By: Glynis Neely
When my favorite childhood stories are remade as live versions, they face a very high bar. I’m often disappointed (see my review of the new Power Rangers movie), but I watch in the hopes that I will be surprised. Disney is especially emblematic of my childhood as I had most of their films on tape and watched them every chance I got. Now I know this is Emily’s territory, see her excellent and thorough review of the film over here, but my small stake in the Disney franchise lies mainly with this story about how a woman’s courage in the face of fear melts the heart of a lonely beast.
As a child, I loved Mulan and Aladdin, but the animated version of Beauty and the Beast spoke to me more than anything else in Disney’s oeuvre. Years later, I even saw the Enchanted Christmas sequel, and I am a notoriously irritable scrooge. To me, Belle was the greatest princess of all the Disney heroines, especially because she wasn’t actually a princess. She is a girl who knows the meaning of hard work and seems confident in her view of the world. I am also an avid reader and very close to my father, so I feel a kinship with Belle and her passions. She is smart and headstrong and brave in the scariest situations, everything I wanted to be. The love story with the beast was always second to my love of Belle; she was my inspiration.
Disney is still a cultural juggernaut and currently has several live adaptions of beloved animated classics in the works, including the forthcoming Mulan. None excited me more than the prospect of a Beauty in the Beast adaptation starring the excellent Emma Watson as Belle. Emma happens to also represent one of my meaningful role models, from her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series to her personal championship of feminism today, through her work for the organization He for She.
The new Beauty and the Beast is impressively cast and beautifully acted. Emma is outstanding as Belle and Kevin Kline as Belle’s father Maurice could not have been a more perfect choice as he and Watson have excellent chemistry. Luke Evans and Josh Gad, as Gaston and Lefou respectively, are just the right combination of sinister and amusing; Gad had me laughing throughout the movie. There is a running joke throughout the film that no one understands French, though the story is set in France. This culminates when Gaston admits to Lefou he doesn’t know the meaning of “je ne sais quoi.”
As for the Beast himself, it took me almost the entire film to realize the actor was Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey. Afterwards, it all made sense; no one else could don that cumbersome a suit and still manage to be so poised and proper. The members of the beast’s ensemble are some of the best actors working today; Ewan McGregor impresses as Lumiere, and his French accent is not the worst I’ve ever heard; Sir Ian McKellan is at his curmudgeonly best as the uptight clock, Cogsworth; Emma Thompson is excellent as always as the heart of the group, Mrs. Potts.
I am also a lifelong musical fan, fostered by the aforementioned heavy dose of Disney and classic movie musicals as a kid, and this movie did not disappoint. The musical numbers are excellent, highlighting the strengths of the stellar voice cast, from Emma Watson’s impressive musical debut to the unfailing voice of Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe. As soon as the opening chords filled the theater, I immediately felt emotional. I refrained from singing for most of the film, which was not easy, but it allowed me to actually listen to their voices, which blew me away. The selection of songs included a mix from the animated film, the Broadway show, and a couple of original songs penned specifically for this adaptation, all written by Alan Menken.
The cinematography was so beautiful that I felt transported to this ethereal vision of the French countryside and the bitter cold that separates the town and the castle that is home to the Beast. As the main location, the castle is an incredibly intricate structure, looming ominously, sequestered in the woods. It is made all the more sinister wrapped in an endless winter that will only abate once the curse is lifted. The moment characters traverse across the barrier into the wintry mix, I could feel the shiver down my spine. The seamless transitions from scene to scene and the use of color, namely bright yellow and red, gave the story an extra rich texture and palate.
The exploration of Belle’s connection with her dead mother and its affect on how she lives her life is one of the most interesting additions to this film. It does not overshadow the main narrative, but it adds a background and motivation for Maurice while the knowledge Belle gains about her mother is both heartbreaking and sustaining. Belle and her father’s close relationship is given a more significant narrative weight that felt very satisfying, filling a void in their shared history I never realized was there.
Character development showed a conscious effort to answer these unasked questions. There was a point of controversy for one of their choices in the film, which is to canonically state that Lefou is gay. The moment in question is less than 3 seconds long, so I really can’t understand the uproar, but I will take my progressive moments where I can. My one gripe was its inability to pass the Bechdel test – perhaps my expectations were a bit too high, but I really thought that could’ve happened somehow.
And yet despite my overblown expectations, I enjoyed the film thoroughly. I could not have pictured it would all fall into place so well, but I’m very glad it did. I laughed often and cried only at the end, for which Christian mercilessly poked fun at me. I am still humming the music about a week later and I think the only way to deal with that is to see it again.