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Beauty and The Beast is a terrible movie. I love it.

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The movie poster for the 2017 version of Disney's Beauty and The Beast, which features the main characters at the top and the ensemble assembled around a smaller picture of Belle and The Beast dancing.

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 CarsCars 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.

11 Comments

  1. Kel
    Kel

    The magical book came with the curse, not before. And I got the impression that it was more of a visual travel rather than actual travel.

    Also, they couldn’t have used a bway song to be nominated for an Oscar, it has to be a totally new song. 🙂

    March 27, 2017
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  2. Sheila the Wonderbink
    Sheila the Wonderbink

    I think I’ll just curl up with the Cocteau version of the tale (which I highly recommend) and avoid this one.

    March 27, 2017
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  3. shel
    shel

    I had fun with this one… sure, it’s not as good as the original, but I liked knowing more about the curse (Though I wish we had gotten more info on the enchantress) the new songs were just okay, but it was still ridiculous fun all around.

    I did think the “gay” scene was far to brief to have earned all of the outrage, and would have been fine with something more than a few seconds hinting at a man interested in another man. Not as groundbreaking as they promised.

    I’m sure it will join our Disney movie collection when it comes out on DVD.

    March 27, 2017
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  4. Jo
    Jo

    I think they could have avoided creating a new plot hole with the book if they had thrown in a line saying “Well, it doesn’t really transport me there, it just lets me see the world as if it was an illsuion without actually interacting with it”, which would have made it all the more fucked-up for Beast and all the more understandable that he was excited to share the journey with Belle. But then Belle had to bring back the rattle or whatever the hell it was that thing to show it to her father and it was like “Oh, so they really did go there… what the fuck didn’t they use that then?”

    March 27, 2017
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    • shel
      shel

      They could have used it other times, but the beast didn’t want to get away from the mob… he was all mopey and she didn’t come back… so that part of the film wouldn’t really matter.

      March 27, 2017
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  5. Beauty and the Beast was never my favorite Disney (its not even Top 5) mostly because Belle being mocked for her penchant for reading hit WAY TOO CLOSE to how I was treated at school and I knew, even at the age of 7, there wasn’t a Prince waiting to sweep me away because I wouldn’t WANT a Prince to sweep me away (I’d want unholy revenge ala tearing them apart in their nightmares…when Disney Meets Wes Craven as your upbringing pop culture). That said I enjoy Emma Watson, I love watching Luke Evans be a prat and I love watchinb Ewan McGregor swan around.

    That said – I loved Gaston and LeFou the most? I was uncomfortable with how they made LeFou so OBVIOUS however – the cartoon version was such a bumbling fool that it made sense he’d hero worship Gaston despite Gaston’s obvious villainy – but this LeFou had scruples (on occasion) and at least seemed to acknowledge Gaston’s out of control violence/anger was NOT the impression he should make, hinting that the guy had basic level intelligence at the very least. I wish they would have played up a bit more that LeFou was ALWAYS acting the mediator for Gaston, that a lot of his more “bumbling” mannerisms was because he knew Gaston was amused by them and an amused Gaston was a happier person to be around.

    And like other reviewers noted, the minor amount of context that Gaston’s arrogance is given (his rank of military Captain in a small village would go a long way to earning acclaim) and his shows of pettiness in the beginning helped to really flesh out how much of a bastard this guy was.

    March 27, 2017
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  6. Nocturnal Queen
    Nocturnal Queen

    I haven’t seen the movie since I’m an abuse survivor and the animated film made me really uncomfortable. He is violent, mean and since he threatened to starve her unless she dined with him as he wished, her survival depends on her being submissive to him. She falls in love with him because he changed from being her captor and an asshole to her sort of captor and not as much of an asshole. Being mean and then being nice for a while is such a common thing for abusers to do and the victim is manipulated into thinking their abuser has changed or really love them after all. The only other people she really has any contact with besides the Beast are the enchanted objects that suffered from his violence too. The other villagers also become a part of the us-against-them-mentality that often is big in domestic violence.

    I worry that films like this encourges young women to stay with men who treat them badly because the message in the story is basically that being stuck with a beast might not turn out to be that bad after all since a woman’s nature and nurture can change him.

    I’m really sorry if my text is messy and difficult to comprehend. English is not my first language.

    March 27, 2017
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    • SaintSithney
      SaintSithney

      See, my thinking was always that the story isn’t that “Love changes an abuser”, but that “Love can reverse progressive dementia”. A plot thread that was written but not expanded on in the original cartoon is that the beast-form is causing beastial tendencies. Beast is losing his mind and is aware of it – he’s gone from being spoiled and having a quick temper to having barely any control over himself.

      I noticed that in how he started to wear real clothes again, re-learned how to eat with utensils, re-learned how to read, and basically became human again. I can see how people could get the impression that it’s love will make an abuser stop yelling at you, but to me, it always seemed a much less transferrable message to real life, because who knows if love reverses magical curses?

      March 27, 2017
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      • Nocturnal Queen
        Nocturnal Queen

        I guess I’m affected by the original story which purpose was to comfort young girls who may have to marry someone they don’t like, aren’t attracted to and who may not be that nice to them.

        March 28, 2017
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  7. Susan
    Susan

    As a queer woman, I was prepared to seeth over LeFou’s characterization, but I actually … didn’t mind it overmuch? This LeFou was clearly infatuated with Gaston, but the little gay asides were like, “he’ll come around, you’ll see” rather than him as a starstruck fool. Not in great taste, but not as bad as it could have been. They could have done SO MUCH better, but they could have fucked it up a lot more too. I thought Josh Gad kept us laughing *with* him rather than *at* him.

    March 27, 2017
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    • Casey
      Casey

      I feel like making LeFou Josh Gad was one of the movie’s few (only?) strokes of brilliance. It’s really, really hard not to love that guy.

      March 28, 2017
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