If I had to use one word to describe Disney’s recent remake of one of its classic entries from the Disney Renaissance, it would be: charming. Not substantive, not really moving in the way that the 1992 version was, yet enjoyable all the same. If that sounds like damning praise, it isn’t. The film doesn’t really set out to do anything grand or earth-shattering and, to me, that’s perfectly okay.
It basically follows the same plot as its predecessor, though it does fill in a few narrative gaps. We learn, for example, that Belle’s mother died of the plague, and that the reason that the people in the village forgot about the prince and his servants is because the enchantress made that part of the curse. I don’t know about anyone else, but the smoothing out of these inconsistencies was rather nice, even if it did evacuate a bit of the mystery and glamour that always surrounds fairy tales.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the objects in the castle threaten to steal the show from the human leads. Ewan McGregor steals almost every scene that he’s in, and he is a surprisingly fitting heir to the late Jerry Orbach (who played the witty and debonair candelabra in the 1992 film), while Ian McKellen is delightfully stodgy as Cogsworth (not quite as exuberantly uptight as David Ogden Stiers). Emma Thompson has a lighter touch for Mrs. Potts than her predecessor Angela Lansbury, though her rendition of the titular song is as charming and appealing as the rest of the film.
Yet Dan Stevens and Emma Watson more than hold their own, he as the rather gothic hero and she as the independent woman determined to make her own way in the world. The film is a little more explicit in its treatment of why the Beast turned into such a brat, suggesting that it was the indifferent cruelty of his father that led him astray. For her part, Emma Watson brings her signature brand of feisty feminist heroism to the role, so that she actively attempts to change the restrictive atmosphere of the town by teaching a young woman to read (which we learn is firmly against the law).
That being said, even the cast of Emma Watson can’t quite undermine the fundamentally conservative vision of this film. After all, this is still the story of an independent young woman who ultimately falls in love with a man who has attempted to rob her of her agency. No matter how much the film attempts to cover over that fact, it still leaves something of a bad taste in one’s mouth, especially given the fact that Donald Trump is president. Being a man who imprisons women is never a good look, even for Dan Stevens.
This sense of charm (rather than substance) is as relevant to the maelstrom swirling around LeFou’s sexuality as it is to the rest of the film. When it was revealed that Josh Gad’s delightful character would be “openly” queer, the announcement was met with a strange mix of hysteria (from the Right) and dismay (from the queer left, who were upset at the fact that he would continue to fit into the stereotype of the sissy). Gad brings his own unique brand of buffoonish charm to this otherwise infuriating character–one of the worst in the original film–and that in itself helps to make him a more sympathetic character. The film itself gives almost zero attention to his actual romance, though, so it appears we will have to wait a bit longer for an actual, fully-fledged queer character to appear in a Disney film.
There were a few sour spots. I like Luke Evans well enough as an actor, but to my mind he just doesn’t have the gravitas (or the singing ability) to play the role of Gaston. The original character was truly a paragon of toxic masculinity, but it was precisely the hyperbolic nature of it that threatened to deconstruct the very idea of gender altogether. Evans…just doesn’t have that much personality, if I’ve being perfectly honest. He’s more suited for brooding and sulky characters (such as Bard from The Hobbit) than he is as a blustering huntsman obsessed with his own beauty. It just feels like a role that Evans forced himself to take on, and it just doesn’t quite gel for me. It leaves me wondering if he might have done better cast as the Beast, but I suppose that will have to remain one of those what-might-have-beens.
All in all, Beauty and the Beast is a fitting tribute to the original though I, like many critics, still wonder why exactly it exists. If rumours are true, there are some indications there might be a sequel, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Even charm can only go so far.