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Disney: Looking Back At BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Tony’s feeling beautiful, rather than beastly.
Disney built its feature-length reputation, its long-term soul, on stories of underdogs and princesses, of people who defy the odds and overcome evil by the purity of their heart and by doing the right thing – often having first tried the easy thing and been humbled. The company elevated the simple storybook fairy tale to lavish, animated, musical extravaganzas that defined generations of childhoods, while adding half a ton of sugar and a certain kitschy ‘magic’ that became part of the Disney signature. It extended the fairy tale to other areas in which it excelled, like the anthropomorphism of animals, bringing stories like Bambi, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmations and The Aristocats to life and changing our definition of what fairy tales could be. Magic could be anywhere and everywhere. Magic could be family, could be caring, could be a dream come true, but most of all, magic could be as simple – and as dangerous – as love.

The original animated Beauty and the Beast was the beginning of a new chapter for Disney. Certainly the previous release, The Little Mermaid, ended a run of financial flops and showed that Disney had got its mojo back, but it was in Beauty and the Beast that for the first time Disney’s screenwriters began to genuinely acknowledge that its female human ‘leads’ – the ‘Disney Princesses’ – could have grander dreams than those in traditional fairy tales: to land the perfect husband, probably a prince. Beauty and the Beast should really be renamed Bookworm and the Beast – it’s the first Disney ‘Princess’ movie where the heroine sings longingly not about some mythical man she’s going to marry, but about an escape from her small provincial life, about the wider world and all it has to offer her if she can only get to it. It’s also the first Disney movie to have a conspicuously handsome wannabe-prince be utterly rejected by the heroine. And that’s key to the emotional heart of the movie, because Belle sees people for who they are, not what they look like. Her own ‘beauty’ is more or less irrelevant to her, compared to the feeding of her mind and her dreams. Belle is the first Disney ‘Princess’ whose mindset aligns more or less with modern feminist ideas. That’s pretty seismic for a company with a reputation built on the traditional happy ever after of ‘And reader, I married him.’ Beauty and the Beast set a new template for Disney heroines that has led to Brave (heroine with bows and arrows and a redheaded temper, motivation self-determination), to Tangled (heroine hitting the hero with a frying pan, motivation escape), to Frozen (heroine running away and doing her own thing, motivation self-acceptance), and to Moana (heroine being brave enough to set out on the endless ocean on her own because it needs to be done, motivation duty and adventure). Belle the Bookworm reinvented the very nature of what Disney ‘Princesses’ could care about, and how they’d go about getting it.

So could the 2017 Beauty and the Beast capture that same spirit?
Unreservedly, yes. Emma Watson as the new Belle gives armies of youngsters an easy way into the film, her history as Hermione working as shorthand for the combination of openness-to-love and independent, intellectual spirit that is crucial to delivering Belle the Bookworm on screen in live action. The village from which she comes is an analogue of Trumpian communities today – the idea of education being ‘wasted’ on girls is very much foregrounded, and her ‘oddness’ in being clever is punished – when she more or less automates the process of laundry, giving herself more time to read, they tip her clothes into the mud for getting ideas above her station. You could say that society itself is the major difference between the animated and the live action versions of Beauty and the Beast – if Hillary Clinton had become the first female President of the United States, the new Belle would have been aspirational, marked out by her brilliance and her pure heart. As things are, it’s hard not to see her as an avatar of defiance, of resistance to such small-minded attitudes, and as a pathway to a better future for almost everyone through the non-superficiality of her vision.

To make any of this work, you need a believable baddie, and in the animated version, Gaston the boorish voice of chauvinistic ‘manliness’ erred on the side of bumptious idiocy. Here though, while maintaining most of the characteristics and phrases and indeed songs, Luke Evans surpasses in making Gaston and his brand of thigh-slapping, gun-toting, grab them by whatever because no means yes if you’re handsome machismo real, and vile, and laughable at the distance of a screen, but in fact terribly threatening if you have to deal with him in person.
The cast all the way down the list is superb. Kevin Kline puts in a sensitive performance as Belle’s father, and there’s a believable relationship between them in which to anchor their characters and how they’ve lived. Dan Stevens, while alarming in his pre-credit backstory scene, delivers the duality of the Beast on a knife-edge – the boy twisted into selfishness by a brutish father, the man a stranger to love, the Beast grown to rage and sharpness in the cold…and then the thawing that beauty brings to him, not by her outward form, but by the look in her eyes, the thoughts in her head, her love of the literature he has amassed, the fire in her words when she disagrees with him, beast though he is, the tenderness she gives him when she stays and tends his wounds. Sometimes perhaps, he might feel like too light, too slight a voice to really personify the Beast, but over the course of the film, he commits to his character and his journey, and you see the subtleties in his performance. Does the chemistry between Stevens and Watson work? Yes, mostly – as in all versions of this story, the reveal of his human form at the end feels like an odd note, but that’s a built-in flaw in the story, inasmuch as Belle has fallen in love with the Beast as he’s had to exist, rather than the man as he will go forward. Yes, she’s seen the heart of him, and that’s the same in either form, but there’s always that twinge of slight lessening when the Beast becomes the man. That’s addressed in an impish way with the very last line from Belle in this version though, and it’s delicious, harking back to Belle’s departure from the traditional ‘Princess’ mode.

The singing of the two main castmembers – well.... there’s autotune at work here, but it’s very skilfully done, allowing the voices to sound entirely natural and like they belong to the actors.
The parade of singing cutlery and crockery and object d’arts in this version is a walking Who’s Who of Hollywood, and especially of Britain’s contribution to Hollywood – Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, Lumiere’s love interest, and so on. There are new additions here, with Stanley Tucci especially notable, and they act to round out the reality of the Beast’s curse, which fell on everyone who lived with him on the night he grew his horns. As you’d expect from such a cast, they deliver the self-interest, the love of their master, and the exuberance of hope that Belle brings them with note-and-tone perfection.

Unfortunately, a character who feels a little off is LeFou, played by Josh Gad. That’s absolutely no fault of Gad’s – he gives it his energetic all here, getting every laugh he’s supposed to get and playing a man who finds redemption only when he gives up his love for Gaston. But given the furore in some quarters over ‘Disney’s first gay character’ (an interesting reading of the situation, but let’s not quibble), he’s perhaps a little too obviously camp, as though the House of Mouse felt it was safer to err on the side that equates gayness with laughability.
That aside though, let’s be clear: Beauty and the Beast has always been a story of a girl wanting more than her tiny world can give her, and who finds that new world in the person and the potential of a creature all the world would fear, but whom she sees as he really is. The live-action version is everything from the animation but given a danger, given the reality of potential hopelessness, and given the genuine triumph that comes through Disney’s signature selling point – the magic and the possibility that is love, the greatest, most mundane, most complex and simplest adventure humanity can have. Put it on this Valentine's Day. Watch it. And then, in all probability, watch it again.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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