There were two things I knew when I went into this movie a couple days ago. For one, Beauty and the Beast is a classic among classic Disney animated films. More pertinently, though, is that I am way behind on any sort of analysis I could offer on this movie. Beauty and the Beast’s 2017 remake came out back in March and despite me kind of wanting to see it, I never got around to it while it was in theaters. For the sake of full disclosure I’ve never watched any of the previous Beauty and the Beast animated films in their entirety, so I don’t really have any of that childhood attachment or nostalgia for the film that the remake was trying to desperately to cash in on. When the 2017 version was originally announced, I wanted to watch it mostly because of the darker aesthetics–I wanted to see if Disney had learned anything from their Alice In Wonderland mess. As fate would have it, though, I jumped into the film with the aesthetics’ unwanted friend tagging alongside it: the painfully laughable characterization of Le Fou that Disney (or Le Fou’s actor, Josh Gad, at least) tried so hard to call “gay representation”. I’ll admit, that may have colored my viewing more than a little bit. Still, that alone didn’t make it a bad movie. What made it a bad movie—maybe bad’s a little harsh. Exhausting?—was how hard it tried to convince me that it was better than the sum of its parts.
Though as I said above, I haven’t seen any of the animated films in their entirety, I am familiar with the original fairy tale, various other adaptions (like Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête), and a large portion of Disney’s original flick via cultural osmosis. Unfortunately, this new adaption has nothing new or interesting to bring to the table. Young beauty Belle is bored of her podunk life and wishes for something more, while actively refusing the town hero Gaston’s wedding proposals. Unable to actually find some way to leave her town, Belle instead takes care of her father’s home while he goes to sell his goods in the city, eagerly awaiting the rose he promised to get her while there. Unfortunately, his horse gets lost, he winds up at a creepy enchanted castle, and is imprisoned by the unfeeling Beast who lives there. Belle tracks him down, manages to exchange her freedom for her father’s, and thus she becomes the Beast’s prisoner-turned-house guest thanks to the animated household items that serve as the castle’s servants. Cursed by an enchantress, all those within the castle are forced to live in their non-human forms until the Beast falls in love, and someone falls in love with him in return. Which Belle eventually does, but not before running down the magical clock maintaining everyone’s humanity, and not before the Beast gets a couple bullets in his back via Gaston.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of why this re-make didn’t bring spring to my frozen heart, there are a couple fundamental things that I felt really brought the movie-musical down. The most glaring thing is, unfortunately, Belle herself—Emma Watson. Watson is a fine actress and I completely understand the necessity in getting a big name star like her (who also comes with her own childhood nostalgia baggage) to perform this role, but she simply wasn’t suited for it. My most petty reason for this is that she can’t sing, not in the way that a movie like this demands. Throughout the musical number “Belle,” Watson’s autotuning was so noticeable that it completely took me out of the movie. That’s the first song—not a good sign for things to come. Additionally, Watson seemed to be having a difficult time emoting. Certainly Belle isn’t someone I’d label as “overly emotional”, but she does have emotions. If Watson’s Belle isn’t crying or yelling, then she has no emotions at all—any possible subtlety in human expression is absent.
More surprisingly, Disney’s writing for Belle this time around seemed to be trying to make her more unlikable. Beauty and the Beast may be a movie that silently encapsulates the “not like the other girls” trope, but damn did this movie go hard on that. From what I know about the animated film, I always got the impression that Belle was simply bored with living in the countryside. The way that she moved through the crowds without even looking up from her book spoke to a boredom and routine that anyone could understandably get bored with. It was as though she knew everyone in the town and had expended their metaphorical dialogue trees for all different information available. Comparatively in the live action film, it simply felt like Belle didn’t care. Sure she sings about knowing the routines of all the people, but there’s nothing that makes me believe that she’s paying attention to the people around her or that she actually ever engaged in dialogue with them (outside of the man she borrows books from). In all honesty, she feels like a snob—these country folk are too stupid to keep her entertained.
Yet this “not like other girls/provincial villagers” mentality isn’t only reinforced by Belle’s reaction to her environment. Again, looking at the animated movie, I got the sense that overall, while Belle was a “funny girl” to many of the villagers, they were still fond of her. If not fond, they at least didn’t outright antagonize her. In the live action movie, there’s a weird sense of hostility between Belle and the other villagers. (Honestly, if she really did act like a snob all the time, I can understand why.) This lingering feeling culminates in a scene in the beginning where Belle both creates a ye olde washing machine out of a barrel and tries teaching a little girl to read. For teaching this girl to read, Belle’s invention is presumably destroyed by the guy who discovered her plus Belle is berated for trying to teach this girl to read. I mean, surely the town will burn if some other girl becomes like Belle, right? But how can she not be like other girls if she’s teaching girls to be like her!? It’s a weird reinforcement of the trope with a unneeded dash of sexism that wasn’t present in the original.
Speaking of, it’s time to get into the more subtle problems of the film, said sexism definitely being one of them. I’m definitely not claiming that the original movie was a great film in feminist history, but peeking through a few clips on YouTube, I’m struggling to find anything that compares to the remake’s ridiculous pitting of girls against girls. There are three incredibly unimportant characters in the original: the trio of girls who have a crush on Gaston and mostly serve as a chorus to reinforce how great everyone thinks he is. They’re harmless. They do nothing. However, they come back in this remake with a renewed hatred for Belle. As Belle walks past them, they sneer at her, mocking her in song for her weirdness, immediately bitter that Gaston likes her more than them. Similarly, when Gaston tries to lock Belle up after standing up for the Beast near the end, the three girls chuckle cattily as if saying, “good, she‘s finally out of the picture.” Why? Why was this necessary? These girls are now presented as vapid, brainless, and needlessly bitchy, and we already know Belle isn’t like them because she isn’t fawning over Gaston like they are. That’s the only difference they needed. If Disney really wanted to make Belle more likable and like she was at least attempting to be a part of the village, they could have had her be friends with the triplets instead. Oh, but don’t worry, not only are the triplets now terrible people, they also get punished for having a crush on Gaston. Gaston not only berates them to Le Fou, but the girls also get embarrassed by having mud splashed on them by a passing cart when trying to look good for Gaston. This needless animosity from the girls and the narrative is ridiculous and I was disappointed to see it.
As far as representation goes, I was pleased to see so many Black actors and actresses, but incredibly disappointed to see that none of them had any actually important roles. The fellow who lends her books is a Black man, but he only has speaking lines for one scene in the beginning. Several of the Beast’s servants are also Black (which would not be a great look if there weren’t also a lot of non-servant Black people), but the characters with speaking lines like Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Lumiere are still white. Also, it felt as though Disney was cool with only having two groups of races: white people and Black people. There is more to diversity than that, and more than just sticking in racial minorities in supporting roles that don’t do anything. Beauty and the Beast presents a false diversity in its cast. Why did Belle have to be white? Why did the Enchantress? Why did Cogsworth? It’s a sad fear to have in 2017 where you have to pander to people who would be uncomfortable watching anyone who isn’t white in a more prominent role, but Disney’s gonna be Disney I guess.
And the LGBTQ+ representation is just about what you can expect. I hesitate to even call Le Fou gay representation at all. His foppishness is off the charts, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that implies his gayness. (God, please no.) Instead, what this so-called gay character is treated to is attacks from every angle. Gaston’s lack of kindness toward him was a given, and I wouldn’t call his treatment of his friend here any worse than in the animated film. Instead, the writing picks up the slack. There’s a part in the “Gaston” song where Le Fou is trying to spell out Gaston’s name, but soon confesses that he’s illiterate and he’s never had to think about how to spell his name before. And sure, it’s kind of funny just because it’s something you weren’t expecting, but it changes the watching crowd’s attitude towards him from anticipatory to an uncomfortable dislike. Presumably most of them aren’t literate either, and it’s possible they didn’t want to be reminded of that fact, yet this change in mood is still jarring and unneeded in what’s basically a party song. When Gaston asks Le Fou why no girl has snatched him up, instead of saying something like “I guess the right one just hasn’t come by”, he instead explains to Gaston that people think he’s clingy. If this is your gay character, your one gay character, maybe don’t paint him with a characteristic that gay men are subject to so often. But the line that made me, personally, the most uncomfortable is during the battle at the Beast’s castle. The villagers have infiltrated and are fighting with the furniture-like servants, and are slowly losing. Before the battle ends, though, Le Fou is taken down not once, but twice: once by a harpsichord falling on him and being abandoned by Gaston, and then again by the armoire who jeers him, saying “No one to protect you now, huh?” I’m hoping it wasn’t intentional, but with all these points, and more, together Le Fou became more than Gaston’s punching bag, he became the movie’s punching bag. For what? For a one second scene of Le Fou dancing with a guy at the end? Nuts to that.
One little side note: while I don’t know the original film inside and out, I do know that the Cogsworth x Lumiere pairing is pretty popular. Why wouldn’t it be? People have a soft spot for old married couples who bicker all the time but love each other through it all. It seems like Disney was aware of this too, and took every chance possible to remind the audience that Lumiere was straight. Oh my god you guys, he is sooooo straight. Look at him macking on his twu wuv Plumette. Look! They’re flirting endlessly! Lol, I bet you guys feel soooo silly for thinking that he and Cogsworth could ever be a thing. This is what it felt like watching. And in the end, it’s really sad—since Disney spent all those scenes with Plumette and Lumiere just really fawning on each other, their relationship didn’t have anything to stand on. You know whose relationship got fleshed out? The one between Cogsworth and Lumiere. Ugh!
I don’t hate gritty fairy tale re-tellings: for all the problems I had with it, I did rather like the revamp of Into the Woods. Beauty and the Beast, though, was missing something vital to all attempts at re-telling: heart. When the movie did decide to have heart, the movie was excellent. Hell, the Beast and the servants were the best part of this story and I’d gladly watch more of that (but only if the prince turns into a beast again). Yet in its attempt to regain relevance or some semblance of pointless “historical accuracy“, the film forgets its audience and the general happy messages that Disney is so eager to promote. There’s no magic to be wrought from adding hatred and animosity where it doesn’t need to be. There no joy in making marginalized people feel more marginalized by half-assing representation. I can’t say I recommend watching this movie the whole way through, but if anything, you need to watch the Beast perform “Evermore” because that’s everything I love about dark fairy tales.