It’s fairly easy to dismiss the new Disney Beauty and the Beast as the conscience-less money grab it frankly kind of is. I mean, it’s a remake of a ‘beloved Disney classic,’ which is to say, one of the good animated Disney musicals. I loved the original movie, despite having to see it (or parts of it) many many times, and was wary of this one. But the value in cultivating a both/and aesthetic is realizing there are many ways to understand any cultural phenomenon. My wife and I went to Applebee’s for dinner before the movie, and our waiter waxed rhapsodic when we told him what movie we were going to see. He’d seen B&B twice, was considering taking his girls to see it again. Loved loved loved it. Which helped put us in a receptive state of mind.
My initial response to this Beauty and the Beast was to think that the weak link in the cast was Emma Watson. This really bothered me, because I like Emma Watson. My wife loved her in this; she thought the weakest cast member was Dan Stevens, who played the Beast, who I thought was one of the movie’s strengths.
Emma Watson strikes me as an exemplary young woman, courageous and intrepid and bright as hell. Hermione Granger is all that too, plus aces at magic, but I really don’t think I’m conflating the actress with her best known character, except to the extent that they’re actually similar. Hermione is a bookworm; Emma has a degree from Brown in English literature. Hermione is an activist for the ethical treatment of magical creatures; Emma is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and a fervent feminist. They seem alike because they are alike.
Not to go all sexist, but what Emma Watson is not is a great beauty. She’s certainly an conventionally attractive young woman, and she has a modeling contract. But in Beauty and the Beast, she’s nothing special, and she flat isn’t the prettiest girl in the village. We see a trio of prettier village girls. So why is Gaston so besotted?
Because she’s all the rest of it; bright and intrepid and level-headed. He’s none of those things; he’s a spectacular narcissist. But as played by Luke Evans, he may be half-witted, but no one else in the village is even half. He has a tiny, pin-headed inkling that she’s special, that she’s unusual. And he wants to possess her. She’s a challenge. She dares turn him down. He’s a soldier and he’s strong and he’s so very good-looking; why she would turn him down?
Evans’ Gaston is a spectacular comic creation. He’s so good, it threw me off. Obviously, this insatiable mirror-gazer wants a shiny object on his arm; I was led to think that ‘beauty’ should be more beautiful. But Gaston wants to dominate. He wants to be adored, by more than his not-all-that-closeted friend LeFou (Josh Gad). I wanted a more movie-star-charismatic Belle. Emma Watson wasn’t interested. She got it, and I didn’t, initially. What distinguishes Belle from the rest of the village is precisely her independence and intelligence. That’s what constitutes her beauty, much more than an accident of bone structure.
And so, when she’s confined to Beast’s castle, what attracts her is not the Beast’s library, but the fact that he’s read all the books in it. They argue about Shakespeare. He is a former Gaston, a reformed Gaston; a spoiled rich brat who everyone adored, until cursed by a witch. He’s had to read, study, think, meditate. And at times, the Beast part of him takes over, and he rages. But the servant/furniture pieces all understand him better. They know he’s capable of kindness and gentleness. So when he orders them not to feed her, they respond by throwing her a feast. (And are so excited about it, she doesn’t get a bite to eat). And Belle comes to see it too, his essential goodness.
Granted, it’s still the Disney musical. We know all the songs; half the fun was anticipating what they’d do with them. (Hey, “Be our Guest” is coming up!) I’ve heard complaints about Watson’s singing voice. I thought she was fine. (Bear in mind, I also liked Russell Crowe’s singing in Les Mis). I wouldn’t want them to dub her voice; her singing fit her approach to the role. This is a more nuanced Belle, a quieter, smarter Belle. She didn’t need to be a Broadway diva anymore than she needed to be a movie star icon. She’s an actress; she thought her way through this character. And it works.
Of course, the movie looks great. The Disney Cinderella and Jungle Book both looked great. They’ve got the money to make these things look terrific. (If this is a corporate money grab, at least they make sure we get our money’s worth). And a who’s who of great British actors provide the voice work for the servants: Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor.
There aren’t any details to point to and say ‘see, they got that wrong, that isn’t as good as the animated film.’ It is forty-five minutes longer than the cartoon, and I didn’t think the extra time was padding. They used it to explore Belle’s family history; the death of her mother, and her close relationship to her father (a wonderful Kevin Kline). I liked that extra detail.
Ultimately, I thought the movie gave good value. One of my favorite actresses gives a fine, nuanced performance in a classic role. What’s not like about that?