Like many others, I will admit to being afflicted with a bit of “live-action overkill” when it comes to Disney animated classics being “reborn” with live actors, or in the case of Jungle Book, an actor and a lot of computer animation. Disney has waved its magic wand to varying degrees of success when it comes to live-action reboots, and while some did indeed steal my heart (Cinderella), others, well, didn’t. So I approached Beauty and the Beast with great caution, having been such a fan of the original.
The animated Beauty and the Beast premiered a few weeks before my birthday the year I graduated high school. I had been obsessed with the story-line for years, having been entranced by fairy tales all my life, and watching the Ron Perlman / Linda Hamilton television show that wrapped up right before the animated film debuted. I was super into books and reading. I always felt out of place. Typical high school to just-out-of-high school emotions that made Belle such a relatable character. I suppose I should also note that at the time I was very into Phantom of the Opera too, so I kind of had a thing for “unlikely love interests,” I guess. This was also a great era for Disney Animation. Leaps and bounds were being made with technology, and the ballroom scene, quite hyped at the time, did not disappoint. My favorite bit of animation will always be how Belle tilts her head during her opening song, and a little piece of hair falls into her face. It made Belle so real, so perfectly imperfect. So in short, the film had a great impact on me, and I was a little bit worried that Disney was setting itself up to fall short by reinventing the wheel. Boy, was I surprised.
Beauty and the Beast delighted me from start to finish. It was a feast for the eyes and ears. I’ve been trying to put my thoughts into words since I saw a screening of the film on Tuesday, and now as it premieres tonight, I still find myself searching for the best way to convey just how wonderful it was. A thought that kept returning to me as I watched was how Walt Disney himself used to talk about “plussing,” of course referring to his creation of Disneyland park:
“I wanted something live, something that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only can I add things, but even the trees will keep growing; the thing will get more beautiful every year. And as I find what the public likes—and when a picture’s finished and I put it out—I find out what they like, or they don’t like, and I have to apply that to some other thing; I can’t change that picture, so that’s why I wanted that park.” — Walt Disney
Now, Walt may have been referring to Disneyland, and even noted that he can’t change a picture once it’s released, but future generations have proven it can be done, and done right, if you have the right folks involved. Something that made this production of Beauty and the Beast so special was the gift of two original production members: Don Hahn and Alan Menken, working to “plus” this version. Don Hahn, a producer of the original (among many other Disney films) returned as a producer. Alan Menken, who wrote the score of the original, working alongside the great lyricist Howard Ashman, had previously written new songs for the Broadway musical adaptation with Tim Rice. Menken wrote even more new music for the 2017 film, which he managed to weave in seamlessly to enhance the story we all knew and loved. Who better to retell the tale than those who gave so much to the original 1991 production?
Back to plussing, that was my overwhelming take away from this new Beauty and the Beast. The costumes, the sets, the characters and the music were all enhanced and improved upon. I realized, upon listening to the original songs, that most of what we learn about the characters within the animated feature is told to us, through narration or song. We learn that the Beast was a jerk and was punished for that. We hear that the townsfolk think Belle is weird because she reads. In the new film, we get backstory. Belle’s father Maurice isn’t just “crazy old Maurice, always good for a laugh,” he is an artist, who sacrificed the love of one for the safety of another. I really loved Maurice’s portrayal by Kevin Kline. I thought he was the perfect fit and we understand so much more through that performance. We see Belle’s mother, and where she came from. How did they end up in this poor provincial town? You’ll find out in the film. Why was Beast a jerk? You’ll find that out too. The character development is done really well and just enough to lend itself to the story without giving too many details or seeming implausible.
We still learn through song in this version too, with beautiful new music from Alan Menken. I daresay the new songs are my favorite part, with a couple of them causing me to shed a tear or two. “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” sung by Kevin Kline as Maurice is simple and poignant. “Days in the Sun” is a heartbreaking ballad sung by the enchanted castle residents and Belle. And “Evermore” is a show-stopping Broadway-worthy number sung by Beast as he lets Belle go free to help her father. These new songs, and additional lyrics from Howard Ashman that were cut from the original animated film, made me download the soundtrack the minute I left the theatre. The special effects, dance numbers, and sets that go along with many of these musical numbers are so rich and full of fun details, it really makes for a film you want to see again and again, which I think is the perfect tribute to the original.
As for the shocking news that LeFou is a gay character, it was truly much ado about nothing in my opinion. What I saw on screen was someone who had a huge love and admiration for Gaston as a person, and wanted both the best for him, and to be a part of that Gaston persona. But LeFou is also later confused when Gaston’s behavior doesn’t align with what he (or anyone with a heart) thinks is right. LeFou is not simply a bumbling sidekick in this version. He has evolving feelings of right and wrong. You can see him struggling to align his conscience with his adoration of Gaston, leading to an epiphany about Gaston’s personality (granted it takes a while, but he gets it). As for LeFou being gay, if anything, I’d say perhaps he’s bi-, or still just figuring it out. Which is just A-OK to feature in a Disney or any other film. Because, guess what? There are allllll different types of kids in the world, who become all different types of adults in the world, and wouldn’t it be great if all of them saw someone they could identify with on a big screen? Goodness knows I’d much rather have more LeFous in the world than more Gastons, and I’m sure I’m not alone there.
The other performances did not disappoint, even though I wasn’t initially convinced about Belle’s casting. Emma Watson won me over and became the perfect Belle. I also loved seeing the relationship of Lumière and Plumette, as well as the love between Garderobe and Cadenza. You truly felt for these humans-turned-home-décor-items and their interrupted lives. Don’t even get me started on Chip and Mrs. Potts. As a mom of two older teenagers and one 8 year-old boy, Chip just about killed me. But unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 25 years, you know it all works out in the end. Oh, one last side note: I’ll take Belle’s flowered “Celebration dress” at the end over the yellow ballgown any day – it was simply stunning!
I left the theatre lifted up and galvanized, as if I’d just seen this tale for the first time (in forever), despite it being as old as time. What a triumph to successfully breathe life (literally) into a beloved story that seemed to hold no place for improvements. The love and veneration of the original is present in abundance. The fresh take and inspired additions show us something there that wasn’t there before, making it an instant classic, yet again.