Beauty and the Beast: Modern Disney vs. Classic Disney
Author’s Note: This article is a combination of the articles “Favored Fairytales: Beauty and the Beast” and “Live Action Beast and the Beast: A Review” which can be found in their original form on The Cat’s Cradle (kvclements.com)
Like most kids in middle-class America, I was raised on Disney films. Some I always felt lukewarm about, and some that used to be favorites no longer appeal to me, even though I can appreciate the talent and artistry that went into making them. I never liked Sleeping Beauty and I was always ambivalent about Snow White and Cinderella. But others, like The Lion King and Mulan, have withstood the test of time to remain favorites. When I was a kid, The Little Mermaid was my favorite, hands down. But now, as an adult, a different film has risen to the top of the list: Beauty and the Beast.
While I enjoyed Beauty and the Beast as a kid, I don’t recall it grabbing me the way it does now, probably because it is very focused on a burgeoning romance. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to identify more strongly with bookish Belle than with rebellious Ariel. And, unlike so many other Disney films, the prince and “princess” actually spend a great amount of time together before they marry and dance off into their happily ever after. It’s a far more realistic development of a relationship than, say, Cinderella or Snow White who spend approximately ten minutes with their groom before marrying him. The “love at first sight” trope is one that I really dislike, even though I understand its narrative use in fairy tales.
Beauty and the Beast is one of the few stories that revolves around two people in extraordinary circumstances learning to live, and eventually fall in love, with one another. Call me a helpless romantic, but I really enjoy that kind of story; it has far more substance than the typical perfunctory, “And then the prince found the princess and married her and they lived happily ever after, the end.” I do so love romantic redemption stories.
Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated by Beauty and the Beast; there are numerous iterations of it in both literature and film. Not only do you have the subtle variations that come with different translations, but there are more drastic modern interpretations that take the basic idea of a beauty taming a beast with love and then play with it.
So when I heard that there was going to be a live action version of the film being released in 2017, I was intrigued. Hopeful, even. What kind of depth would be imparted to the characters, as told to a modern audience? What new spin would be placed on a “tale as old as time”?
Unfortunately, what I ended up seeing was an inferior carbon copy of the original 1991 animated film.
I cannot express how much this disappoints me. Don’t get me wrong; the movie isn’t bad per se. I don’t feel like I should demand my money back or that I wasted my time. It’s competently done. The singing (for the most part) is good, the CGI passable, the sets rich and ornate (albeit over-Baroqued), the costumes were pretty, and the talking furniture were the most compelling characters on screen. There are some good moments between Belle and her father, both Gaston and LeFou were entertaining, and some of the plot holes from the animated film were explained (like how Gaston knew where the castle was, what happened to Belle’s mother, and why no one seemed to know that a giant, impossible-to-miss castle was sitting within a day’s ride of the village).
But there were so many things they could have done to enrich the characters, to deepen the story, to offer something new. The emotional depth of the animated version was mostly lost in the translation to live action, and what backstory there was felt pasted in as an afterthought rather than integrated into the film.
While I could go on at length pointing out all the flaws of the film, I want to focus on three main points whose poor execution crippled the live action film:
1) LACK OF CHEMISTRY
While I liked Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast, I didn’t feel any chemistry between the two of them, which is crucial in a film where one of the romantic partners isn’t even human! (The romance between the wardrobe and the harpsicord was more compelling and believable than between Belle and the Beast.) There are two key reasons for this: First, time. In the animated version, Belle spends at least a month (perhaps longer) at the castle before returning to her father. In the live action version, she’s there about a week. That is not enough time for a romance to blossom. I know that fairy tales play fast and loose with realism, but for a film made with modern sensibilities, it was less realistic than the one from 1991. Second, stolen lines. So many lines that should have been said by a main character are said by furniture instead! In the live action version, the Beast never admits that he loves Belle; Cogsworth says it for him! That is a key moment for him, a turning point in his life and story arc, and it was taken from him. Why? What was the rationale behind this decision? Darned if I know.
Nearly all of their interactions feel like they are saying the lines because that’s what the script says, not because the characters actually feel those emotions. The only exception was when the Beast introduced Belle to the library. That was the only scene between them that felt genuine. The film tried to make up for this lack by tacking on backstory that is either never explored in more detail or is woefully executed. Their little “bonding moment” in Belle’s old home (which, by the way, would have been burned to the ground if the plague had visited) was completely inadequate. The Beast’s backstory would have been interesting… if they’d actually done anything with it.
2) MISPLACED EMPHASIS
I expected, especially in a modern film, for us to spend more time with Belle and the Beast as they get to know one another, but instead, we actually got less screen time with them than in the original. Heck, we get more time with the talking furniture than with the main characters! (I almost wish that the film had drawn further from the original fairy tale where the servants are invisible or wraith-like rather than objects so they wouldn’t eat up so much time with comedy. But that wouldn’t sell more toys, now would it?) A lot of valuable time that should have been spent developing the relationship between Belle and the Beast was sacrificed for the sake of the musical numbers, which are okay in animated films, but I loathe in live action ones. (Especially when we already know these songs and, quite frankly, saw them done better.)
As a particularly painful example, the Beast should not have sung when Belle left. His single roar of anguish in the animated version was far more moving to me than the musical number we had to endure in the live action. Not because Dan Stevens sang poorly, but because it undercut the drama of the scene and the feel of the character. A short duet with Belle is about as much as the Beast should have sung, if singing had to happen at all. And it didn’t need to.
3) MUDDLED TONE
The film couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be a live action cartoon or a more realistic tale of love and drama. In the beginning of the film, especially with the opening song and Gaston’s presentation, it feels like the former. Gaston feels especially flat and cartoonish, and not nearly as menacing as he turns out to be in the animated version. But then the interactions with Belle and her father or with Belle teaching the little girl to read feel so realistic and human that it’s jarring. The movie flips like this throughout. It needed to be one or the other but tried to be both and, in my estimation, failed.
So why did all of this happen? How could such a classic story be butchered in such a fashion? I think that it probably came down to fear. Because the live action Cinderella and Jungle Book didn’t do very well, Disney got scared and decided they would just remake the version of Beauty and the Beast everyone knows and loves, just with real people. Personally, even though the live action Cinderella isn’t a great film, I found it more compelling than this version of Beauty and the Beast. I wish they’d decided to do something more like Ever After, which is clearly Cinderella, but with its own unique spin. At least then we would have had something new to watch. And this wouldn’t have been beyond Disney’s capabilities. In 1987, a live-action television show called Beauty and the Beast aired with its own unique take on the fairy tale, transporting it to then-modern New York. “Belle” is a district attorney named Catherine, played by Linda Hamilton. “The Beast” is a lion-like man named Vincent, played by Ron Perlman, who dwells in a shadowy realm of tunnels and sewers beneath New York. (Vincent’s makeup and costume are simply stunning.) And while often cheesy, it still held more genuine emotion than its more modern CGI-saturated cousin.
In conclusion, and in my humble opinion, the 1991 animated version of Beauty and the Beast remains the best iteration caught on film. The 1987 TV show is a treat if you can get past the ‘80s camp and fashion sense. For your literary palate, I’ve also included a list of excellent books that have presented their own various versions of this classic fairy tale:
Beauty and the Beast by Mercer Mayer Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen
Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sara J. Maas
The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
Beauty and the Werewolf by Mercedes Lackey
By Hikari Katana