“Tale as old as time/ Tune as old as song”
Yes, this is a story that has been told before. Beauty and the Beast is a live action remake of Disney’s 1991 animated (and much beloved) version of the French fairy tale that dates back to at least the 18th Century La Belle et Le Bête. Disney has also presented this as a stage musical. Is it time to tell it again? Does the new format make it a better telling of the story?
In case this oft told story has eluded you, it is a story of discovering the beauty where others only see ugliness. The Prince (Dan Stevens) leads an extravagant life full of parties and expensive trappings, One night an old woman shows up during a party asking for shelter and food, offering only a rose as payment. He ridicules her and turns her out, not knowing she is really an enchantress who places a curse on him and his castle. He is transformed into a hideous beast and his servants transformed into household objects. Unless he can give and receive love before the final petal falls from the enchanted rose, they will stay like this forever.
In town Belle (Emma Watson) has grown up with her widowed father (Kevin Kline). She longs for something more than can be found in her village. She is wooed (in spite of her clear rejection) by the vain and pompous Gaston (Luke Evans). When her father gets lost in the woods and comes across the Beast’s castle, he makes the mistake of picking a single rose to take to Beauty. The Beast locks him up as a thief. When Belle finds him, she takes his place in the cell. The Beast is rude and angry, but over time (and with the help of the talking household objects), the two discover in each other something more than either expected.
This is a film that showcases Disney’s strengths—wonderful production design and CGI effects, plus the music that has served the story well in the previous incarnations (plus three new songs by Alan Menken and Tim Rice). The humor is right for young viewers with just enough more mature comedy for adults to enjoy. The production numbers often involve crowds of people all singing and dancing. This is clearly designed to move to a new level from the stage version. Director Bill Condon wanted to create a musical worthy of the Golden Age of musicals, and also tell the well-loved story with a bit more depth to the characters.
The film’s key message is found in the love story between Belle and the Beast. It teaches that love is found when we are open to one another as Belle and the Beast eventually open themselves to know and be known. But there is also the whole theme of how do we welcome those who are different from us. Failure to do so is what led to the Prince being transformed into the Beast in the first place. For the Prince at the beginning of the film and for Gaston throughout, self-centeredness and failure to see others as something other than to be possessed is the root of the ills of the world. In that, this story could speak to us of how we relate to the world around us that is filled with people who are different from us. Do you judge their value by what that can provide to make us happy—or by the inherent value that all people have in their diversity?
Given that this story is so similar to the earlier film and the stage version, it is worth asking if this really adds to the story. I suspect that is going to be a matter of taste. Some will like all the production values of this version. They’ll love the sets and costumes. They’ll like the CGI characters. But it is also a bit darker and heavier at several places than the animation version. Others may think that this story is much better dealt with through animation. It should be noted that the animated version was seen as ground breaking at the time. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Personally, for all the beauty and splendor of this version, the darker tone that comes into play seems a bit much. I think the animated version is the better approach to this story.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios