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1 Apr 2017

Review: Beauty and the Beast – This past Tuesday, we went to see the new Beauty and the Beast (hereafter B&B, which is handy because it can serve as an abbreviation for the original French version, too). I have quite a bit to say about it—more than I realized, I guess—so it’s taken me a while to write this. I started out with some notes on Wednesday, then wrote half of it on Thursday and half of it last night. Today I revised it, and here it is. I should start by saying that this review is going to contain spoilers, and by this I mean that I am going to talk about anything and everything that might be pertinent to my points. Now, this may not matter too much, since pretty much everybody knows this story, but if you haven’t seen the film yet and would like to go into it clean, I would recommend not reading any more.

“The key theme at the heart of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is love and all the forms that it might take, both twisted and true.”

So, as I usually do at the beginning of a review, I’ll start with the question of whether or not I liked the film. The answer to that question is yes, I liked it quite a bit, for a number of reasons. The acting ranged from quite good to outstanding (Luke Evans deserves special praise for his Gaston), the animated servants were completely believable, and the visuals and musical numbers at times surpassed even the animated original (1991). The ballroom scene in the original B&B, for example, was the first time Disney had ever combined computer graphics with hand-drawn animation; the effect was a little jarring, but (or perhaps because) it was like nothing we had ever seen in a Disney animation before. That same scene in the new B&B did not disappoint. I also enjoyed the famous “Be Our Guest,” which was perhaps even more colorful and manic (one might even say Luhrmann-ic) than the original, and “Gaston” fully lived up to my expectations.

If I had to summarize my thoughts in one brief sentence, I would have to say that it felt like the original animated film had grown up. Now I will, of course, have to immediately qualify that, as it sounds like I am denigrating the animated film for being childish. It is not, but it felt more like something aimed at children (even as it was also for adults) than the new, live-action version, and that is not necessarily because of the medium. While, for the most part, the new version is a faithful adaptation of the original, there are some very important changes to the story that make it darker and more serious. I think these changes also make for a much richer story.

Let’s start at the beginning. The original animation begins with a beautiful stained glass sequence that shows how the prince became the Beast. In the live-action film, though, we see the prince and all of his servants prior to the curse, and the scene of the curse itself plays out before us. I suspect that this was due partly to the fact that we have real actors playing the characters, and you want them to have some screen time at the beginning of the film as well as the end, but it also serves to advance what was apparently one of the main goals of the latest version: to flesh out the story more and provide more background on and insight into the characters.

Maurice—Belle’s father—to give another example, is not just a slightly odd old man, he is an artist who carries with him memories of a painful past, memories of his late wife. In the original animation, Belle’s mother is simply not there, and no detailed explanation is offered for her absence (at least that I can remember). Now, though, we learn that Belle’s mother was afflicted by the plague, and Maurice was forced to leave her and take Belle with him, lest his only daughter succumb to the disease as well.

The Beast offers an interesting contrast to Belle here in that he, too, lost his mother to illness while still young, but he was led down a completely different path. While Maurice is kind and gentle and presumably plays a large role in shaping Belle into the person she becomes, the unnamed king is a cold and hard man who raises his son in his own image. This is something new; in the original prologue (if you watched it above), the prince is described as “spoiled, selfish, and unkind,” which makes him sound like someone who has been doted on too much by his parents. In the remake, though, the loss of his mother and the cold parenting of his father turn him into a cruel, bitter young man.

Since we are on the subject of the Beast, we should mention what is perhaps one of the two most consequential changes to the story: the curse. In the original, the prince has until his twenty-first birthday to “learn to love another, and earn her love in return,” otherwise “he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time.” Presumably, the castle servants would also remain in their furniturial (yes, I know that’s not a word) forms. The curse in the new B&B, though, is subtly and yet drastically different: The consequences for the Beast remain much the same, but each time a petal of the magic rose falls, his servants become less human and more like clocks, candlesticks, and teapots. To put it bluntly, if the Beast cannot break the curse before the last petal falls, everyone in his castle will die (or at least fall into a deep coma with no hope of recovery). This is in fact, what we see at the end of the film, as all of the characters we have come to know and love lose their animation—and it should be pointed out that the root of “animation” lies in the Latin “anima,” which can mean “life,” “breath,” or “soul.” Even though I knew that the characters were not doomed, I still got a lump in my throat during this scene.

Another element of the curse, perhaps less consequential but still quite important, is its scope. In the original it is just the castle that is cursed, but here the entire area—both the castle and village included—fall under the curse, so that the townspeople forget that the prince or the castle or even their spouses and children (yes, the curse breaks up families) even exist. And the castle itself is no longer just the site of the curse, it is now part of the curse; as each petal falls, the castle begins to crumble, presumably to be destroyed when the last petal goes. (So, maybe the consequences aren’t the same for the Beast after all.)

I mentioned above that there were two most consequential changes. The second change is in the character of Gaston. In the original, he is for the most part simply an uncultured lout. He does, of course, turn quite evil toward the end, but in the new B&B he is an darker, more evil character. His interactions with Belle become a little more threatening, to the point where the discomfort Belle feels when he is around becomes palpable to the audience—or at least it did to me. But it is in his interactions with Maurice where we see the greatest change. In the original, he merely latches on to the townspeople calling Maurice “crazy old Maurice” and hatches a plot to have the old man committed to an asylum so that he can then blackmail Belle into marrying him. True, this is dastardly, but in the new version he takes his dastardliness to new heights. He agrees to accompany Maurice into the forest to look for the castle and Belle, but when Maurice cannot find the way again, Gaston ties him to a tree and leaves him to be eaten by wolves (spoiler: he does not get eaten by the wolves at this time). It is only after he returns and finds Maurice still alive that he paints him as a lunatic and gets him locked up.

This brings us to LeFou, Gaston’s faithful sidekick. In the animated original, LeFou sticks by Gaston to the end, but the new LeFou (NewFou?) begins to question his loyalty to Gaston when the latter leaves Maurice in the forest. In the final fight at the castle, LeFou calls out to Gaston for help, but Gaston abandons him, telling his former friend that it is time for him to go be a hero (that is, to seek out and kill the Beast). This is the last straw, causing LeFou to switch sides; he fights alongside the castle’s inhabitants against the townspeople and even saves Mrs. Potts from being shattered. Gaston has become so despicable in the new B&B that even his closest ally cannot remain with him.

Of course, Gaston meets his end in the new film just as he does in the original film: by falling to his death while trying to kill the Beast. The scene plays out very similarly in both films. Gaston stalks the Beast, trying to provoke him into a fight, and then shoots the Beast in the back. Enraged, the Beast gains the upper hand and grabs Gaston by the neck, holding him out over a fatal drop. But Gaston begs pitifully for his life, and the Beast indeed does have pity, letting him live. Gaston is not one to be moved by this, though, and he instead takes the opportunity to attack the Beast from behind, but he ends up falling to his death.

There are a few key differences between the two films. For one, in the original animation Gaston uses a bow and then a knife, while in the new B&B he uses a pistol. Bow and knife are bad enough, but a pistol is even less sporting, less up-close-and-personal. The more important difference, though, is how exactly Gaston meets his end. In the original, he leaps onto the beast and stabs him in the back, but then sort of pulls a Gollum and falls (while Belle grabs the Beast and—somehow, despite the incredible difference in physical size—prevents him from suffering the same fate). In the live-action film, though, he stands at a distance and fires at the Beast with his pistol, (presumably) killing him. He does not lose his balance or accidentally fall—instead, the arch upon which he is standing crumbles and plunges him into the abyss. Remember that the castle is crumbling because of the curse; in a way, Gaston ultimately becomes the only victim of the curse.

A lot more could be said about subtle differences between the two films, but there are plenty of websites out there detailing these differences, so I will limit my discussion of them to these points and move on. I could leave the review at that and call it a day, but I want to compare not only the 1991 animation with the 2017 live-action film, but both Disney films with the original 18th century French narrative. This French narrative takes two forms: the original full-length novel La Belle et la Bête, by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1740), and the much more widely known shorter tale of the same name by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1756). I will compare the films mainly to the latter, but I will refer to the former when necessary.

The live-action film does pay tribute to the original work, most notably by reintroducing the rose motif: Belle asks her father to bring back a rose from the market, and when he stumbles upon the Beast’s castle in the storm, he plucks a single rose to take back to his daughter, leading to his imprisonment by the Beast as a thief. This is taken directly from the original story, and it is a motif that doesn’t exist in the animated version. More subtly (and I wonder how many people actually caught this), the name of Belle’s town is mentioned only once in the live-action film, but it is no accident, for the town is called “Villeneuve.”

There are quite a few differences between the two Disney films and the French originals, but it will suffice for our purposes here to discuss just a few, namely those relating to the points I discussed above: Belle’s character and history, the Beast’s character history, the nature of the curse, and the character of Gaston.

So let’s start with Belle. In the films, she is an only child who is a bit of an odd duck in the small provincial town where she lives. Some people like her, some people dislike her, but almost everyone thinks she’s weird. In the original story, though, Belle is one of six children—she has two sisters (who are jealous and mean) and three brothers (who are kind and sympathetic). She is beloved by the townspeople because she is a paragon of beauty (obviously) and virtue. Her two sisters are jealous of all the attention she gets and try to stymie her at every turn.

Beast is something of an enigma in de Beaumont’s version of the story. Unlike what we see in the films, he is never cruel or mean to Belle, always treating her with kindness and respect. Belle’s initial fear of him comes solely from her reaction to his appearance, not to anything frightening in his behavior. In fact, at the end of the tale, we learn that the curse was cast on the prince by an evil fairy, and had nothing to do with the prince being “spoiled, selfish, and unkind,” with “no love in his heart.”

But we do not know why he was cursed—until we read de Villeneuve’s original and discover that the prince lost his father (the king) at a young age, and his mother the queen was forced to leave the castle to defend her kingdom. She left the young prince in the care of a fairy who turned out to be, shall we say, not the best of babysitters. When the prince became a handsome young man, the fairy tried to seduce him, and when he refused her advances she cursed him (hints of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife here).

It gets better, though. It turns out that Belle’s father is not her real father—she is actually the daughter of another king and a good fairy. An evil fairy tried to kill Belle so that she could marry her father (the king), so for her protection Belle was placed with the merchant who ended up raising her. If it seems like there are a lot of fairies running around, well, there are—but not as many as you might think. You see, the evil fairy who tried to kill Belle is the same evil fairy who tried to seduce the prince. It’s... complicated. But all of this is from de Villeneuve’s novel, not the much more widely read shorter version by de Beaumont. In that story, all we know is that an evil fairy cursed the prince for no discernible reason. (Wikipedia incorrectly attributes the curse in de Beaumont’s version to the prince’s rejection of a enchantress disguised as a hag, but a reading of the original—which only says, “Une méchante fée m’avait condamné à rester sous cette figure”—shows that this is not the case. So, you know, always check your sources.)

If you’re starting to think that the Disney films are actually telling a very different story from the French original(s), you’re right. There is one other important difference between the stories, though, and that is the character of Gaston. In the Disney films, as we discussed above, Gaston is the absolute worst kind of bad guy: a guy who is ostensibly a hero—and who is treated like a hero by the vast majority of the population—but is in reality the lowest and basest of villains. In the original stories, Gaston is... not there. Which means that there is also no LeFou, no angry mob storming the castle and shouting “Kill the Beast!” etc. The original story is purely about Belle’s interactions with the Beast and her two sisters’ (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to foil everything that she does.

Before I talk about the ramifications of all these changes, I should mention one thing: While I have been calling the 18th century French versions the “originals,” this story actually goes back much further than that, and has its roots in a folktale type that can be found around the world. I don’t really have time to get into that here, but fortunately I don’t have to, because Maria Tatar, a professor of Germanic languages and literatures here at Harvard, has put together an excellent book on just this subject, called Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World. In this book you can find a translation of the de Beaumont version of the story, along with countless other “animal groom” and “animal bride” tales from around the world (though, sadly, none from Korea). Professor Tatar’s introduction to the collection will tell you everything you need to know about the tale, so I’m not going to try to duplicate (or even summarize) that information here; if you’re curious, go buy the book.

Anyway, I’m not as concerned with tracing the changes to the story over the centuries and through various media as I am looking at how Disney reinvented the story from the 18th century French source material. I am interested in doing this because of the negative connotations the term “Disneyfication” has in popular culture. When this term is used, it is almost exclusively used disparagingly, to indicate that Disney has changed (read: bowdlerized) a beloved story to make it more suitable for children and thus produced an inferior version. What follows is not intended as a defense of all Disney films—Disney has definitely made some choices through the years that I have not agreed with—but simply as a defense of these two particular films (that is, the original animation and the live-action film). When it comes to B&B, at least, I think Disney improved greatly on a story that, up to that point, was most widely represented by de Beaumont’s version.

I suppose we should get this out of the way first: de Villeneuve’s novel is a very complex tale full of intrigue, jealousy, sexual themes (albeit subtle as opposed to over, granted), and evil magic. Maybe not the sort of thing you want to be reading to your children? This is what de Beaumont thought, at any rate, as her version of the story (which, despite being drawn from de Villeneuve’s novel, does not credit de Villeneuve in any way—but ideas regarding intellectual property rights were a little more lax in those days) becomes a straight up morality tale. Beauty wins out in the end because of her virtue, and the jealous sisters are punished by being turned into statues (with no hope of reprieve, I might add). The story was specifically designed to teach young girls how they should be—and how they should not be, which probably explains why Belle’s antagonists are also women.

What Disney does in the two film versions is update this tale for a modern audience. It is still more or less a morality tale, but the lessons it teaches are far more nuanced. It also fleshes out more of the characters, giving them actual arcs. In de Beaumont’s tale, the prince is an innocent victim of evil, but in Disney’s original retelling he is a cold, selfish individual who must not only win the love of a maiden, he himself must learn how to love. With the live-action film, his character arc becomes even more complex, as we see the events that contributed to him becoming the sort of person he is.

His merry servants also become deeper characters; in the animated version, they are portrayed as innocent bystanders who happen to get caught up in the curse through no fault of their own, but in the live-action film they admit that they are at least partly to blame. (Belle says to Mrs. Potts, “But you did nothing!” and Mrs. Potts sadly replies, “That’s right. We saw what was happening, and we did nothing.” I thought it was a powerful moment.)

Belle herself becomes a little more realistic as well, and the live-action film gives her a dark past that makes her relationship with her father even more poignant. Being a heroine and a Disney princess, she is still something of a paragon to be emulated, but at least she feels more rounded.

The biggest change, though, as discussed above, is the introduction of the character of Gaston (and the elimination of Belle’s siblings) as the main antagonist of the story. Although he is presented as the antagonist from the very beginning, he still has an arc: He begins as an annoying and ridiculous suitor, but his obsession with Belle drives him to ever more sinister deeds until he is finally consumed by that obsession. While in de Beaumont’s tale, Belle offers a stark contrast to her petty and jealous sisters, in Disney’s tale Gaston offers a contrast to the Beast in that the two characters journey in opposite directions. At the start of the tale, the Beast is violent, moody, possessive, and generally used to getting his way (like Gaston), but as his love for Belle grows he becomes a better man, to the point where he can show mercy to the man who is trying to kill him and steal his beloved. Gaston, on the other hand, shows what happens when selfish desire is one’s driving motivation.

In the end, the key theme at the heart of Disney’s B&B is love and all the forms that it might take, both twisted and true. Belle is faced with a choice between Gaston and the Beast. This may seem like a rather obvious choice, knowing what we know about both characters, but in the society that Belle is a part of, that choice is turned on its head. Gaston, for all his ridiculousness, is not wrong when he tells Belle that unmarried girls fare poorly when their fathers die. He is strong, respected by the townspeople, and can provide for her through his hunting prowess. Realistically speaking, Belle could do a lot worse. The Beast, on the other hand... well, he’s a beast. True, he is rich, but he is not human, and danger surrounds him.

In the triangle formed by Belle, Gaston, and the Beast, each character learns a lesson. For Belle, the lesson could be summed up in an old proverb: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Interestingly enough, she begins the story already knowing this, as she is the only young woman in town to see through Gaston; she just needs to apply this same lesson to the inverse case of the Beast. The Beast’s lesson is also fairly straightforward, and although I dislike the phrase “If you love something, set it free” for being trite, maudlin, and overused, I have to admit that it perfectly describes what happens here. But the why of this lesson is made even more clear by the character of Gaston. Why exactly should we set something free if we love it? Because if it’s really love, it’s not about you. It’s not about what you want, or what you think you deserve, it’s about making the person you love happy, even at the expense of your own happiness. The Beast realizes this, so he lets Belle go. Gaston does not, and his obsession for Belle translates into an obsession to kill the Beast, ultimately leading to his (literal) downfall. I suppose it could be argued that Gaston doesn’t actually learn any lesson, but I would like to think that, in the final few seconds before his body was shattered on the rocks at the base of the castle, he came to realize the folly of his ways.

Of course, Gaston functions as more than just a foil to highlight the Beast’s journey as a character. He is also a send-up of the male heroic ideal. Yes, he is ridiculous and absurd, and that is precisely the point. No, we do not generally depict our male heroes boasting of their exceptional expectorating skills, nor do we think of sneaking up on animals and shooting them in the back as an especially heroic act (even LeFou questions whether this is fair, to which Gaston replies, “I don’t care!”). But when it comes to heroes, the ends often justify the means. By making Gaston as absurd and ridiculous as he is, Disney is calling into question our idea of what it means to be a masculine hero.

It goes beyond even that, questioning not just what it means to be a hero, but what it means to be human. In the live-action film, when Gaston has whipped the crowd into a murderous frenzy to kill the Beast, Belle screams at him, “You’re the monster!” A bit on the nose, perhaps, but still true. The Beast, being a beast, is ostensibly the monster in the story, but as the plot progresses Gaston becomes more and more monstrous in his actions. It’s worth taking another detour into etymology here and looking at the word “monster.” It comes from the Latin “monstrum,” which can mean both a literal monster but also a “portent” or “sign.” If we dig deeper, we see that “monstrum” has its roots in “monere,” which means “to warn.” The Online Etymology Dictionary here notes that monsters were considered to be portents of evil, but in this case we might interpret the warning a little differently: Gaston is an incarnate warning against pride, obsession, and getting too caught up in one’s own hype.

Although it is easiest to see “monstrosity” as a physical or visual characteristic, Gaston shows us that the most frightening monsters are the ones we may not be able to distinguish from “normal” human beings at first glance. If I may take this etymological detour just a little farther, I think it is interesting that the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary above notes, at the end: “In Old English, the monster Grendel was an aglæca, a word related to aglæc ‘calamity, terror, distress, oppression.’” This is true, but it is not the whole story; Beowulf, the eponymous hero of the epic in which Grendel appears, was also referred to as an aglæca. What does this mean? One common interpretation is that this word does not mean “monster,” but something that is formidable or awe-inspiring. Another interpretation—my own, and perhaps overreaching here—is that maybe the distinction between heroes and monsters was (and remains) not always as clear as we tend to think.

It may feel like we’ve gone quite astray of our original goal, which was to write a review of this year’s live-action B&B film. I don’t see it that way, though—otherwise I would have pared this back to the basics and taken out what I thought was extraneous. No, this review has grown to monstrous (ahem) proportions not because I’ve gotten carried away (although I won’t say I haven’t), but because B&B is not just a Disney film. It is a story that has a tradition going back centuries and spanning the globe; Disney’s most recent effort is just the latest incarnation of it.

It should not take us by surprise that stories are retold and reinvented. That’s what stories are: things that get handed down, shared, and reshaped to fit the hopes, needs, and desires of the teller and the listeners. Disney has retold the B&B story for a modern audience, keeping the setting and basic plot of the original, but adding depth and complexity, and along the way illustrating some pretty valuable lessons. I have focused on these lessons quite a bit, but that is not to say that the didactic function of the film is its most important, or why the story remains as popular as it is. It remains popular not because it teaches us, but because it speaks what we recognize as truth, even in the trappings of a fantasy world far removed from our own.

Not all retellings of a tale are necessarily going to be better than what came before, but at least in this case I think Disney has done a pretty good job bringing a “tale as old as time” into the present day. Although Disney is often accused of sterilizing old stories for the consumption of children, the story presented in B&B can be surprisingly dark at times—and not just when Gaston dies at the end. A lot more could be said about what children are and are not capable of handling, but that seems like it might be beyond the scope of today’s entry. Suffice it to say that Disney told a classic story, artfully updated to suit the tastes and needs of modern audiences—a story that at least this audience member appreciated.

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