‘Beauty and the Beast’ Plays It Safe with Fan Service and Faux Progressiveness
At a certain point watching Beauty and the Beast — probably during “Be Our Guest” — you may find yourself dazzled. Even in 2017, we occasionally find ourselves amazed at what modern visual effects are capable of bringing to life. That kid-like sense of wonder mixed with a heavy dose of nostalgia has been a magical combination for Disney’s bottom line on its string of recent live action updates. Cinderella topped $ 200 million, The Jungle Book damn near doubled that, and Beauty and the Beast is sure to do similar business.
It makes for great escapism, but Bill Condon’s seemingly committee-made movie is also hollow. It’s like a classic Disney park ride. It’s fun. It’s cool. You want to show it to your kids. But in the end it’s all on rails. Flawlessly executed. Totally predictable. Safe, but not very interesting.
Emma Watson is everything a live action Belle should be. She’s smart and brave and beautiful and looks breathtaking in that iconic canary yellow ballgown. But there’s no wiggle room in this performance. She’s beholden to expectations that are so limiting she might as well be one of the costumed street performers at Disneyland. That pretty much goes for Luke Evans, too. Gaston is a caricature of a villain and the most one-dimensional character in the whole production.
Dan Stevens gets a little more to sink his teeth into, but only because the Byronic Beast has a broader emotional arc. If nothing else, it’s fun seeing him glammed up like an extra in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in the opening scene, complete with glitter and a Let-Them-Eat-Cake attitude. Playing LeFou, Josh Gad also gets some creative leeway, mainly because Stephen Chbosky’s screenplay attempts to add a progressive spin to Gaston’s buffoonish crony.
Disney doesn’t skimp on the supporting roles, either — Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Stanley Tucci, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are all inanimate objects for most of the movie, but their presence really does make a difference.
In the end, Disney gets it right in a way that will please faithful fans. This one will be chalked up as a big money-making success.
That’s not the whole story, though, is it? Progressive Disney tries to fix some of the story’s appalling gender politics and even has an officially acknowledged-to-be-gay character. The result is muddled. Yes, Belle is mechanically inclined, and hatches a worthy escape plan, but she still falls for a pouty jerk whose dialogue might as well come from a “nice guys finish last” rant on reddit. Yes, LeFou is gay, but now Disney’s only gay character is a clownishly ineffective villain. Maybe they could have thought that out a little more?
Disney’s Most-Advanced-Yet-Acceptable (MAYA) approach to its politics makes for something eye-rollingly milquetoast, but hey, they’ve been doing this for years. (“Bright young women / Sick of swimming / Ready to stand.”)
As for the music, it’s every bit as great the second time around. Rightfully revered composer Alan Menken returns to his original work, tweaking lyrics here and there based on the late Howard Ashman’s notes from when they worked together on the animated film. Tim Rice handles lyrics for the new songs, which fall seamlessly into place.
The music, the visuals, the performances, they’re all great. But Beauty and the Beast is less than the sum of its parts. It’s worth seeing as a novelty, but like the live action Cinderella before it, it seems doomed to languor in the shadow of its predecessor.