Before I begin, I suppose I should make it clear that the original Beauty And The Beast (1991) is my all time favourite Disney animated classic. Of course, if you’re already quite the reader of Mandy Jean World, you’ll already know how much I live and breathe everything Disney, and I am not afraid to share all my feelings on the subject. I found out about Disney‘s plans to make a live action remake of Beauty And The Beast well over around a year and a half ago when Emma Watson first announced she was to star.
Ever since, I’ll honestly admit I’ve been sceptical. 1991’s Beauty And The Beast is a timeless classic, and, unlike many of the live action Disney remakes/re-imaginings I’ve thoroughly enjoyed to date (Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book being the most recent) Beauty And The Beast was only released a mere 26 years ago. Not only that, but the movie itself is a timeless masterpiece of animation, music and storytelling, and set itself as a true staple of Disney as a brand. Just how would Disney, no matter how magical a company they are, take one of their most popular feature-length animations and make it even more fantastical as a live action production? On Saturday 18th March, after a highly-anticipated wait, I finally found out… (Warning; there will be MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on so I can discuss in-depth, so even if you’ve watched the 1991 animation, make sure you catch this version at the cinema NOW before reading if you don’t want to know about the new surprises just yet!)Belle (Emma Watson) is a young bibliophile (and now also a hobbyist inventor) who lives with her widowed father Maurice (Kevin Kline) in a small French village of Villeneuve. Dreaming of a world outside the restrains of her little town, Belle refuses the egotistical former soldier Gaston’s (Luke Evans) offer of marriage, much to the secret amusement of Gaston’s trusty sidekick, Lefou (Josh Gad). When Maurice gets lost on his travels and pursued by vicious wolves, he happens upon an abandoned castle, where the weather is exclusively snowing despite being the month of June. Taking shelter within the seemingly deserted halls, Maurice finally realises he is not alone when teacup Chip (Nathan Mack) starts talking to him, shocking Maurice into leaving. While making his escape, Maurice remembers his promise to Belle of bringing home a single rose, which he attempts to take before being abruptly interrupted and imprisoned by the castle’s master, the Beast (Dan Stevens). Maurice’s horse Philippe runs home to Belle, who takes her to the castle. Belle is angry at the life sentence imprisonment of her father by the Beast, and tricks Maurice into swapping places, freeing her father but entrapping herself. However, Belle doesn’t remain in the cell for long before the castle’s enchanted servants Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs Potts (Emma Thompson), Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) come to her aid and give her a room.The rest of the fairytale flows pretty close to the original, but much backstory has been added at an attempt to fill some plot-holes. Well, much backstory that is up for debate whether or not it was actually needed in the first place. So, here is the main new material from the live-action retelling plot-wise:
– Belle and Maurice used to live in Paris before Belle’s mum caught the plague, and they made a quick escape to the provincial life of Villeneuve. This is explained halfway through the movie via a magical atlas (more on that in a moment).
– Belle invented a washing machine of sorts so she could read while doing her washing. The narrow-minded local villagers give her grief when she is caught teaching a young girl to read, thus making Belle even more of an outcast.
– Belle asks Maurice to bring her home a single rose just like the one from his painting on his travels, which leads to his captivity. This has been directly influenced from the original fairytale telling written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
– The castle’s very structure crumbles every time a rose petal falls. This is a small but perhaps the best new storytelling mechanism as it alerts everyone inside, not just the Beast, that they are one step closer to impending doom.
– Beast had a loving mother but a cruel father. After his mother passed away, his father brought him up to be every bit as narcissistic and vain as himself.
– Maurice escapes the castle and returns to the village by foot, where Gaston offers him a chance to show him the castle, only to attempt to get Maurice eaten by wolves out in the woods after denying him of his daughter’s hand in marriage. A very dark new move from a mostly humorous caricature of a villain.
– Gaston was a captain of the army. This is why he is so idolised and respected by the townspeople, to the point that the tavern has his portrait on the wall. He’s also clearly been deeply twisted by his passion for war and violence.
– The castle servants tell Belle about the enchantment. Or, at least, they make it clear that they used to be human. Animated Belle didn’t need to be told this, as she stated she had figured out the castle and its inhabitants were enchanted herself (because 1991 Belle was highly perceptive of such oddities!)
– The servants state that they feel that they are partly responsible for Beast’s selfish behaviour, as they claim they did nothing to stop him (probably out of fear).
– Beast is now also somewhat of a bookworm. He acknowledges the works of Shakespeare and is seen reading Guinevere & Lancelot, as well as sorting through the books of his library while deep in discussion with Belle. When asked by Belle if he’s really read every single book, he jokingly replies that he hasn’t read all of them, as some are in Greek. Beast says his extensive book knowledge is down to his wealthy education, a complete opposite in contrast to his animated counterpart who admitted he had actually forgotten how to read over the years.
– The reason no one ever ventures up to the castle is because the enchantment has erased the townsfolk’s memories of the Prince and his household. This isn’t really made clear until the end of the film.
– The Enchantress (Hattie Morahan) makes many more appearances throughout the movie, whereas she only appears or is even mentioned in the prologue of the original movie. The character is also heard narrating the prologue in this retelling.
All in all, these new additions add up to 45 minutes longer runtime than the animated classic. While I’m happy with the majority of the new material, I’m not entirely sure all was necessary… I do appreciate that Disney is trying to flesh out these already loved characters to give them some needed development, but the one thing I personally didn’t really understand why the sudden inclusion of a magical atlas to reveal Belle’s past. Belle’s childhood does come across a little more than throwaway information after all, but if it really had to be included, could that not have been pulled off some other way that didn’t throw another random enchanted object into the mix? The mirror is Beast’s window to the outside world, so why would the Enchantress treat him to yet another mystical object to allow him to look beyond his horizon? It opens up too many plot-variables for my liking.Maybe it was just so Belle and Beast could have a scene together outside the castle walls to stop the cynical viewers who like to snigger and claim Belle’s attraction to her captor is a severe case of “Stockholm Syndrome“, or maybe it’s just a very cleverly placed extra merchandising point, who knows. I just felt that despite it being a very pretty prop, it complicated things rather than neatly tie up loose ends, and it felt like watching a deleted scene: not terrible, but it wouldn’t effect the story any different without it (Belle’s baby rose rattle from this scene appears again later on, but that’s literally the only repercussion.)
I would’ve been contempt if the we had just FINALLY been given an official human name for Beast after 26 years… How great would that’ve been? Even the famous copy-pasted stereotypical male lead that is Prince Charming got to go by the more casual, down-to-earth “Kit” in Cinderella (2015) and Beast had way more depth to begin with before Dan Stevens portrayal of him in the flesh and fur… JUST GIVE HIM A REAL NAME, DISNEY (and no, his real name is not Prince Adam. Not officially!)
Apart from new tales to tell, we also get three new songs; “How Does A Moment Last Forever” sung by Maurice as he absentmindedly meddles away at a music box, “Days In The Sun“ sung by a newly-imprisoned Belle, the castle servants, and even the young Prince in a brief flashback, and “Evermore“, a heartfelt ballad sung by the Beast as Belle leaves the castle to rescue her father. Of course, we still get treated to live-action renditions of the award-winning classics from 1991: “Belle“, “Gaston“, “Be Our Guest“, “Something There“, “The Mob Song“, and of course “Beauty And The Beast“. The only numbers missing are those which were original writings from the Broadway show including “Human Again” which was eventually added to the animation, although a short instrumental of “Home” can be heard in this version when Belle enters her new bedroom for the first time.Which brings me onto my next big point, and possibly where this movie shines at its brightest; the superior high quality of the production values. The sheer beautiful photo-realistic cinematography, the stunning use of colour, the ever-haunting score of musical genius and Disney Legend, Alan Menken. The nostalgia melodically hits you hardest at all the scenes which overwhelmed you the first time; Belle running over the hill, the ballroom waltz, and of course, Beast’s death, which is made ten times more heartbreaking as you watch the enchanted servants lose their anthropomorphic states and fade away to mere household appliances… And then BAM, a whirlwind ensues as Belle’s returned feelings of love are eavesdropped upon by the Enchantress, and she magically reverts the Beast into a human along with every servant of the household, and the all-dancing finale is just gorgeous as colour and life returns to the castle.
In my opinion, “Be Our Guest” is absolutely phenomenal and easily by far my favourite segment of the whole movie based purely on it’s colourful vibrancy and it’s pure cinematic magic. Every part of this individual musical number has been meticulously planned and brought to life down to every small detail, from the way Plumette uses reflection to create a spotlight for Lumiere to how all the enchanted servants seem to lose their metal/ceramic/wooden constraints and spring to life, dancing and interacting with their delightful surroundings, even enticing us as the audience to step inside this breathtaking wonderful world. The director, Bill Condon, reportedly said that “Be Our Guest” alone was the reason behind retaining Beauty And The Beast as a musical spectacular. “Gaston” is another playful highlight that showcases the joint talents of Josh Gad and Luke Evans, with added lyrics that were originally written back in 1991 finally can be heard on screen in this retelling.Out of the three new songs written specifically for this movie, “Evermore” personally evoked the most powerful emotion for me, as it’s tell-all confessing lyrics give us everything that is incredible about Beast’s character, a perfect description of just how deeply he falls for Belle and how she has brought light into his life despite believing she has left forever. I almost wish Disney would animate the song and place it in a new re-release of the 1991 animated feature on home media as it would not have not been a hair out of place. This scene alone is one huge reason I’ll watch this version again, Dan Stevens does the role so much justice and gives a “CGI ram-bear-man“, as he’s been mockingly dubbed by some critics, a thoroughly relatable, human soul.
Honestly speaking, I found the casting a little hit-and-miss. The stand-out performances from the main top billing were definitely those of Luke Evans, Josh Gad and Dan Stevens. I’ve already mentioned what I loved about Dan’s performance, but it’s definitely worth highlighting that Luke and Josh were clearly having a tonne of fun during their scenes together and their bromance chemistry is through the roof. Emma Thompson puts her own spin on Mrs Potts while doing her best impression of the cockney accent that Angela Lansbury made famous, and Ian McKellen’s dry humour as Cogsworth definitely sold me on his take on the “oversized pocket watch“. Ewan McGregor tried his moderate attempt at a French accent, and while it’s far from accurate, you can tell by the spark in his voice that he loved the challenge of bringing Lumiere to life, although I’ll admit I was still a little disappointed the casting didn’t appoint an actual French actor/singer for the role for authenticity purposes.It’s sad that I actually found the biggest casting miss to ring most true with one of the movie’s main characters – Belle. I’m sorry, but Emma Watson, in my opinion, was not the best casting choice for the warm, gentle-voiced young heroine. Sure, on paper, I’m positive that Emma must’ve sounded like a shoe-in; brunette, brown eyes, played a feisty bookworm before in arguably one of the biggest movie franchises ever made… but I think that’s where her portrayal of Belle falls flat. We’ve seen her play the exact same stereotype before for what was around 10 years, and for 10 years, that was the act we were used to watching. Unfortunately, ponies can’t keep pulling the same tricks forever.
Emma’s performance came across as very “on-cue“; sometimes it feels as though a runner off-camera is holding up a big whiteboard reading “SMILE/LAUGH/FROWN” etc, and she does as instructed. Maybe it was a case of nerves of living up to large expectations, or maybe bad direction was to blame (looking at you, Bill), but some of her scenes are actually awkwardly wooden, in stark contrast to, for example, the natural execution of her onscreen father, Kevin Kline, who does a fantastic job of subtly expressing an in-character thought behind the given line or movement, something that even the lovable, bumbling animated Maurice couldn’t achieve. And without sounding overtly rude, the less said about the auto-tuned singing, the better (was Emma’s singing voice really that bad it had to be noticeably digitally messed with?).I believe the reason Alice In Wonderland (2010), Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016) were successful was because relatively low-key to entirely unknown actors were cast in the main roles (Mia Wasikowska, Lily James and Neel Sethi respectively) and could not be associated with previous high-profile roles, hence no type-casting. Even Disney‘s latest animated feature Moana saw the introduction of the bubbly teen Auli’i Cravalho as the titular heroine in her first ever professional acting credit. And, perhaps most famously of all, JJ Abrams of Star Wars: The Force Awakens scoured everywhere in his desire for complete newcomers to portray the fronting duo of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). In my opinion, this also would’ve been the best option for Belle: to find a new face who can act, sing and overall perform on-screen with the same air of sophisticated grace and delightful enthusiasm that both Susan Egan (the original Broadway Belle) took to the stage or that of Paige O’Hara (the original Belle) provided using merely her gorgeous voice that made everyone fall in love with Belle to begin with.
Luckily, the movie wasn’t all about Belle or Emma Watson, and the screen time is shared equally with her co-stars. I will also admit I wasn’t keen on the redesign of iconic yellow ballgown as it was a little plain for my imagination, however I’ll save that discussion for another time as I could literally discuss princess dresses and character costumes all day!So, in hindsight… Is Beauty & The Beast (2017) worth watching? Definitely. Is it a tale as old as time? Well, who knows? For me, I’ll always favour the 1991 animation. I watched it time and time again as a child and as an adult, therefore it will always have a special place in my heart. I shed a tear every time I hear Paige comfort Robby Benson’s dying Beast as he tells her he is glad to see her “one last time“. Whoa, I’m even getting teary quoting it right now. The live action retelling just didn’t make me well-up the same, and I have to agree with some critics who have described the new production along the lines of “Disney’s sad ode of a love song to it’s former glory“. But, if we look at Beauty And The Beast (2017) separate from its predessor, then yes, it is an entertaining fairytale re-envisioning in its own right that both the young and young at heart will enjoy. And alas, with new generations must come something new, perhaps even a bit alarming, but with this captivating story, one thing is for sure… you’re guaranteed to find something there that wasn’t there before (one last pun, phew!).
What are your thoughts on Beauty & The Beast (2017)? Are you looking forward to the next live action remake of Disney’s Mulan? Feel free to leave a comment below!
*All photos used in this article are official promotional images by Walt Disney Pictures.*