Beauty and the Beast is in theaters today, and the buzz is upon us, from endless Emma Watson interviews to a lot of hubub around a gay subplot with LeFou and others in Gaston's crew. While I found the film itself fell short of its 1991 Oscar-nominated predecessor, there were some high points. Actors like Maurice, Belle's father (Kevin Kline) delivered truly stunning performances. Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, was amazing as the beast—I could seriously see his facial expressions through the CGI. Emma Watson, however, often seemed like she was playing Emma Watson. Or at least it took some effort on my part to try to attach to her character.
While some minor plot changes in this version didn’t improve the film in my view, others are nice additions. The “Be Our Guest” scene, for instance, came off to me as something of a creepy carnival ride, missing an essential warmth portrayed in the original. One improvement, though, was that instead of visiting a library-type bookshop in her town, Belle instead visits the town priest Père Robert who has a small shelf of books to share in his chapel. Belle remarks how such “a small corner of the world can feel so big”—a line that seems to have more meaning for being spoken within a chapel than in just another town shop.
So yes, as with most films, Beauty and the Beast had its high and low points. Overall I found the film had more flaws and less cohesion than the original, and I don’t think it’s a loss if you skip this one. Still, some of the high points were so good they deserve mention. Here are my favorite moments where virtues and values were highlighted in the retelling of this tale as old as time.
01. Pursuit of Learning
Without a doubt, this version of the Disney fairy tale painted a feminist message in bold strokes. As Belle waltzed through her small provincial town, viewers saw the school boys being led into their classroom, while the same-aged girls cleaned laundry with the other lower-class women of the town. The higher-class women worked solely on beautifying themselves and competing for eligible men like Gaston. As everyone in the village looked at Belle as an odd duck, in this version it was clear that it’s because she’s a woman who doesn’t fit in these molds; she’s pursuing knowledge even if it means that everyone sings as she passes by, “she really is a funny girl.”
The dialogue between Gaston and LeFou provides a humorous insight moments after Belle’s walk through town. Gaston is repeatedly rebuffed by Belle, but it only seems to propel his hunt. Gaston asks LeFou what is it about her that's so appealing, exclaiming “she hasn’t made a fool of herself just to get my attention” and asking him what the word for that is? “Dignity?” suggests LeFou. “It’s outrageously attractive,” Gaston concludes. While it’s disappointing that Gaston can’t take no for an answer, the momentary spotlight on dignity in these lines is a welcome one.
When speaking with her father, Belle longs to hear more about her mother, whom she can hardly remember and of whom her dad only talks sparingly. When Belle asks to hear one more thing about her, her father replies, “your mother was fearless.” Later, after Belle is imprisoned in the Beast’s castle, Lumière mentions a similar quality in Belle. After she is alarmed by his intrusion and smashes him with a blunt object, Lumière responds, “you are very strong—this is a great quality.” While the obvious not-a-damsel-in-distress theme may come across to some as a little heavy-handed, the message to “be not afraid” was a lovely virtue to see highlighted.
04. Resilience in the Face of Wrong
A great part of this film’s decency hinged on the character of Mrs. Potts played by the amazing Emma Thompson. Indeed, she’s one of the only animated objects that doesn’t seem somewhat manipulative of Belle. When she sees Belle trying to escape out of her window, for instance, Mrs. Potts pours her a cup of tea for the journey instead of trying to stop her. Later in the film, Mrs. Potts says a line that is essential in holding the film together, saving the film from becoming a re-reading of the tale to be one of a victim clinging to her abuser. “People say a lot of awful things in anger,” Mrs. Potts says to Belle, after the Beast had yelled at her along with the household staff. “It’s our choice whether or not to listen.”
As Belle gets to know the household staff and the Beast opens up to her more, she starts to see “something there that wasn’t there before.” Singing from her balcony, Belle exclaims how she doesn’t understand “how in the midst of all this sorrow can so much love and hope endure.” Belle acknowledges that her experience is helping her to grow in understanding of things beyond her, but also acknowledges that in captivity she’s still being treated wrongfully. “I’m stronger now, but still not free,” she sings.
Mrs. Potts speaks for the animated objects when she explains to Belle how the Beast became be so wretched; his mother died early and his father raised him to be as twisted as he was. When Belle bemoaned how the household staff “did nothing” to deserve being under the spell, Mrs. Potts replied, “We did nothing to stop it,” suggesting she and the others could have done more to try to help the boy have more positive influences growing up.
As Belle and the Beast grow in friendship, the film reminds us there cannot be love without freedom; as long as she’s in his captivity, their relationship is tainted by disorder. “Do you think you could be happy here?” the Beast asks, seeing that she is enjoying her time more than before. “Can anybody be happy if they aren’t free?” Belle replies. Indeed.
08. Reconciliation and Sacrificial Love
What this film did carry over from the animated version was the emphasis on sacrificial love, which I’d be lying if I didn’t say was moving and beautiful to behold. When he realizes he can’t keep her in captivity if he loves her, the Beast lets Belle go. “I set her free,” the Beast tells his object-imprisoned servants. “Sorry I couldn’t do the same for you.”
As the last rose petal falls and all the objects gradually lose their animation, each of them speaks their last words. “It was an honor serving with you,” one says to another, each expressing one last kindness to another as the light leaves their eyes.
This Beauty and the Beast may not be as good as a whole as the animated one of old, but it certainly sticks the landing.
Photo Credit: Disney