There was about a decade that began in 1988, began with Oliver and Co. and lasted through Mulan, where Disney made one solid musical after another. Sure, Aristocats and a couple other earlier films could be mentioned in there, but musicals weren’t exactly their schtick prior, with movies like The Black Cauldron, Bambi, etc. focusing more on story than song.
Still, it was during this whimsical decade that we got such megalithic juggernauts of animation as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, and got a couple smaller hits like A Goofy Movie and James and the Giant Peach. And it was during this decade in which I was growing up.
Near the beginning of this tenure, Disney released what has arguably become one of their most beloved, most iconic films to date: Beauty and the Beast. I was pretty young when I saw the movie for the first time, when I brought the movie home on VHS and watched, rewound, and watched again and again, when I committed every lyric to every song to memory. So much of that movie was me: I was a bit of a bookworm, which certainly contributed to me becoming an author, there were times where I felt like a cursed and isolated beast, there were times I just wanted my dinner to sing to me — it was adolescence, after all.
Well, this weekend, we took the kids to see the new live-action remake (which made $350 million worldwide opening weekend), starring Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, and the guy from Legion. If you don’t want any spoilers, I’ll leave you with this spoiler-free review: The movie captures every magical note of the original in a fresh, unique, and vibrantly exciting way that makes you feel young again.
Now you can stop reading. However, if you’ve already seen it or don’t mind spoilers, feel free to carry on and follow me down the rabbit hole.
Right from the opening scene, where the enchantress shows up and curses the prince into becoming the Beast, we know things are going to be a little different, which is refreshing. 2015’s Cinderella remake was so beat-for-beat with the original animation, although lacking every memorable song, that the film was almost unenjoyable for me.
However, before the movie veers too far off into something too unfamiliar (see Maleficent and the Alice in Wonderland remake), the second scene ensures you that every wonder of the original, every familiar bit of dialogue, every scene that you had committed to memory, and every magical, musical note has been lovingly preserved.
The second Belle steps out of her house with an old book to be returned and heads through the town amid the daily, familiar greetings of “Bon Jour,” and the grand, sweeping, epic musical accompaniment that followed, my spirit began to soar and what J.Lo always called the “goosies” during her tenure with American Idol, took hold of my body and only seldom let up through the movie’s 2-hour plus run-time.
Every musical number was top-notch. From “Be Our Guest” to the title track in the ballroom to “Gaston,” the choreography was on-point, and every character delivered the performance you would hope for. I have not seen the stage musical that developed from the original film, but the tracks that were included here from that fit nicely and were a welcome change of pace that offered fans of the original soundtrack something else to gravitate toward.
But apart from the music, what made the movie even better, for me, was the way they delved deeper into every character. Giving Belle’s late mother a small, yet prominent role not only fleshed out Maurice and Belle on their own, but it made the bond they shared as Father and Daughter that much stronger and more believable. The choice that Belle makes to trade her life for her father’s, by giving herself as prisoner to the Beast’s care, has a deeper layer because of her mother’s role in the story.
Gaston, the film’s villain, who was played to perfection by Luke Evans, is even more the monster because of an easily-missed line by LeFou. In the forest, as Gaston is getting worked up while talking to Maurice, Josh Gad’s LeFou, ever the faithful sidekick, gets him to calm down by telling him to remember the war. Remember the widows.
Earlier, with Gaston’s introduction, we get mention that he is a soldier, so the line about remembering the war puts things into a much different perspective than the cartoon ever did. In the original, Gaston was simply a vain, overly-macho, over-inflated suitor that wouldn’t take no for an answer on his marriage proposal to Belle. And while he is all of those things in this movie, he is more the Beast that he is supposed to be in the original tale. LeFou’s calming mantra of “remember the war” is the most disturbing line in the film. What is war apart from brutality and slaughter? I haven’t been in war, but I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Hacksaw Ridge, and so many other movies about it. Yes, guns were a thing in the time period this movie was set, but this was around the time of the Musketeers, when swords were just as prominently used as muskets. When Gaston goes after the beast, he carries a pistol, a sword, and a crossbow. To him, death was a much more intimate thing.
War turned Gaston into a beast that felt so at-home amid the horrors of the battlefield that he could only be calmed by remembering the carnage, death, and viscera that it held. And he was further calmed by “remembering the widows.” We don’t know whose side of the war those comforting widows were on, presumably his own, but the fact that he exploited the deaths of soldiers to get laid is a monstrous enough act. LeFou’s words, simple as they were, suggest a Pavlovian response that carnage makes Gaston horny, which we see echoed again during the film’s climax in his rapid-response to killing the Beast.
What this film has done, for me, is taken one of the silliest, most asinine Disney villains and turned him into one of the most twisted and sadistic. Evans plays this part to perfection, which shows his range, as he had previously played one of the aforementioned Musketeers in a remake of that title. It should also be mentioned that Evans is my top pick to play the protagonist of my own novel series, once that inevitable adaptation gets green-lit.
However, Gaston isn’t the only creature we get more background and motivation for. The titular Beast, still oddly unnamed throughout this film, is developed as a tragic figure. As a child, he was only ever loved by his mother, and his father was a cruel, hard man. After his mother dies from illness, the boy is remade in his father’s image, and the servants feel the over-heavy burden of guilt for not lifting a finger to stop said transformation.
Also, throughout, this movie does a much better job of making you feel the budding relationship between Belle and her captor than the animation did. In the cartoon, I accepted their romance as a kid because I didn’t know any better, and as I got older, I accepted it because I knew it was supposed to happen. In this, however, the audience is taken along on this roller coaster journey with the characters. While Emma Watson is ever the adorable starlet, her character was played as the very relatable, misunderstood girl-next-door, and there was never a moment where you didn’t side with her. The Beast, while initially gruff and grumpy, at times downright scary, you eventually see the humanity he’s hidden deep inside, and while I didn’t ever want to date him, there was a time when I was like, yeah, we could grab a beer sometime.
Much of the Beast’s endearment is due, in no small part, to the film’s animators, who are able to take the monstrous form of a hairy, horned, 8-foot creature and make him, at times, more like a clumsy puppy that’s still growing into his paws.
The castle’s enchanted servants are also all given a little bit deeper and more involved history. Some of that is due to the aforementioned burden of guilt, but also due to their relations and interactions to each other, as well as the townsfolk at the end of the film. It’s hard to imagine a clock, a candlestick, a wardrobe, and so many other pieces of furniture and decor as walking, talking, caring people, but not only does this film accomplish that, it makes them feel like characters whose lives had really been interrupted by this curse, and you feel the joy and relief in the film’s conclusion when the curse is finally lifted.
I love Disney animation, I enjoy the spirit of the live-action remakes, even if they’re only, at least on the surface, blatant cash-grabs. But Disney should take note from this (and to a lesser degree the recent Jungle Book remake). This is how remakes should be done. You deliver everything that made the original so amazing, and you amplify for an adult audience, without making it too dark for the kids to enjoy.
If you’ve yet to see the movie, make this a must-see.