Less was more: my (spoiler-free) review of the live-action Beauty and the Beast

The live-action Beauty and the Beast isn’t a redemptive fairy-tale any more; it’s a high-fantasy romance. And I hate to say it, but it feels very muddled in places.

Last night I saw the film as part of the ‘Disney Concert Experience’ at the Odeon in Leicester Square. I’m really glad I went, and I loved the performances, but I have very mixed feelings over the film.

I’ll try and keep this post to broad comments and things that were well known in advance of the release. Even so, my definition of ‘spoiler-free’ might not be yours, so if it’s important to you to be surprised by the film, then you read this at your own risk.

Changes and additions that went over and above the 1991 version

So… I’ll start with what I really enjoyed. It can be summed up in four words: Gaston, Lefou, Maurice, diversity.

Gaston was bigger, bolder, brasher… and brilliant. The embodiment of vanity and toxic masculinity, he lived up to the part well with all the menace and entitlement the part needed.

Lefou was comedic gold. His performance was nuanced with surprises that made me laugh out loud. The writers built further layers into the song Gaston and made a tribute to the ending on the 1991 soundtrack, but which never made it into the 1991 film. As for the much-hyped “exclusively gay” moment, keep your eyes open. I blinked. I missed it.

Maurice was much more nuanced too. He was less bumbling than his 1991 counterpart and more real in his wisdom. Instead of an eccentric inventor, he’s a skilled craftsman. It works. When I wrote about Maurice in my series comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades, I was struck by how the 1991 film poignantly illustrates the disbelief and ridicule people are often subjected to when they call out abuse. The live-action version goes into this dynamic even more… and better.

Diversity: leaving aside the LGBT angle (which I could go into more, but won’t because: spoilers), I really liked the inclusion of more people of colour. There were a number of them and they seemed to be really positive portrayals.

Things that were broadly the same and about as good:

The opening song Belle.

The chases through the woods.

The mob song.

Things that didn’t convince me so much:

Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) and Ewan McGregor (Lumiere). I love these actors; I really, really do. But… they didn’t convince me. Their accents didn’t feel native to them or authentic to the people groups they were representing.

Belle’s characterisation falls into this category as well. I liked how she was portrayed in the village. I felt that worked for the most part, but the points about literacy felt preachy in how they were made. Also, her love of reading became less about a desire for adventure and more about a chasing after romance. Overall… she didn’t inspire me. I hate to say it, but that’s how it was.

Also, I didn’t like Be Our Guest. Cogsworth in the last verse felt culturally insensitive and really made me cringe.

Things they changed. Big time.

Beast’s characterisation

I felt there was absolutely nothing likeable or sympathetic about him until well after the Something There song. That song was virtually unchanged, but now felt slightly creepy to watch.

They’ve also made him too adult. I really hate to say it, but they’ve turned Beast into an Edward Cullen. He’s all older and mopey and hung up about his eternal damnation. The opening sequence in particular felt too adult to me. I don’t mean it was unsuitable for children, I mean it spoke too much about the vices of adults. It meant that the simple yet profound message of selfishness got lost in the noise.

Beast’s transformation was an anti-climax. Arguably the same can be said for the 1991 version – I remember kids in the cinema going ‘Eeurgh!’ when Prince turned to face the camera. The 1991 ending has since grown on me, but I’m really unsure that the 2017 one will. That said, the opening and closing sequences (both of which had significant changes) were good counter-images to each other.

Mothers and fathers

Both Beast and Belle are over-complicated through the exploration of their deceased parents. Here I feel the writers tried to make the fairy-tale more real, but in doing so, they’ve attempted something that is hard to pull off. And they didn’t do it properly. Because of that, the story actually became less genuinely real.

The redemption story

OK, so… when I think about it, the live-action Beauty and the Beast is not a redemption story.

It’s a romance.

I got the feeling they were going to take it in this direction before the film started. The ‘Disney Concert Experience’ had an interview with the composer Alan Menken on beforehand. (This was awesome; did you know the opening sequence was based on The Carnival of the Animals by Saint Saens?) Menken emphasised the importance of the romance between Belle and Beast, and as I then suspected, the romantic-love element of the story was given way, way more prominence.

For me, this fundamentally shatters the narrative.

As I’ve argued in my series comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades, the 1991 Beauty and the Beast isn’t about romance, but uses wedding and romantic imagery to convey ideas of redemption (that is, concrete visual imagery to talk about something abstract – because it’s a fairy-tale and a children’s story).

By making it a romance in the live-action version, it wasn’t so much that Beast learned to love, rather he learned to make Belle his object of hope. This came out particularly in Beast’s new song Evermore. One of my big bones of contention with Fifty Shades is the fact that Christian makes Ana his object of hope; so for me, this is one whopper of a disappointment.

Meanwhile, Beast’s guilt was diminished and Belle’s promise was non-existent. Whereas this makes some of the more awkward questions of the 1991 release go away, it opens up bigger and messier problems that can’t be fully excused by the genre. I for one, found the ballroom scene quite uncomfortable because it felt like Beast was on the verge of kissing Belle the whole time.

Conclusion: This was a fundamental shift in genre

The 1991 version was a fairy-tale about redemption. The 2017 version is a high-fantasy romance. Sure, as romances go this one is better than average. Sure, as fantasy stories go, this one has got plenty of spectacle.

But as redemption stories go…

(and yes, I know, I’m writing from a Christian mindset, so I have lots of specific ideas about redemption, and not everyone’s going to agree with me on these)

… it falls way, way short.

Fairy-tales don’t resonate with people because they’re plausible. But in this live-action rendering too much effort has gone into making the characters have back-stories and the setting internally consistent with itself. I preferred the simplicity of the fairy-tale. It was less busy, less loud, less extravagant.

Less was more.

Have you seen the film? What did you think? Did you want a fairy-tale or a romance? I will be blogging in more depth about the themes of the film, including specific thoughts on the 10 things I hoped Disney would change. If there are particular aspects you’d like me to explore, please leave a comment or message me via Twitter or Facebook. I moderate comments, but don’t let that put you off.

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