Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s biggest gamble yet when it comes to their recent trend of remaking animated classics. This isn’t some movie that came out fifty or sixty years ago like Cinderella or Jungle Book. Beauty and the Beast is recent enough for people to actually remember seeing it theaters, to have fond memories of seeing as a kid or in high school and now are delighted to share that experience with their own kids, hoping beyond hope that this new movie delivers the same experience they so nostalgically remember. This film is also more of a true remake than those others, which were more like retellings of familiar stories. Disney has shown a lot of confidence in retelling classics in live action, but unfortunately with Beauty and the Beast, they stumble a bit. This a movie that’s unsure how beholden to the source material it should and how much leeway it has to do anything new; or if even should do anything new. This lack of confidence and certainty on how to proceed leaves many iconic moments felling a bit flat in this new version, and leaves some of the new material feeling extraneous and forced. However, despite its flaws, this is a visually sumptuous reenactment that still has plenty of heart.
Let me just explain my choice of words there when I say this is more of a reenactment instead of a retelling. Unlike Cinderella or Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast repeats a lot of material from the animated classic almost word for word. However, for the most part it feels a bit flat when doing that. It’s been well said that whenever you’re doing a remake of something classic, to justify the remake’s existence it either needs to be better or different. Well, many of these familiar moments are neither; this movie doesn’t really put its own spin on them, nor does it improve on them in any manner. Thus my feeling of this film overall being more of a reenactment of the animated classic as opposed to any sort of retelling. In truth, it was disappointing that this live version couldn’t always nail the subtle power and emotion of some of the animated version’s most iconic and emotional moments.
However, it does deliver some of its own great moments when it’s bold enough to stray from the source material. Belle’s backstory is powerful and moving, and although Beast’s growing affection for Belle often felt rote or obligatory when adhering to the source material, his big solo number towards the end is easily one of the film’s best and most rousing moments. Had this movie somehow been able to maintain the energy and pathos of the source material while also adding some of its own moving moments, this film could have been something truly special. Unfortunately, it stumbles with former almost as often as it succeeds with the later.
There are several new lines that are pretty good, and one of those is when the Beast asks Belle if she’s happy, to which she responds, “Can anyone truly be happy if they aren’t free?” It’s an interesting statement that’s worth pondering. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with the pursuit of happiness (it is, after all, one of the inalienable rights accorded to everyone), but the interesting thing is, very few seem to actually find true happiness, or at least a happiness that lasts. Might I suggest that Belle is right; no one can truly be happy when they aren’t free, thus, so long as we remain slaves to sin, we can never truly be happy. The Bible is very clear that we have all been enslaved by sin, with the great tragedy being many don’t even realize it. The Bible is also very clear that we can be free, and thus, be happy. Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the grave for this very reason; to set us free. It’s through freedom in him where happiness—a true happiness that can last for all eternity—is found.
Alright, now let’s address the big elephant in the room; the matter of LeFou being gay. After seeing the film, this isn’t something I would have addressed, but because everyone’s been addressing it and boycotting it and extolling it or complaining about it (mostly before ever actually seeing the movie), I sort of feel forced to say something about it. So here’s my take: if I hadn’t been told ahead of time in a propagandistic agenda blitz that LeFou was gay, I don’t know that I would have even noticed. I probably would have just thought he was a goofy, fawning, slightly effeminate, Gaston wanna-be fanboy. And yes, that even includes his “exclusive” moment. Now, I can’t say that for sure because it’s impossible to approach this character with any sort of objectivity, but I think that’s how I would have felt. That issue aside, I will say this about the character; he has one of my favorite new additions to this story and his character arc goes in a surprising direction (that doesn’t involve his sexual orientation). However, he’s also a bit erratic and somewhat unsure as a character; is he a Gaston wanna-be? A fawning and ridiculously overprotective fanboy? A goofy, silly sidekick? A concerned conscience figure? LeFou swings between all of these things and never seems to land on anyone of them or find any successful combination of them, which is sort of a microcosm for the problems of this film overall. The movie itself never feels quite sure what it wants to be; a faithful remake? A new and slightly different reenactment of a familiar story? Something new based on something familiar? The movie never seems quite sure which it is, and doesn’t always successfully blend any of those identities together.
Still, what’s good in this movie is really good, and what doesn’t work in this movie really isn’t all that bad, it just could have been better. Additions like Belle’s backstory or the Beast’s powerful solo add a depth and richness to this familiar story. However, when it stays faithful to the source material, more often than not it feels lifeless and awkward. I wonder, though, if some of that may be a result of recently watching the animated version so close to seeing this version. If so, many of my nitpicks can be taken with a grain of salt, and you may enjoy this film better if it’s been some time since you last saw the animated version. Then again, Beauty and the Beast is the only animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and deservedly so. I don’t think this new version is of that same caliber, although it has a good chance of getting some Oscar recognition for its set design and amazing costumes. Seeing these films almost back-to-back gave me new appreciation for how much the animated classic was able to accomplish with so little. Despite being almost an hour longer, this new version can’t quite tell the same story with the same amount of gravitas, emotion, charm or humor. Nevertheless, this new Beauty and the Beast is lavishly beautiful to behold on the big screen (skip the 3D, it adds nothing), and one of its greatest successes is how it takes an already iconic soundtrack of memorable tunes and makes it even more spectacular.
So where does that leave us with Disney’s big gamble? Well, I wouldn’t say this is Disney’s best attempt at recreating an animated classic in live-action; I’d say Cinderella is the better movie in that regard. However, from the stunning sets and costumes to the wonderful music that’s been tweaked, and in many cases improved, this is a very good version of Beauty and the Beast, but ultimately one that falls short of its animated predecessor.
Score: 5 of 7 – There are a couple of pretty dark moments in this movie, but overall, the translation from animation to live-action hasn’t lost any of the family friendliness…unless of course you’re concerned about the issues with LeFou. It’s there, it’s done, it’s been blown out proportion, but is nonetheless something families will have to deal with. I know this review has seemed fairly critical for giving it a positive score like a 5, but the truth is it is pretty good. I just may have had unfairly high expectations after recently enjoying the original in preparation for the remake.