The 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast is arguably one of the best movies Disney ever made. The songs and story are strong enough to lend themselves to a Broadway interpretation as well as a new live-action adaptation released this week. My wife and I went to the Thursday night showing, because we just couldn’t wait until “opening night.”
Full disclosure: my wife and I love the original. In fact, we loved it so much that we inadvertently played Belle and Beast in two separate productions of the musical in towns on opposite ends of our state the same year. So we have spent a good amount of time with the story and songs of both the movie and stage production. Even after being surrounded by it for months at a time and with over a hundred views between the two of us of the animated version, it is safe to say we still love this movie.
Going into the viewing, we were interested to see the changes and what the director and art designers had come up with for each of our characters. Looking at stills, I can say I wasn’t a huge fan of the art design when it came to the characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth, but they grew on me and I began to accept the new art style as a unique take on the characters. I did miss some of the original voice cast, but due to age or death, we could not have all of them back.
Right out of the gate, this movie drips with amazing costume design and a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack. The costume reflect the period of French history that the story would have taken place, and the references to historical events such as wars and plagues give the world a stronger pull of reality than the animated version. My wife and I were floored at the attention to detail of both the set design and costuming that both paid homage to the familiar look of the animated film, while creating a solid, more realistic world for these characters to inhabit. The opening narration and score brought chills again, but with added visuals that created a greater sense of urgency than the stained-glass approach.
I have to give it to the writers this time around: they listened. Beauty and the Beast has been a whipping boy for unanswered questions in a film since it was released. I cannot tell you how many videos and articles I have read jokingly teasing the 1991 film for the amount of details that were glossed over that would have allowed for a more compelling story. In this retelling, we discover what happened to Belle’s mother, learn about Beast’s family life, why the villagers seem to have no idea about the gigantic castle not so very far away, and even why the servants were implicated in the curse as well. It felt at times as if the writers were cleverly nodding and winking when these details were given.
Speaking of writing, every character gets an upgraded story that makes them more relate-able, especially LeFou and the Beast. The Beast’s banter with Belle creates a much more believable relationship, while LeFou is given some genuine challenges and complex moral choices. Overall, I was happy that each character was given a fair shake and their characters fleshed out with their dialogue and choices as well literally being “fleshed out” by this being live action. The Beast is also much less terrifying and “beast-like” in this version, coming across much more like a wounded person than animalistic. (That said, the wolves have gotten an upgrade in intensity, so do be wary of that.) Each character has the ability to make choices, or has made choices in the past that affect the plot. It is refreshing when every character has agency, especially the female characters (Belle, Mrs. Potts, even the wardrobe and village women.) Belle is especially bold in this version, shedding whatever demure qualities she had in the animated film for a more confrontational nature that does get her into trouble – receiving some direct abuse from the villagers for teaching a young girl to read. (I was also very impressed at the fairness given to the Catholic, I assume, priest. For one, the priest is black – hooray! And second, the priest is the one villager who seems to respect and support Belle and her father. I was a little disappointed he disappeared near the end of the film, but I did not spot him in the angry mob, except to try and stop Maurice’s capture.)
This film is much less about fate and magic than it is about facing the choices and the consequences that follow. Some characters make truly heartbreaking decisions, and the weight of those decisions shape the overall mood of the story. And, honestly, this aspect makes this movie a must-see. Children need to be shown that they always have a choice, and those choices often have consequences that can’t be fully realized. I was truly encouraged by the way this film handled it’s message about choice without using the sledgehammer to beat the audience.
Ok, I’ve put it off as long as possible. I know you’re here for my take on the “controversy.” I will tell you, though, that you’re going to feel silly about all the outrage. LeFou isn’t really “gay” unless you really picture him that way. Otherwise, he’s just a bullied man who has a heart that shows as he struggles with the choices placed in front of him. The “crossdressing” scene is done completely for laughs, one of the tough brutes being tossed into a dress and preening to the camera for a second. And, really, it felt like the “bros” you know who have done the cheerleading for mock homecoming powder puff games who prance and preen as a joke. It’s not offensive, unless you’re looking for it. And lastly, I missed the guy couple dancing. It may have 2-3 frames at the most, because I blinked and heard my wife say, “There it is!” I watched this movie with an eye toward the controversy and came out chuckling to myself at how overworked everyone had gotten.
So, I give this movie a 9.5/10. I know I don’t usually give ratings like that. But I need you to know how highly I feel about this film. I still love the original, but this adaptation is so darn near perfect that I have to give it a high score. Understand that there is so much I didn’t discuss in this review: the well-composed new songs, the combining of animated, Broadway, and original fairy tale sources to create a unique experience, and the added humor and one-liners. Go see this film. Take your family. If you need to, preview the film, and then have the joy of being able to see this film twice!