Beauty and the Beast Is A Clever Update To A Tale As Old As Time

The story itself will always be fundamentally anti-feminist at its core; the narrative demands it. But the efforts to update the plot to better suit a contemporary sensibility are acknowledged and appreciated.

Disney's 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was nominated for four Oscars that year and won two, including Best Original Song. As the third of ten films produced and released during the Disney RenaissanceBeauty and the Beast was an instant classic that firmly cemented Walt Disney Animation Studios' place in film history and imprinted itself into the budding imaginations of millennials the world over. That's quite a legacy to live up to, and thankfully, the 2017 reboot more than holds it own against the original.

It's hard to discuss a rebooted film without comparing it to the property that inspired it, especially when both iterations are produced by the same company taking a second bite at the same apple. Often the former is a pale imitation of the latter that loses the joy of what captured audiences in the first place. But with more than two and half decades to refine the story, Disney's live-action remake of its own classic is a hit. Simply put, the film is delightful. All of the familiar beats remain, with new flourishes to entertain a modern audience and explain some of the plotholes of the animated original.

As with the 2015 live-action Cinderella, the narrative of Beauty and the Beast is slightly altered to fit the moderate plot deviations. Here Belle is not simply bookish but inventive; she takes over her father Maurice's role as the inventor of the family, creating contraptions that help her get through her chores so she'll have more time to read the books that help her escape her "provincial life." Maurice in turn is now a painter, ever enshrining the memory of Belle's absent mother in his art while withholding the truth of her demise from his daughter. 

The conspicuous absence of Belle's mother is one of the more significant changes from the animated original and seems to be a trend with Disney's rebooted classics. Disney princesses are notorious for their motherlessness, and instead of ignoring her existence as the original did, the live-action film makes it a central plot point. Belle hungers for stories of a mother who died when she was a small child, but Maurice cannot bring himself to tell them. Her mother's unavailability is formative to Belle in a way it wasn't in the original; she shapes her outlook on life rather than being an invisible specter.

This is just the first part of the new, feminist sensibility of the story. Besides effectively making Belle an engineer, the narrative finds ways big and small to give her more agency in the story. In addition to being the local bookworm, Belle has made a minor mission of teaching other young girls how to read, a goal that doesn't sit well with the other villagers. And instead of simply volunteering herself as the Beast's prisoner in place of her father early in the film, she tricks Maurice into leaving, and locks herself into the cell. Later, she attempts a daring escape by fashioning a rope from fabric she finds in her room, rather than resigning herself to imprisonment. Additionally after the Beast's initial invitation to dinner, Belle's refusal is tinged with indignation at his very audacity, along with the anger apparent from the original. Most importantly however is her honesty late in the film after she and the Beast have slowly grown an affection for one another. With time running out to break his curse, the Beast asks Belle if she could ever see herself being happy with him. Her response gets to the heart of what made the original such a problematic story: "Could anybody be happy when they’re not free?" Though their friendship has deepened and she now sees him in a new light, Belle is always aware of the power dynamics inherent in their relationship. She doesn't fully fall for him because of that dynamic, rather than falling for him despite it. 

The costuming too speaks to Belle's agency. Modern updates to the animated originals give Belle more freedom of movement with practical skirts she can hike up and boots she can ride horses and trudge through the night in. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran preserves the sensibility of the costumes we know and love while accommodating the activeness and pluck and our heroine. 

Belle's newfound feminism isn't the only credit to the adaptation however. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as our spunky heroine, though her singing voice leaves a lot to be desired. Luke Evans is a delight as antagonist Gaston, playing the character with gusto and verve. He fully leans into the character's absurdity and tendency to peacock, while managing not to tip into the cartoonishness of the original. He also boasts the best voice of the main cast, singing with a throaty tenor that commands every scene he's in and more than justifies his casting. 

Josh Gad's Le Fou is also wonderfully rendered, effortlessly making text of the subtext in the animated film. The "controversy" over the revelation that Le Fou is in fact gay seems like more of a contrivance than any kind of real social progress, but it is a change that makes sense in the contemporary context of 2017. The savvy observer could easily make the case that Le Fou has been gay since 1991; the cultural signalling remains exactly the same, here it is simply played straight (no pun intended). Through Gad's embodiment, Le Fou's signature number "Gaston" reads more like a lively, gender-bent "On My Own" rather than the rowdy drinking song that was originally imagined. This is neither good nor bad of course, it simply is. But perhaps that's the eventual goal.

The film also boasts a handful of short new numbers meant to fill out the space opened up by the plot additions. While none are terrible, only the Beast's number "Evermore" performed by Dan Stevens threatens to be memorable in any way. 

In the end, the film is far from perfect. The story itself will always be fundamentally anti-feminist at its core; the narrative demands it. But the efforts to update the plot to better suit a contemporary sensibility are acknowledged and appreciated. There are enough new aspects to the story to justify its existence, and despite its minor flaws, it cannot be denied that the nostalgia induced by the familiar swell of that iconic Alan Menken score will always be welcome.