Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago, there was a little blonde nerd who lived in Chicago. She wore enormous turquoise glasses, and even as a child, multiple people commented that she bore a striking resemblance to Sally Jesse Raphael (who to be fair, did grace the sides of every city bus one year). She was semi-regularly bullied on the playground for being a “bookworm.”
Why don’t you just go home, and sit by your fire, and read all your BOOKS? was one of the more crushing of the inane taunts she received from a resident playground Mean Girl. Well, folks, that girl was me (the nerd, not the rather sentimental bully). The same year these taunts were being volleyed her way, Disney released Beauty and the Beast, featuring a young hero who loved books more than men and craved adventure more than complacent domesticity. I know I was not alone in latching onto this character who stood apart from not only the other Disney princesses, but the other female characters on offer in mainstream cinema geared towards children. A character who inspires a town full of people to call after her:
“Look there she goes, that girl is strange, no question…no denying she’s a funny girl, that Belle…I’m afraid she’s rather odd…She’s nothing like the rest of us.”
Hey! That was ME that they were singing about! I was a wise middle-aged woman trapped in an 8-year old’s body, after all! Of course, I didn’t have a perfectly symmetrical face or a lush brown mane or the town hunk competing for my affections but the beauty of a child’s imagination + animation is the ability to transpose yourself into the fictitious world being drawn up before you, for you. When the trailer for the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast was released, I audibly gasped at the majesty of it all, immediately delivered back to childhood.
At a screening at the sumptuous El Capitan theater, replete with a live organ playing beloved songs from the film before the curtains were raised, we were all transported back in time. Hollywood loves re-living itself, and despite some mawkish moments and some scenes that tonally missed the mark, this is quite the worthwhile retelling. Wait, is it considered a re-telling if you’re telling it exactly the same way, just with living, breathing actors? Who cares, just look at Dan Stevens’ BABY BLUES!!!
The first scene is, unfortunately, one of those misses – what the animated film tells in stained-glass imagery plus voiceover, the contemporary version attempts to re-enact in a tremendous ballroom set-piece, but the score is overbearing, the production set is tad gaudy, and Audra McDonald’s performance (as Garderobe) along with the rest of the castle cast is all a bit much, laying the frosting on too thick without letting us breathe into the story. However, it does give us a chance to glimpse Dan Stevens as the Beast – beautiful, beautiful, handsome, dreamy Dan Stevens. There’s no better casting for Beast/Prince Charming, he absolutely nails it as both petulant prince, pent-up, wounded Beast, and utterly swoon-worthy Prince Charming who’s overcome the error of his ways. His performance as Beast was fantastic, despite apparently daily wilting under the weight of a 40-pound latex suit and steel-capped stilts to help him rise above the winsome Watson.
Luckily, we immediately move into the “provincial town” scene, which positively SINGS. A gorgeous alpine setting (Surrey!) surrounds a village full of people who appear out of every shuttered window and cobblestoned-corner imaginable, singing the beautiful “Belle” song we’re all (right?) here for. That girl is strange! No question! Emma Watson is pitch-perfect: her voice, her performance, she exquisitely brings Belle to life. Now, I may be 8 months pregnant and supremely hormonal, but I had tears ROLLING down my cheeks for the ENTIRE duration of this scene, well into the next. I’m sure the stranger next to me thoughtt I was seriously deranged, as I couldn’t wipe the tears away fast enough before the next bob-sledded batch of them came a-sliding down. It’s an impressive, expansive, positively stupefying scene. The movie gets an A based on this scene alone!
The rest of the film carries on much like its animated mother, with very little deviation – better jokes all around, though a bit flatter character development from Lumiere and Cogsworth. But that’s okay. We all know what we’re here for! Disney didn’t promise to reinvent its own wheel, just to make the wheel capable of breath. One other slight change is Emma Watson’s personal contribution to the character, which was to make her character have a career this go ‘round. Like her “wacky” father (Kevin Kline, underused), she’s an inventor, but we really only see this played out in one short scene where she teaches another girl how to read while her laundry does itself thanks to her “invention,” which basically just uses animals to power the well-like washing “machine.” Belle is already one of the more feminist of the Disney characters, so this mild addition doesn’t exactly break down any barriers, and her “career” as an inventor gets so little mention in screen-time that it doesn’t amount to much more than lip-service about the “new” feminist bent of the film.
Stand-outs include the positively STELLAR Luke Evans as Gaston, a role literally made for him!?! I wish I had access to the taped auditions of this role, because I imagine when Evans strode in and gave his first on-camera smirk, the casting associates sighed like the Gaston-loving triplets in the film, agog under his broad-chested, white-tooth’d spell. He gives real dimension to this villain, not just some village idiot hunk but rather a small-time war hero psychologically crushed under the weight of Belle’s rejection, before our very eyes transforming into the monster that the Beast is simultaneously relinquishing (“Love saves all!” the rallying Disney cry).
Josh Gad is equally stellar as LeFou, also transforming the one-dimensionality of his animated dope counterpart into a loyal best friend: a Gaston aficionado, if you will. He knows when Gaston is being cruel and merciless, but his love for him overwhelms his moral sphere. As for the gay undertones over which the tiresome, hateful backwaters of Russia and Alabama are banning this film? I was literally too busy WIPING away tears and blowing my nose in the one flash second of the film where the “gay moment” was portrayed. Literally – blink and you’ll miss it. That makes me almost as disappointed as if it wasn’t there altogether, but joyously, the only reason I knew I missed it was because I heard a collective gasp and subsequent cheers and raucous applause from the 1,500 people in the audience. Progress. Baby steps, but progress.
The film does swerve into Disney on Ice territory in a few scenes (I know because I, uh, saw Beauty & the Beast on ice…), the score and bad CGI adding up to a hammy gaudiness that a few times made me yearn for the animated version. The “Be Our Guest” scene in particular falls prey to this ostentatious tawdriness, unfortunately – what chance it had to really impress against the decades-old, anachronistic animation from the original, and yet (!) it seemsthey spent most of the visual-effects budget painting hairs onto Dan Stevens’s perfect, perfect face.
Alas, despite some shortcomings (among which are some new songs that don’t really hit the mark), this mostly-faithful yet cleverer live-rendering of the classic is a successfully emotional, rollicking romp through our collective childhoods, and doubtless a wondrous introduction to the story for its target audience: tiny nerds, some of whom might even resemble middle-aged talk show hosts.