This is a very self-aware attempt by Hollywood studios to make a movie: we have a script.
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
Director: Bill Condon
To borrow a cliché that is used everywhere to describe this film, it is a tale as old as time. Summarising the plot seems trite, but then, so are these formulaic offerings from Hollywood. For the uninitiated, Beauty and the Beast, based upon the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, is about a young, progressive-minded, book-loving woman, Belle, who longs to escape her provincial surroundings. The local boor, Gaston — handsome, but wickedly conceited — pursues her for her beautiful face, and is repeatedly rejected. Then there is the Beast, an erstwhile handsome and selfish prince, who is cursed by an enchantress for refusing to help her because of her appearance. She leaves an enchanted rose behind, the falling petals of which are a ticking bomb to signify the time the Beast is left with to learn to love and be loved in return.
I like to call these rehashed films “fillers” — a yield of a dearth of original ideas, and an excess of resources. There are a few changes from the 1991 animated version. Here, the Beast is well-read, and does not plot with Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, and the rest, to woe Belle. Both Belle and the Beast are given a background story that was absent in the previous versions and the source text. But the execution had me wondering if I was watching Harry Potter. The Beast (why Belle never bothers to ask his name even after learning of his childhood puzzles me) shows her a magical book that has the ability to transport them to any place they want to visit. Belle chooses to go to her childhood home in Paris, where she discovers that her mother died of plague. With these rehashed versions, Disney seems cognisant of the absence of mothers in fairy tales. For reference, there is the extended prologue in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (2015). While a dying or a dead parent is still just that, the characters now have an emotional depth which is expressed through longing. However, to my mind, it is the animated version which feels more alive, the one with a heart. Perhaps it has something to do with my memory of it since the age of 12. But Chip asks Mrs Potts in the older version, “So will they live happily ever after?” Not quite, considering the whims and fancies of the studio.
This film is set somewhere around the late 18th century in France. After all the anthropomorphised objects in the castle are restored to their human selves, we see a number of token actors of colour. The characters that they portray are not those of court entertainers (except the opera singer), or of playmates to the aristocratic children, but of aristocrats themselves. This is a very self-aware attempt by Hollywood studios to make a movie: we have a script. Whether or not a certain race is relevant to the context is immaterial; we will have an all-inclusive cast which will keep everyone happy, because the entire history of racial oppression can be swept aside with stardust. “Hey! It’s a Disney movie! There is magic everywhere!”
The only attempt at inclusivity that does make sense — and is done well — is Le Fou’s homosexuality. As portrayed by Josh Gad, Le Fou is a steady companion to Gaston. Not only is his servility much less pronounced — the 1991 version had him happily play a punching bag — he never fawns on Gaston to the point where it becomes caricature or buffoonery. Furthermore, it is heart-warming to watch him come to his senses when Gaston betrays him. In an early scene in the movie, Gaston gropes for the right word to describe that special quality in Belle that sets her apart. “Dignity”, offers Le Fou, to which Gaston remarks, “It’s outrageously attractive, isn’t it?” In Le Fou’s resilience, indeed it is.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society