A remake of the 1991 animated Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast tells the story of Belle, her father and an enchanted castle with a cursed prince in non-too-specific pre-industrial France. Aisling and Lee review.
It may be a ‘Tale As Old As Time’, but it’s told with freshness, flair and humour.
Disney’s animated version was described by Bill Condon in 2015 as being the “perfect film”. Although the live-action re-telling doesn’t quite surpass its 1991 counterpart in the way Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella did, Beauty and the Beast hits all the big notes, whilst adding in a few new melodies of its own.
Beauty and the Beast is at its best when Condon doesn’t stray far from the original story – Belle and the Beast have always been the beating heart of the story. Attempts at creating links between the two titular characters through their deceased mothers, whilst perfectly fine, fall flat when juxtaposed with familiar scenes. The ballroom scene in particular stirs up wistful nostalgia.
Although I was initially sceptical of Condon’s casting, I was pleasantly proved very wrong; Watson immediately charms in her big opening number, whilst the supporting cast are simply enchanting, with Josh Gad and Luke Evans in particular stealing the show as a camper, vibrant version of LeFou and a vainer, nastier Gaston.
Beauty and the Beast doesn’t pretend there’s something there that wasn’t there before. Instead, it is a touching, beautiful – and at times hilarious – recreation. You’ve seen it all before, but it’s still absolutely enchanting.
Let’s remove the remake context out of the picture here: what is Beauty and the Beast? A fairy tale romance set against the backdrop of an 18th-ish century France, in which a girl is captured by and later falls for a prince turned beast whilst her jaded unrequited love turns to violence in the pursuit of her affections. Not many stories more simple, it’s a love story with familiar love story tropes; a romance with a brooding Byronic male, a bookish strong-willed female and a tortured asshole third party trying to ruin everybody’s good times – not too far from Jane Eyre territory, at any rate.
What (both) versions of Beauty and the Beast do well is play up the right elements. A fantasy element to give the story some flavour, a touch of mystery to keep us asking questions about the people involved and what drives them, and music to bring home that folksy aesthetic. It’s a “tale as old as time” after all, and there’s no pretence that it should be much more than that, so the simpler the better and the more pretty distractions and moving pieces, the less reason we have to question the actual material.
It’s when your story then tries its hand at crafting backstories, creating on-the-nose parallels between your characters and calling them out as if we can’t tell, introducing moral ambiguity or even general morality into the tale that we start getting pulled out of the experience. We have drama, but do we need melodrama? How many characters are too many? How many tortured ballads can we really endure? How much pathos can you ask of us before you ask too much? Before long, it all gets so boring.
If you haven’t been following, this is our crisis with Beauty and the Beast. For every moment of sweeping joy comes an equivalent moment of boring exposition, of plot movements that detract from what we really care about. Somehow in this film, the central romance of the main characters comes tertiary to a story about a man’s quest to please/save his daughter and the fate of a bunch of people who have been turned into various household objects. The romance here is charming in its black-and-white efficiency, but the story feels the less time spent on it the better because it’s the part we expect, and maybe so, but then how does switching focus to the trials of a teapot and her cup son, or the bumbling rescue attempts of a madman father feel remotely worthy of taking their place?
Kids are bound to swoon for the pretty dresses, adults might be hooked by the haunted castle and its lightly gothic intrigue, and everyone laughs as the villain keeps failing to find the woman of his affections, but how does taking us to Paris on a magic exposition ride further our understanding of the characters in any interesting way, and how does it increase our enjoyment of the story at all?
Attempting to find understanding in the characters beyond the broad strokes is a mistake entirely; Belle wants more than her provincial life, and longs for adventure, but one caged romance and a large book collection later she’s ready to unpack her bags and call it a day? If someone was playing for gold digger laughs, we could laugh, otherwise it’s just not a well-thought out character writing. And what of the Beast? He’s a cruel, cold-hearted monster that, outside his actions of imprisoning people and caring for unwelcome guests, seems little more than rude and constantly attempting to improve himself. The story wants friction in plot only, as once character gets involved, it becomes too dangerous to have anyone seriously disagree with another.
It’s absolutely acceptable for a story to have zero characterisation and go for the big beats, but it at least has to stick to that decision and not drag the story out for two hours trying to fill in non-gaps. This is the exact same problem The Sound of Music has: all friction dies off early, all strong-wills fade away, and then it’s just a story of people who love each other avoiding bigger threats they don’t really understand or have much relation to, plus too much exposition and not enough scenery, pretty-things and romance. Also people sing songs; some good and some not so good.
There are plenty of good parts here, but the whole thing is overwrought in the most boring, contrived ways. It’s sure to be an enjoyable expansion for those who love the animated original; bound to be a dreadfully dull lengthening of an already very straightforward story to the non-fans. For the rest of us, it’s nothing special, but the kids will still watch the DVD endlessly on repeat, so does it matter?