Where to start with the magnificent mess that is the Bill Condon remake of Disney’s classic Beauty and The Beast? It’s horrible. It’s wonderful. It should never have been made, but it was and now we all have to live with it. But how? How do we cope with a movie that is somehow the worst and best movie Disney has ever made (including the one where they murdered all those lemmings and excluding Song of the South).
Before we go any further, let’s not do so under false pretenses: minus the nonsensical additions, Beauty and The Beast is a faithful, near shot-by-shot remake of the original. During Belle’s eponymous reprise, she announces that she “wants much more than this provincial life” before running dutifully from the village to the pastoral hills beyond to continue, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.” The sequence is so similar to the animated movie, I found myself thinking, she’d better hustle if she wants to get to the top of that hill in time for the music cue.
Though the actors try valiantly to bring something new to their parts, it’s impossible. Beauty and The Beast is one of those movies that so thoroughly captures its place in popular culture that future generations will instinctually know at birth every slow blink of Belle’s doe eyes and the growl of Robbie Benson’s beastly snarl. There is no way for the viewer to separate themselves from the original, and the constant comparisons between the two find the new version tragically lacking for what has been touted as the most expensive movie musical ever filmed.
So, why did I like it so much?
Beauty and The Beast somehow hit the sweet spot between my childhood nostalgia and my love of shitting all over bad movies. I careened from being dazzled by the stunning visuals to seething over the seemingly endless stream of gay jokes. I reveled in the Lurhman-esque sensory overload of “Be Our Guest” (complete with a Moulin Rouge-tribute finale) while gleefully asserting that Ewan McGregor was no threat to Jerry Orbach’s legacy. When The Beast transformed into Dan Stevens, I thought well, he’s hot, but he still ruined Downton Abbey. It’s the polar opposite of Condon’s Dreamgirls adaptation, in which he took phenomenal source material and created a masterpiece that can be enjoyed parallel to the original. Here, he’s taken phenomenal source material and produced a staggeringly expensive argument for the superiority of the animated film.
Perhaps the best part of the utterly absurd badness of Beauty and The Beast was the fact that, like the enchanted objects populating the Beast’s crumbling castle, it seemed to have some sort of sentient awareness coupled with a complete lack of shame. “Yes, I know I’m a straight-forward retelling of a movie that had far more charm, but I’m here and you’re going to like me.” I couldn’t feel guilty about watching it when it was so unapologetic.
Not that there isn’t plenty to apologize for. If I weren’t so thoroughly indoctrinated to uncritically enjoy everything that Disney slaps in front of my face (except Cars. Cars can burn for all I care), I would hate the movie far more than I loved it. But it struck a hellish balance; for every big change I despised, there was a smaller change that triumphantly challenged things fans have always wondered about. For example, the matter of the Prince’s age, a hotly debated piece of Disney canon that placed him at twenty-one after the castle dining utensils had spent ten years rusting, as per “Be Our Guest.” Whatever could an eleven-year-old have done to condemn not just himself, but all of his servants, to such a hellish existence? How had it taken an entire village a mere decade to forget the monarchy that lived next door and suddenly vanished overnight?
And yet, some of the changes simply raise more questions. Why, if The Beast had a magical book that could transport him anywhere in the world, did he not use it to escape the mob storming the castle? At the very least, Belle could have used it to reach the village faster when her father was in danger. If the harpsichord emerged from the spell toothless due to loss of keys, why didn’t Chip’s human form manifest with a gory open head wound? And why did anyone on the production staff assume that we were curious about Belle’s mother’s cause of death? Especially when the sequence in which we saw Belle spirited away from Paris to avoid the plague had little to no bearing on the overall plot? And why does The Beast’s insensitivity now damn not just the servants in the castle, but their loved ones in the village, whose minds were violated by the spell’s memory-altering component?
The musical choices are bizarre and inexplicable. The limp “Evermore,” though capably performed by Stevens, might as well have been accompanied by the words “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” flashing across the center of the screen. Obviously, a Disney movie musical has to have an entry for the Best Original Song category come awards time, but why cast aside the Broadway version’s “If I Can’t Love Her” for a pale, inferior imitation? The same can be said for the saccharine “How Does A Moment Last Forever”. The syrupy sentiment could have been more capably served with the stage adaptation’s “No Matter What” (and given us a chance to hear Kevin Kline and Emma Watson duet). Beauty and The Beast has never lacked for unreleased tracks and alternate versions. That we didn’t see Luke Evans belting about his perfect thighs in “Me” is nothing short of a tragedy; that Audra McDonald sang fewer bars than Emma Thompson is heresy.
The much vaunted “exclusively gay moment” was a reach-for-your-popcorn-and-you’ll-miss-it flicker. After existing as a walking two-hour gay joke, LeFou is redeemed by an eleventh-hour conversion which occurs only after he becomes the target of Gaston’s treachery. After blithely admitting that he’s changed sides mid-battle to join the winning team, he is rewarded with a male dance partner moments before the credits roll. It was only a split-second, but I vaguely recognized the unnamed man as a character from the mob who, upon finding himself bewigged, be-gowned, and made up beautifully in an attack by McDonald’s Madame Garderobe, doesn’t run but instead grins with delight. For a movie supposedly making strides no other could achieve, Beauty and The Beast spends more time laughing at queerness than with it. Still, I found myself thrilling at the notion of a gay character–a villain’s henchman, no less–getting a romance that didn’t end up with someone dead. That says more about the current state of our creative media than the progressiveness of Beauty and The Beast.
There are some smart choices made in the update. I’ve always rejected the notion that Belle suffered from Stockholm syndrome; if anything, The Beast develops its counterpart, Lima syndrome. But there’s still the desert island issue: sure, Belle falls in love with The Beast, but it’s probably easy to become enamored of someone when they’re the only person around who has a pulse. In an attempt to fix this problem, we see Belle and The Beast bond over their common love of books. In her village, Belle faces derision and destruction of her property for daring to teach a little girl to read, yet the Beast is pleased to learn that Belle is not only literate but well-read. He even grudgingly reads the medieval equivalent of a romance novel after she reforms his thinking on the subject. It’s a wan nod to the very same pop-culture feminism that loves to endlessly dissect the Disney Princess phenomenon, but it does make Belle’s choices clearer. In the animated version, there weren’t many differences between The Beast and the reviled Gaston aside from how the narrative blatantly instructed us to perceive them. Here, the differences are plain. Though The Beast physically imprisons Belle, he wants her mind and her spirit to be free. Gaston doesn’t just want to revoke Belle’s physical autonomy; he wants to keep her from escaping into the world of books, as well. When Belle opines that no one can love if they aren’t free, The Beast lets her go. When Belle refuses Gaston’s advances, he tries to murder her father and have her committed to an asylum. It’s hard to argue that she’s made a poor romantic choice in the only eligible bachelor within fifty miles who doesn’t bemoan her literacy and independence.
At its heart, Beauty and The Beast is what it is. It’s not the pro-gay, rah-rah feminist update to a classic that it was made out to be in the weeks leading up to the premiere, but it is the CGI-and-sequins spectacle we were promised. It’s too ambitious, too lavish, too earnest to feel cheap, but too lazy, too glitzy, and far too obvious to add any value. Yes, it relies solely on nostalgia and hype mistaken for quality, but by the time Celine Dion warbled over the credits (a quarter of a century after she first sang the title theme from the animated film) I just didn’t care. How could I, when I’d just been sent such a gilded and sparkling care package from my childhood?
I resent the fact that Beauty and The Beast expected me to love it; I resent more that I absolutely do.