I wasn’t expecting much from this live action musical remake of the 1991 animation and, at 2.5 hours long, I was thinking I might get a bit of shut eye. Surprisingly I stayed awake for the whole thing and I didn’t hate it.
With three daughters, I’ve watched my fair share of Disney Princess movies – and Barbie and Bratz and Monster High, though the ‘based on a doll’ franchises make Disney look like Tolstoy. What always disappoints about the Disney heroines are their limited prospects and choices. The way they take up less space and have less of a voice than the male characters.
I won’t worry about spoilers as the trailer, which gave away pretty much the entire story, shows that no one goes to this film expecting narrative surprises. What was interesting to me was how much agency Belle is given and whether we are expected to accept the domestic violence-excusing trope that women can fall in love with monsters who imprison them (as long as they are handsome princes underneath the anger and violence).
Emma Watson is Belle, winsome and bookish, occasionally channelling Hermione (and, for a moment, Maria Von Trapp) and ridiculed rather ludicrously by her entire village for being literate. Her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is rather satisfyingly shown as kindly and a little eccentric rather than the foolish and simpleminded character he was in the animation. The most narcissistic and misogynist man in the village, Gaston (Luke Evans), wants to marry Belle; sure she is beautiful but rather odiously he seems most interested in the challenge of breaking her independent spirit and ability to make her own choices.
Gaston’s comedic sidekick, Le Fou (Josh Gadd), is camp and either overly enamoured of himself, Gaston’s confidence or Gaston himself. The fact that Le Fou is gay is played for laughs and is subtle enough that hetero children won’t notice. There has been a fair bit of press as to how groundbreaking it is for Disney to have its first openly gay character but the depiction does little to advance the limited acceptance of gay characters (as long as they are non-threatening, nonsexual and not taken seriously).
I was interested to see how the Beast as abuser would be depicted. Initially he is a monster, quick to fury as he imprisons Maurice for picking a rose from his castle grounds. He is no less tyrannical when Belle substitutes herself for her father and it is initially only the castle servants, who have been turned into domestic objects, who acknowledge her humanity, though seemingly for selfish reasons. Whenever the Beast shouts and intimidates, Belle stands up to him and there is never a moment where she capitulates, through pity or kindliness or the ‘innate goodness’ of her sex, until he first shows his humanity, saving her life and putting his own at risk.
Some things didn’t work for me. The Beast is often too obviously computer-enhanced, detracting from his menace and humanity. The film may possibly technically pass the Bechtel Test but not in any way I can remember. The only other significant female characters are an enchantress (who is voiceless), a teapot (Mrs Potts), a wardrobe (Mme Garderobe), a feather duster (Plumette) and an evil villager. It’s possible some of them say or sing words when Belle is around but there is no sense of conversation nor depth to their roles. Compare that with the significant roles of Maurice, Gaston, Le Fou, the Beast, Lumière, Chip, Cogsworth and Maestro Cadenza and you can see that women get only a little space and voice.
The characters of course are mostly caricatures other than perhaps Belle, her father and the Beast. The villagers are so ludicrously mean and stupid that it is little surprise that Belle might choose to live in a castle with a tyrant rather than stay in her village.
And it is a musical. This isn’t always bad – Once, La La Land, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, all musicals I have enjoyed – but there’s a lot of singing and dancing in this one and it’s only occasionally diverting. I might have catnapped while the dinner plates were putting on a Vegas show.
The visuals and costuming are sumptuous and there are some good comical turns from secondary characters. Dan Stevens is a satisfying Beast, convincingly menacing and vulnerable. If you’re going to see a movie with your kids this holidays, Beauty and the Beast is not a bad choice. You’ll either enjoy it or get the chance for a power nap.
Currently in cinemas
Bechdel test – fail