Monday, July 3, 2017

20+-Year-Wait: Disney's Live Action "Beauty and the Beast"

It is quite possible that the new live-action "Beauty and the Beast" was the longest anticipated movie of my life. Certainly I have been waiting for a live action version of "Beauty and the Beast" since I first read Robin McKinley's "Beauty." The Emma Watson film may not be an adaptation of that book, but, like the animated version before it, it has many of the same values which mean the two retelling often appeal to the same crowd of people. 

In Love with a Princess who Reads...

I was born in the late 1980's, which means that I was of the generation for which "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid" had the power over little girls that "Frozen" and "Tangled" have now. There was a period of time when all of my birthdays, Christmases, and trips to the Disney store were marked by Belle and Ariel acquisitions. (Some Jasmine, Nala and Pocohantas as well, but Belle and Ariel were my favorites). I had multiple barbies, including the Beast version that had a removable mask to transform the Beast into the prince.  Belle's gold gown was, at that time, a beautiful rich, deep gold, and I have yet to see a recreation of that gown that I like better. 

Yet it was Belle's love of books that would capture my sense of identity as I grew older, particularly when an aunt once told me, "You always remind me of Belle, with your head in a book while you walk everywhere!" Indeed, I used to give my parents heart attacks by walking and reading at the same time, especially when crossing parking lots! The fact that I'm alive today gives proof to the fact that I have good peripheral vision...or maybe just hyper-vigilant people around me! 

Belle was the princess who read, a fact that has made her perhaps one of the most beloved Disney princesses of all time. Most girls who read see a part of themselves in Belle. Yet this idea of a Belle who read is older than Disney--certainly Robin McKinley's version was published in 1978 and seems to have had some impact on the Disney adaptation. Yet fans may find themselves astonished to learn that the original "Beauty and the Beast," while written by a women, was possibly intended to teach young girls to find the good in the husbands of their arranged marriages. (This article discusses the fascinating evolution of the tale)

My treasured copy, which I read 6 times in the first year I got it.

Not surprisingly, Disney's Broadway Musical adaptation of their film expanded on the love of reading, clarifying that this is one of the reasons Belle and the Beast connect and fall in love with each other. "Something There" is expanded in the stage version to include more books. Way to make one of my favorite songs even more awesome! 

Indeed, although I long hoped for a good live action version of "Beauty and the Beast", it was my introduction to the Broadway musical at age 19 that truly got me hoping for a Disney adaptation. I wanted all of the new songs in a format I could see and not just hear. A summer spent costuming a local production left me with a lifetime of longing!

Photo from BBP's production of "Beauty and the Beast" in 2008, which I had the privilege of serving as lead costume designer.

Unfortunately, of course, none of the Broadway specific songs made it into the 2017 version of the film. This fact, more than any other, left me extremely disappointed. I feared that the new music couldn't possibly compare with the awesomeness of the Broadway version. Yet when I heard a recording of Dan Steven's "Evermore" I realized that it might, just might, be a worthy substitute for "How Long Must This Go On?"

All of this is a very long preamble to state that, based on my love of this story and long history with it, you are in for a very exhaustive review. Hang on to your coach-and-four, because we're about to take a trip into a fantastical, musical trip to the 1700's French countryside...

(Though there are now close-captioned movie theater options, my fibromyalgia sensory issues mean that large screens, even television screens, provoke migraines. I have to wait for everything to be available for home viewing so that I can safely watch it on my laptop screen. A pity in this case, because the lavish visuals of "Beauty and the Beast" are so clearly meant to be properly enjoyed on a large screen! This is why my review of this film is only coming out now, in June.)

I cannot write this blog post without comparing and contrasting the live action to the animated film. Yet, I wish to be clear up front, I believe there is plenty of space for both films in this world. Although the new film draws intense inspiration from the other, it nonetheless manages to exist as its own entity. 

I will admit, when the film first started, I wasn't sure what I thought. The operatic number in the prologue was so drastically different from any music I ever associated with "Beauty and the Beast" that I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. "Will all the new numbers be this unmemorable?" I wondered. From discussion of gold paint on Belle's dress, to the controversial broken-washing machine subplot, I'd heard enough rumors going in to spend the first act being a bit wary. 

Yet I'd also heard a lot of extremely positive reactions from people whose opinion I really trusted. So I told myself "let the film be the film and enjoy it for what it is." But I really didn't even need to tell myself that because as the film rushed forward, it captured my heart more with every moment. 

True confession? The whole reason I started watching "Downton Abbey" was because I'd fallen in love with Dan Stevens in "Sense and Sensibility." So I knew he could do period, and I knew he could sing. What I didn't know was whether his acting range was enough to encompass all that playing the Beast requires...but then "Legion" came out. That show is the weirdest, trippiest thing I have ever seen and I only recommend it to very mature audiences who appreciate bizzare psychological stories with mindpowers...but it showcased Steven's abilities like nothing else. It also made it very clear that the man loves doing weird stuff. So when "Beauty and the Beast" started off with the Prince getting ridiculous make-up, I laughed and laughed and laughed because I was certain that Stevens had the time of his life looking so ridiculous. 

(My husband, who has watched just as much of Steven's work as I have, had no idea that he played the Beast. So, while every facial mannerism and vocal nuance of the Beast was familiar to me, it was because I knew the actor well, not because he wasn't doing a good job losing himself in the character.

At any rate, I thought the prologue did a very good job of setting up why the prince got enchanted. This is perhaps the most glaring weakness of the animated film, particularly since that version makes a big point of stating that the prince had to fall in love by his 21st birthday, meaning that he got enchanted when he was 10-years-old. Birthdays are never mentioned in the live action version, and a very short montage quickly paints this Prince as a spoiled peacock, prancing around in adoration of a horde of females, whose identities are lost. Indeed, I'm interested in this particular aspect as juxtaposed against Gaston, who sees his own group of identical fangirls as boring and not worth the chase. While Gaston's attitude is not any less problematic, there is a certain message being sent here that the Prince is not only vain and spoiled, he's also lazier than Gaston.

The other weaknesses of the enchantment in the story are also strengthened or at least lampshaded. Firstly, Belle points out how ridiculous it is to hold a person in prison for life over a single rose. The Beast replies that he himself was damned over a rose. It doesn't make the situation any less ridiculous, but it clarifies why the Beast would institute such an extreme punishment. His mind and perceptions have gotten very twisted over the time of his enchantment. 

The other issue is the plight of the servants. In some versions of the tale, the Beast's servants are magical helpers (McKinley has them be volunteers from another realm). In the animated film, however, our beloved magical staff are unlucky victims of the curse. In the live action version, we are presented with a slightly different version, namely that the servants believe their punishment is deserved, since they allowed the Prince to be corrupted by his father. It still doesn't seem entirely fair, since one can't believe that Chip and the dog were at all at fault, but it goes a long way to adding some depth to those characters (as well as making the enchantress more wise and less weirdly vindictive). 

While on the subject of the enchanted objects, I will say that overall I loved what they did with them. The original photos left me worried and slightly creeped out, but the final versions as brought to life in the film worked very well. Although Stanley Tucci's character did, perhaps, add a little too much sideplot, I nonetheless appreciated how it highlighted the tragedy of the enchantment, that it separated family and lovers from each other. The voice acting was all great, and I loved the look on my husband's face when I revealed that Lumiere was "Obi-Wan Kenobi." 

I adored the castle design. It felt delightfully magical and creepy and perfectly enchanted. All of the random doorways and staircases brought to mind the cover of "Beauty" as I shared it above, so it felt quite familiar and appropriate to me. 

I also appreciated that they used the subplot from the Broadway musical wherein each time a petal fell, the castle and it's inhabitants fell more under the enchantment. It's a great twist that adds to the impending doom without the weird "21st birthday" bit. 

Frank confession? I never really questioned why the Beast's castle is surrounded by snow, when Belle's village is so clearly in the midst of summer. I guess I always assumed the Beast's castle was way up in the mountains or something? Anyhow, I love that they made it clear in the film that the snow was a result of the enchantment, and it adds to the seeming madness of Maurice's tale. 

Which leads us to the interesting twist that the entire town was also under an enchantment--an enchantment to forget about the castle's existence. This allows for a shorter time gap without having to explain why no one wondered or remembered that there was a cursed beast wandering around. However it also does something else: it creates a very plausible reason for why the townspeople are so very resistant to any unusual or inquisitive behavior in their community. It's almost as if they have been enchanted to not question anything...ever

Because, of course, by the time the film is supposed to take place (more on that in a bit), women reading was not a weird thing. This Wikipedia article quotes a figure of 40% literacy rate for women by 1750. Even assuming that this would not be true for the rural French countryside, one would still predict that there would be more literate females than just Belle! And while the boys are shown going to school, the Priest makes it clear that Belle is the only person in the town that appreciates reading. Which, of course, is why there is no bookstore, and they had to chance Belle's source of reading material from a shop to the local Priest. 

I cannot, of course, speak to the filmmaker's original intentions, but my headcanon is that the enchantment did squelch a spirit of inquisitiveness among the locals. Perhaps this is because they, like the townspeople, were considered by the Enchantress to be complicit in supporting the Prince's selfishness. They also needed their spell to be broken by an outsider. And who are the only outsiders we see in the film? Belle and her Father...

"Okay Elizabeth, this is all great, but you've now written approximately 2000 words and we still haven't talked about BELLE!" 

Probably because I don't like controversy? And I don't want the Emma Watson controversy to become the focal point of this piece? The truth is, I didn't mind Emma as Belle. I actually think there's a lot about her that was quite perfect for the role. Yes, it was hard not to see Hermione all the time. And yes, they autotuned her voice too much when they probably should have just dubbed her. But otherwise she worked well for me. I understand this isn't true for everyone, and that will make or break the film in their opinions, and that's okay. Art is subjective. In my subjective opinion, I enjoyed Emma as Belle, and I enjoyed knowing that the role was played by someone who cared passionately about it, even if she maybe got a little too much say on some costumes*.

*see bottom of article for my note on costumes. 

I gave you my theory about the town being enchanted. But here's my other thought on the "Belle" song. I think it's largely taking place in Belle's head. You know, when you are kind of different from everyone else, you think they are thinking mean things about you. When, really, they are probably not caring two cents about you at all! Sure, from Belle's other lines and the washing machine incident, it's clear that people in the town have said mean things to her over the years, but I don't think they all stare at her every time she walks through town and think 'wow she's so crazy!!!!!'

I mean, they might think this: 

Retrieved from Humans of Tumblr on Facebook

But, on the other hand, there's the dressmaker who has this fond sort of "isn't she cute" look that I love:

Screen Capture from 

And, too, there is the line "Strange but special" which, either the song IS in Belle's head and she's thinking "but I'm special!" or the townspeople think she's odd, but they also think she's adorable. 

The whole 'let's destroy the washing machine' thing makes no sense outside of an enchanted scenario though. As many others have pointed out online, anything that saved labor would have almost certainly been greeted with great joy in that day and age. 

I thought that I would dislike the fact that Belle became the inventor in the live action film. However, it's not that Maurice isn't an inventor, but that he's more of a tinkerer/artist. And it worked really well for the sense of nostalgia in the film. The little bit of backstory they created with Belle's mother was nice in that it explained how two such unusual people came to live in a little town that wasn't a fan of innovation, and it also explains why Maurice never wanted to take his brilliant daughter back to Paris. Yes, it would have been good for Belle, but it carried too many sad memories for her father. It also set up nicely why a rose was so important to Belle, and why her father would make such a point to bring one back. The rose represents Belle's mother. 

Here I'll take a side note to mention that I adored the new songs written for the film. "Days in the Sun," "How does a moment last forever" and "Evermore" were gorgeous and haunting. Yes, I'm tremendously sad that I still don't have versions of "Me," "Home" and (especially!) "How Long Must This Go On" that I can watch over and over again, but they still exist, and this way the new songs get to exist as well, and I can live with that. The musical songs will probably appear on some local stage every other year for the rest of my life, so it's not like I can't watch them...and just listening to the soundtrack is pretty amazing too. 

(In fact, by not using the songs from the musical, Disney kind of ensured that there would still be a reason to go see the story on stage and not just pop in the DVD. Clever, eh?)

At this point I should probably take a moment to elaborate on what I mean by the time frame I keep discussing in this review. Movie Pilot has a nice little article on that point, examining a quote by Gaston Actor Luke Evans and the costumes of the film. However, the one bit that this article does not take into account is the plague mask discovered by the Beast in Belle's childhood home. The last great outbreak of the Plague in Europe took place in Marseille, France, 1720. Now, one can theorize a scenario where someone from Marsaille came up to Paris and infected Belle's mother, and a doctor in Paris happened to have an old-fashioned plague mask that they immediately utilized. Trying to reconcile Gaston as 16 in 1740 with Belle being born in perhaps 1722 doesn't quite work, as it seems unlikely that Belle is older than Gaston (although they could be the same age). However, this is a Disney fairy tale film and dating it specifically is more of a geeky hobby that I'm doing for fun, rather than something that I really expect to work out exactly. Still, the film is likely set somewhere near the 1750's. 

Gaston was given an actual character arc in this film, which I greatly appreciated. He starts off as a self-centered guy with a short temper, but initially isn't that bad. The events of the film show his progression from selfish to outright cruel, which has the benefit of making him three dimensional and more believable.

Of course the character who went through the most character development was Lefou. Controversy aside, I appreciated how we got to see a "Disney Villian Sidekick" go through a crisis of conscience and ultimately chose to side with the good guys. 

But it is not only the bad guys who benefit from expanded character development. I've already mentioned some of the details that were added for Belle and the Beast, but of particular note is how their relationship has been expanded here. The animated movie did a decent job with the time frame they were given, but the Broadway musical seized their expanded story room to add more depth to the relationship and the live action film built on that. Belle and the Beast bond over their love of books, but more than that, Belle teaches the Beast to see the true beauty in the world. His father taught him to value gilt finishes and empty flattery, but Belle teaches the Beast to see the beauty in the world that is--whether the breathtaking gorgeousness of a winter landscape, or the depth of human love and sacrifice that Belle and her father constantly make for each other. 

And thus we come full circle. In the first scene, the Prince dances among a crowd of adoring females, leading the steps, making all of the decisions. Everything centers on him, and he is the only one in color. In the final dance, the Prince and Belle dance together, among a host of friends, showing their true faces, their true love, and their true happiness. The camera shows them together, but it also shows the other characters, because Belle and the Prince know that they are not the only players in their story, and every member of their community has value to them.

At the end of the story, my only remaining complaint is that at times it felt that the film was too tightly edited. I think there were a few shots and scenes taken out to accommodate a shorter run time that would have been better left in. I wish we'd had a little more time to let the story breathe. But this is a mild complaint that I noticed less and less as the film progressed. By the time the credits rolled I was utterly in love, and rewatched most of the movie just a few days later.

I went into watching this film with trepidation and excitement. I longed for it to be good, but feared that it wouldn't. To discover at the end that I think I love it more than the animated version of my childhood...both surprised and thrilled me. Of course, I need more years of rewatching both to truly see how this one stands the test of time. But for now, it is safe to say that the 2017 live action version exceeded my expectations. 

That said...I still hope someone does a good film adaptation of Robin McKinley's "Beauty" someday.

And yes, I'm going to watch the new French version as well, now that it is finally on the US Netflix.

Some of you may be wondering why I didn't talk about the costumes in this review. That is because I wrote a very long blog post over on my sewing blog going into all of the costuming details. Check it out here!


AnneMarie said...

I really do need to read McKinley's book, because I'm pretty sure that I haven't yet. Thanks for sharing your review! I love reading what you think about the movie. The character development was great, and I really enjoyed seeing all the ways that they fleshed out the plot more and filled in the gaps-especially with Gaston. Luke Evans really nailed it. I do not remember Dan Stevens being in S&S, so I think I'll have to go back and rewatch that!!!

Shaylynn said...

I really enjoyed this review :)

Beauty and the Beast has a special place in my heart, too. I'm a bit younger, so the animated version was *always* around, a staple of my childhood. I loved that Belle was a reader and that, more than anything, drew me into the story. I identified with her in a way that I never identified with the other princesses. (It also helped that she had brown hair and her voice wasn't squeaky and high-pitched-- it's amazing what's important to little kids [and makes me realize more how important it is to have diverse characters]).

The (amazing) live-action Cinderella was really interesting for me, and I fell in love with that movie in a way that I never did with the animated version. I loved almost all the changes they made to the story and fleshed out all the characters. They could never take so many liberties with a Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, since the music is basically synonymous with the story now. And so I would have expected myself to be a "movie purist" and hate all the musical changes, etc. Like you, I was hesitant as news started coming out about this film. I've seen several versions of the Broadway play and almost every Belle on stage was more "Belle-like" than Emma Watson to me. (It's not even her being Hermione or a "bad singer." Somehow, Waston seems to "pretty" for Belle, which is hilarious since the character's name literally means beauty. I think my understanding of Belle was shaped too much by McKinley and this idea I've got in my mind that since Belle is unusual in her town, she's got to be beautiful in an unusual way, not super-uber-conventionally-modern-type-of-pretty).

I think it helps that back in early high school I wrote my first "real" research paper on Beauty and the Beast and the history of the fairytale. There's so many interesting versions of it. It's a literary tale more than a folk tale, which is really interesting, and Mme de Villeneuve's original version is CRAZY full of politics and random useless details. Every version of it is so different and the characters change in every telling (in some versions, Belle's entire family takes advantage of her kindness and selfishly abandon her to the Beast so that they can grow rich!). And of course there are wonderful retellings like McKinley's "Beauty" :) (Another sidenote: give Cocteau's B&W film a watch on YouTube, it's a fascinating pre-Disney telling that I love for its utter weirdness).

I think the live-action film is up there among my very favorite versions of Beauty and the Beast. That being said, it kept giving me a sense of dejavu. It's not quite reimagining the story... it's not quite a scene-for-scene version of either the animated movie or the Broadway musical... but halfway through, that stopped bothering me.

I LOVE the level of backstory that the film gave all the peripheral characters (and the explanation of how the enchantment works). It helps the characters so much, even if logic has to do a few leaps and summersaults to work around Chip and the dog being under the enchantment, or what *exactly* the enchantresses was hoping to achieve with the initial curse over the prince, castle, and townsfolk. And even though there was a great deal of controversy about LeFou, I mostly love the changes to his character. It's so important to see a character struggling with his conscience, and for him to see how destructive his mindless hero-worship of Gaston was.

Shaylynn said...

Gaston is even creepier in this version than the animated film, because I actually started off LIKING his character. I mean, he was stuck up and horrible, but he had such confidence and bravado and was less of a caricature. That humanity made his "chase" of Belle, his willingness to leave her father to die, and the way he killed the Beast all the more horrible.

You know, I don't think I'd realized that the plotline about each petalfall deepening the enchantment is actual from the Broadway version!

Also-- oh my goodness-- your theory about the enchantment squelching the curiosity and creativity out of the villagers makes SO MUCH SENSE.

The time period kept throwing me for a loop. On one hand, it's set in a fairytale world where there's not a real historical setting... and the fact that the costumes, sets, and cast aren't 100% clear on a solid historical setting helps that sense of "other reality" you get in a lot of fairytales. I just accepted the film's alternate reality where no girls were allowed to attend school and Belle was the only person in love with reading. But the big about the plague and the mask pulled me out of that reality for a little. Sitting in the theater, I kept trying to place the time period when the plaque devastated Paris... and getting distracted by the fact that that really didn't make sense in the mid 1700's.

lol "Well there goes Belle, singing her DAILY MEAN SONG about us" :D

Unlike you, I wasn't really worried about Belle being an inventor... I was more worried that the movie wouldn't live up to the hype! (This is another case of me relating very personally with the character of Belle; I love adventures and books and art and inventing/creating things, of COURSE Belle would, too! lol). Her relationship with her father was so precious, and I love both from a character and plot standpoint how he was less the crazy eccentric inventor of useless concoctions, and more a distractible tinkerer/artist/artisan.

I also loved that the Beast is an avid reader. It gave him and Belle something to be passionate about together, and made so much sense as a beginning of a friendship that was founded on more than just the scene with Belle deciding to take the injured Beast back to the castle.

and the costumes <3 Even the ones I'm not the biggest fan of are still spectacular.

Have you gotten a chance to see the cut scenes? With the exception of LeFou's scenes with the potty humor, there were very interesting-- especially the older version of Days in the Sun.

This was fun to watch with my 9 year old brother and 3 year old sister, because they got such different things out of the film than I did. Neither of them remembered the animated film very well and both got a kick out of interesting parts of the movie (like the dress that Belle literally climbs out of, or falling in love with the little dog/footstool) and both laughed hysterically at what I considered the super-annoying piano character.

As you can tell I have Lots of Thoughts about this film but I've already written a small essay and don't have time for more right now :)

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

Yes, I have seen Cocteau's version! Long ago, back when I still ordered discs from Netflix ;)

I agree completely about Gaston. He worked so much better as a villain because he didn't start out so awful. I agree that in the beginning I 'liked' him in a way and that made the whole arc creepier.

I was surprised to find that the last plague epidemic in Europe was indeed in France in the 1700's - albiet on the opposite side of the country! The plague mask threw me off too, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that they actually (sort of) did their research on this one!