Assorted thoughts on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

In 1991, I turned nine, and I was just starting to change from being a little girl who loved books about horses to being a little girl who loved books about dragons and wizards and spaceships. I fancied myself something of a tomboy still in 1991, but this was well before “princess culture” became ubiquitous enough for liking a Disney princess movie to be mutually exclusive with tomboyishness. Before Beauty and the Beast, my favorite Disney movies were Sleeping Beauty (because it had a great horse and a badass dragon) and Robin Hood (because I had a raging crush on that cartoon fox, natch). Beauty and the Beast had a horse and a Beast (which isn’t that much different from a fox, right?) and it had Belle, who was nothing like any of the princesses before her. I mean, she was white and conventionally pretty, obviously, but she didn’t spend any portion of her movie asleep, and she didn’t have to give up her voice just to have a chance at a dude who couldn’t even remember what she looked like, and this is what passed for progressive in 1991. Most importantly to nine-year-old me, Belle liked books, and she liked them so much that she was gifted a whole enormous library from her Beast, and it was glorious: the grand romantic gesture that first taught me to appreciate grand romantic gestures, and gifts of books are to this day the easiest way for people to buy my affection.

So, let’s just say that there’s a certain degree of uncritical love that I have for Beauty and the Beast, both the Disney movie and basically every iteration of it I’ve gotten my hands on in the years since, from Rose Daughter to Uprooted. When I saw the first trailer for the new live action version, I said right off that it was aggressively ugly but also that I was definitely going to see it. It turns out that it’s every bit as aggressively ugly as I thought it was going to be, but it’s also a surprisingly decent, if still very problematic, update to a beloved childhood classic. Here are my thoughts on it, in no particular order.

Spoilers, obviously.

18th Century fancy French menswear is sexy.

This isn’t important, really. Just a general observation. And a reminder that I need to make time to watch season two of Outlander sometime soon.

This adaptation tried to explain why the whole castle was cursed, and it only somewhat worked.

I was somewhat surprised that this was a thing at all, but it wasn’t a terrible idea. As in the animated film, there’s a short prologue that shows how the Beast gets himself and his whole castle cursed, and special attention is paid to make sure that the audience sees his court and servants as complicit in the prince’s cruelty. They stare and laugh at the disguised sorceress as the prince turns her away, and none of them do anything to stop it. Later in the film, Mrs. Potts weirdly both supports and undermines this when she tells Belle that, after the death of the Beast’s mother, Mrs. Potts and the other servants did nothing to prevent his abusive father from raising the Beast to be the nasty piece of work he was. Unfortunately, the only time we see the Beast’s father is in a flashback to his wife’s deathbed in which he not unkindly steers his grieving son out of the room, an image of relative gentleness that is at odds with what we’ve been told about his treatment of his son.

It makes sense that in this new film Disney would want to address the seeming injustice of a whole household of kind, loving servants being cursed for their master’s bad behavior; it’s just a weird case of a more or less good idea taken both too far and not far enough. The initial scene of the characters at the prince’s ball standing silent and then laughing as he mocks the sorceress is not quite enough to really justify everyone being cursed forever—especially when it’s revealed that they’re also erased from the memories of everyone they knew outside the palace. Disproportionate as the punishment is, this might have been fine if the film had decided to just stick to fairy tale logic. However, piling on that the servants somehow failed in a responsibility to protect the Beast from his father—without ever showing how the father was so bad—only really serves to muddle the message. It would have been much smarter to just stick with “the whole court was decadent and wicked in the moment when it mattered” without trying to also treat the curse as a sort of cosmic justice for a much more nebulous moral failing.

I legit cried at “Belle” and the opening village scene.

Emma Watson isn’t a great vocalist, but this song was nicely done, the village is genuinely lovely, and it’s the one time in the movie that I really felt like it was the animated version brought to life. For me, it was a little bit like first seeing Hobbiton in The Fellowship of the Ring or when Grant and Ellie first see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, both scenes that still make me tear up. Your mileage may vary, but I totally loved this sequence.

Belle is kind of an asshole.

Listen. Belle has always been the ultimate Not Like Other Girls heroine, and her desire to get out of her small, provincial town figured largely in the animated film as well. This movie, however, makes Belle’s absolute disdain for the literally illiterate townspeople extremely clear. It’s not just the boorish, sexist Gaston that she dislikes. She’s at best condescendingly indulgent of her neighbors’ foibles and more often openly scornful toward them for, apparently, no other reason than their rural lifestyle and lack of sophistication. The town is pretty and clean, and its people seem to be mostly happy and decent in spite of their lack of privilege—remember this is supposed to be a rural village in 18th century France that has previously been ruled over by cruel and selfish nobility who exploited the people and land for their own gain. It makes sense that a young, relatively privileged girl with an education that is out of reach of most her peers might chafe at the restrictions of rural society and dream of adventure, but Belle’s sheer unbridled hatred of this town and its people doesn’t reflect well on her at all.

On a similar note, the girl hate is even stronger in this film than in 1991.

Just like in the animated version, this film has a trio of nearly identical women whose only character traits are wanting to marry Gaston and not being Belle. It was a sexist, damaging trope the first time around, and I’m disappointed to report that it’s actually worse in this move than it was in the original. Whereas in the animated film, these three women were identically beautiful blondes who seemed vapid but ultimately good-natured, here they’re presented as a group of garishly made-up (in pointed contrast to the natural beauty of the heroine) mean girls with an unexplained antipathy towards Belle in addition to their desire for Gaston. And this film no longer stops at portraying them as silly girls swooning over a man who barely notices they exist. Instead, it makes a point of having Gaston explicitly reject them with a dose of implied slut-shaming and the added humiliation of having Gaston’s horse kick mud on them. It’s a particularly hideous instance of misogyny that also isn’t helped by having Le Fou gleefully reinforce Gaston’s point with a snide “Not gonna happen, girls.”

Le Fou is awful in pretty much every way.

The animated Le Fou was a clownish, craven crony to the toxically hypermasculine Gaston, a cartoon fictional dynamic that rarely occurs to quite such an extreme degree in reality. In the live-action version, Disney has chosen to address this by casting Josh Gad in the role, giving him an unrequited crush on Gaston, and unsuccessfully playing it for laughs. It’s not funny. Josh Gad is not funny in this role, which mostly consists of Le Fou being a stereotype of a catty, faintly effeminate gay man and being mildly misogynistic in ways that validate and complement Gaston’s own misogyny. The “exclusively gay moment” that has been so bragged about is literally about a second and half shot at the end of the movie of Le Fou dancing with another man—an unnamed character who, incidentally, is “outed” as gay in the story when the magic wardrobe dresses him in women’s clothing during the climactic battle and he grins like it’s Christmas, which seems senselessly offhandedly transphobic and further suggests that gay men are simply effeminate dudes.

Literally nothing about this portrayal of Le Fou was at any point a good idea, the execution is horrendous, and Disney’s public crowing about how progressive they are for having a gay dude in this movie is hilariously offensive when you actually see how bad it is.

Luke Evans is a perfect Gaston.

Seriously. He’s delightful, and he plays Gaston with amazing gusto and a surprising amount of charm. This is one of the only roles in this movie that I’d say is perfectly cast, along with Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe and Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza.

Audra McDonald should sing everything, forever.

She is an actual perfect angel, and though Emma Thompson’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” was fine, it’s a straight up crime that the song wasn’t given to McDonald.

There were too many new songs, and every one of them was too long.

The worst offender is a song the Beast sings after Belle leaves to rescue her father. It’s entirely superfluous and puts the brakes on the story for a full three minutes of the Beast verbalizing feelings that could easily have been conveyed in about a ten second shot of him just looking sad. It might have been fine if “Evermore” was a truly good and memorable song, but it’s completely unremarkable and Dan Stevens is only an okay singer.

The animated objects are straight up nightmare fuel.

Dead-eyed little Chip might be the worst, but all the CGI objects are somewhere between mildly unsettling and absolutely terrifying.

The Beast looks much better than I expected.

He looked awful in production stills and trailers, but he works on the big screen and honestly possesses more sex appeal than Dan Stevens does in real life.

This movie is fine, overall.

It’s at least as good as the live action Cinderella was, and if you liked the animated version you’ll probably like this one, too. I don’t know if it’s a movie I’ll want to watch over and over again, but it was worth seeing for nostalgia reasons, even if it did also prove that Disney still has a lot of work to do when it comes to crafting progressive feminist narratives.

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