This summer I had the opportunity to visit Egypt, specifically Cairo. It was magical, a place I only read about in books but felt like I would never actually experience myself. I crawled into the only surviving Ancient Wonder of the World; viewed at least two dozen mummies, many of them the remains of people I learned about in history class; and explored various mosques and churches I had never heard of. I even got to view the Sahara, a vast, bright, brown wasteland stretching beyond the horizon.
When I returned to the States, I saw at least two films set completely or partly in Cairo. I could not help but be distracted by how very un-Cairo-like the movies were. The chaotic streets, the dirty alleyways, the lingering smog were all gone, replaced by a cleaner, shiner version of the historic city I visited and slightly admire.
I felt a similar feeling as I left Disney’s newest release in their live-action remake line-up. When I was a child, 1991’s animated Beauty and the Beast captured and inspired my imagination. I remember my father and I building re-creating the Beast’s castle out of Legos, and I would wonder sometimes about what household object I would be if I were turned into one. (I pose this question to my students when we read the actual French fairy tale in class. Every year, the vote is the same: a coffee mug.) To this day, it remains one of my favorite stories and one of my favorite films. So it was not with a bit of nostalgia that I walked into the theater hoping that the 2017 version would be just as magical.
It was, to some degree. It was brighter, flashier, and wittier than the original. But it was not really the same, though I still enjoyed my time.
The film was a decent remake that honored the old story we loved watching as children while deviating enough to create a new tale. The plot remains the same as the animated version, though it develops the old characters more and introduces new ones for us to enjoy. The film presents the backstory of the Beast’s parentage and reveals what happened to Belle’s mother. Maurice is an artist and toymaker, rather than an inventor, and Belle seems more assertive and independent. Almost all of the old songs are there as well as few new ones. (I did not care for the newer songs. Disney would have done well to incorporate the songs from their Broadway adaptation, which has better songs than the new ones written for this production, mostly notably the ballad “If I Can’t Love Her” sung by the Beast. Chills.) However, it is the movie’s human characters (well as one beast) that carry the movie.
The casting and acting was nearly perfect. Dan Stevens was a perfect choice for the Beast, showing emotional range in both human and beast forms. Kevin Kline was another solid casting decision as Belle’s artistic and protective father, Maurice. However, it is Josh Gad’s performance as Gaston’s sidekick LaFou that outshines in the film. Contrary to the animated film source, Gad’s character initially admires the excessively vain Gaston but slowly develops a sympathetic disposition toward Belle and Maurice as Gaston increasingly mistreats them. I did not really care for Emma Watson’s Belle. She was cute and she could sing. But that was about it. Luke Evans’ take on Gaston was confusing. I had trouble deciding if he was going for goofy (like the animated version) or terrifyingly evil–or should I say beastly (something the new version overtly stated at one point).
The chemistry between the titular characters was another highlight of the film. The story takes its time here, as the two characters interact and develop true genuine feelings for each other. Something normal people in a normal world would do. They start off bickering and hating each other, as they do in the original film. But after the Beast saves Belle’s life and she in turn heals his injuries sustained in rescuing her, they begin an honest conversation about books and learning that eventually leads to their close friendship. They eventually reveal the secrets about their past relationships with their parents, bringing them closer together. The interplay is a great set-up for the most rememberable part of both the animated and live-action versions: the ballroom dance. (Brilliantly done!) And I would have to acknowledge here the only part of Emma Watson’s performance that I think deserves the most praise. Acting against a CGI character is not easy, let alone pretending to fall in love with one.
And the effects are where the film falls apart for me. The sets and costumes were lavish and glamorous, much like the country in which the story takes place–France. And their is defintely something French about the atmosphere. But the film becomes way too glitzy at times, especially with the CGI effects. The household servants’ witty banter kept me engaged, but I did not care for their animation in this version. (I had no problems with the Beast–the Beast was fantastic.) Disney seems to have taken the success of 2016’s The Jungle Book a little too well and thought that candlesticks and clocks could translate from animation to live-action as well as panthers, tigers, and bears. The story also dragged here a bit by going into the lives and relationships of the servants, though I appreciated their response when Belle asked them if the Enchantress was right in cursing them as well–something the original movie glosses over but we were all thinking upon reflection. Their answer–which I will not reveal in this article–is deep and powerful.
But I understand what the movie was trying to do. It was trying to get to the humanity of the Beast and his servants, showing us that the relationships we develop with others and the kindness in which we treat other people make us human. And it reminds us that our choices have repercussions on others as well as others. And here, the movie could have used a song cut from the original that made it into the Broadway version: “Human Again.” In this song the servants sing about what they would do when the curse is lifted and they transform back into their normal forms. But in a small way it shows that the Beast himself must find his own humanity before he can literally turn back into a man. He must find companionship and kindness and joy and laughter that only comes when he develops a true relationship with another. And Belle is there to help him become human again.