By Pavlina Cerna
When Disney decided to do a live-action version of its beloved “tale as old as time, true as it can be,” it took on a big challenge.
By casting Emma Watson as the perfect embodiment of intelligent, independent and fearless Belle, Dan Stevens as the likable Beast, Luke Evans as the incredibly determined Gaston and Josh Gad as the best possible live version of LeFou, the remake was primed for success.
Twenty-six years after its animated movie premiere, somewhere near a small provincial town in France, Belle was ready to yet again teach the Beast how to love.
At least the trailer indicated so.
“Beauty and the Beast” was originally written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. In her version, a merchant has three sons and three daughters, the youngest, prettiest and smartest, unsurprisingly, being Beauty. Unlike the movie version, in the book, Beauty keeps having dreams about a beautiful prince, whom she believes the Beast keeps a prisoner, no matter how many times a mysterious lady tells her to “not trust appearances.”
Disney’s 1991 animated version, remotely based on the book, gives Beauty the name Belle, adds an enchantress to explain the Beast’s background, leaves Beast’s destiny to the wilting of an enchanted rose, and makes him an illiterate, short-tempered animal with whom Belle would hardly ever fall in love with, although she convincingly does.
The new version seems to be the result of Walt Disney Studios’ determination to fix all the plot flaws. To quote one of the iconic songs from the movie, “There may be something there that wasn’t there before,” and I don’t mean just the detour explaining what happened to Belle’s mother.
Screenplay writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos took the best from the book and the Disney’s 1991 version, and created an overall more meaningful story that brought more clarity.
In the beginning of the movie, a narrator clarifies that the enchantress’s curse made everyone in the village forget about the castle. Belle is no longer the only non-paying customer in the local bookstore like in the animated version; instead she borrows books from a priest. Belle’s father Maurice gets imprisoned for stealing a rose in Beast’s garden, and not only for wandering around. Mrs. Potts explains how the Beast became such a cold-hearted creature.
The personalities of the main characters also undergo improvements.
Belle becomes a stronger feminist character who is not only a passionate bookworm but almost a rebellious outsider and the only literate girl in the whole village, inventing the first washing machine under the disapproving looks of her neighbors.
The Beast, while keeping his temper and purely animal moments, becomes a sophisticated, witty and well-read companion with whom Belle finally shares more than just the feeling of being an outsider. Finding common ground over Shakespeare, their relationship seems to be built so much more naturally, making the love story more believable, although more in theory than on the screen.
The moment when Belle truly falls in love with the Beast is hidden somewhere behind her perfect postures and raised eyebrows.
When the iconic ballroom scene with Belle in her yellow dress finally comes up, there is a charm missing, as if the trailer consumed it all and left no more for the movie.
Disney deserves a pat on the back for making the fully-digital characters look so realistic that it becomes literally breathtaking. Unfortunately, as the result of playing against a green screen, Watson is not all along convincing about being surrounded by enchanted staff and at times rather stares into space.
And when Chip jumps in the palms of Belle’s hands, offering her tea, I really wish she pretended a little harder to take a sip.
Like in all movies, Disney adds humorous intergenerational scenes. The perfectly casted villain duo of Gaston and Lefou are the “comedians” who make you love them, no matter how cruel they are.
The interaction of the two is comical from the beginning of the movie, when LeFou tells Gaston who is determined to marry Belle, “But [Belle] is so well read and you are so athletically inclined!”
One of the most unforgettable scenes of the movie features Gaston saying, “You are the most gorgeous thing I have ever seen! Nobody deserves you!” And no, he is not talking to his beloved Belle but rather to his own reflection.
Some changes work great. To add more drama, Walt Disney Studios lets the last petal of the rose fall and the enchanted staff become antiques in a scene so emotional that I almost wish the animated version contained it as well.
Some changes don’t work that well. Although the director Bill Condon explained in an interview that working in 3D was restrictive to Disney’s options, I still cannot get over the fact that Mrs. Potts did not have a spout as her nose anymore and lost her adorable granny look.
The movie left me with such mixed feelings that I decided to see it twice. The first time, I was so eagerly awaiting each upcoming scene to be a precise copy of the animated version that I condemned myself to disappointment.
The second time, I came back with open mind, judging the movie as a brand new fairy tale, with no prejudice. And I liked it so much more.
If the new “Beauty and the Beast” was an original movie, it would be an undeniable success. Unfortunately, the comparison to the 1991 version is inevitable and certain scenes remain much more magical as animated.
But I really appreciate the improved plot!
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