character I really want to talk about is Le Fou. What a glow up. And I’m not saying that because I particularly approved of him. This film gave him the chance to shed the unknown (I’ve watched the animation multiple times and never registered the fact that he had a name) stereotypical dumb sidekick, and become a person. Le Fou doesn’t come without flaws. He spent a great deal of the film enabling Gaston to enact his evil deeds and douchebaggery on the townspeople. But we see him struggle with himself and question why he stays with Gaston despite knowing that what he’s doing is wrong. While I didn’t always agree with him, I admire him for escaping a toxic relationship and for standing up for what he knows is right. Plus I was really happy that he found his happiness in the end.
And can I just talk about the diversity of the cast in general. What a beautiful sight it was. At the end when the household servants were changed back into humans and were mingling with the other townspeople, I was so overjoyed to see many people of different shapes, sizes and colors represented. I feel like everyone was waiting with baited breath to see what everyone would look like, but then I felt silly because I thought to myself ‘what does it matter what they look like! They’re still the characters I know and love!’ In any case I’m so happy that the casting directors really made an effort to cast an array of different actors for this film.
The last thing I want to touch on in the witch. She was the only character in the entire film that held any power over the other characters’ free will, so I’d like to even say that she’s one of the most important characters in the film. In the animation the curse is what actually holds power over the characters. The witch was mentioned briefly at the beginning but we never encounter her again and the curse is left to run its course. The witch in the live action holds all the power. It’s very ironic that she is also perceived as the least powerful person in the film. We don’t find out that she is the witch until the very end because she spent all the time up until then as a beggar-like unmarried woman whose word held no value. I was very pleased that the writers made the decision to have her lift the curse, rather than have it run its course. The Beast died before Belle was able to tell him that she loved him. Therefore all the servants became lifeless as well. But the witch specifically made the decision to revert things back to normal despite the curse triumphing because she wanted to. And here we see another example of free agency.
My highlights of the movie include:
- The ballroom dance scene (beautifully shot and just generally gorgeous)
- Beast throwing a giant snowball in Belle’s face
- Beast finally snapping and acknowledging that he is not a beast.
- Everything about the gay village guy who WERQED that dress during the epic fight scene
All in all, I enjoyed this film much more than the original. Because there was more context and higher stakes, we were made to care much more about the characters, which made all the emotional punches that much more effective. It was brilliantly done, and the cinematography was flawless. I 10/10 recommend this film (and the animation) to everyone! Who would have thought I’d feel so empowered after watching a fairy tale?