Bestial Nostalgia: How Disney cannibalizes "Beauty and the Beast"

Since the first movie I saw was Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast, I knew it would be unfair to expect much from the 2017 live-action remake. When the new opening sequence wasn't as stirring for me as the stained glass images in the original animated film, I was patient. I still had hope for the misbegotten chimera when I heard the first of two new Alan Menken songs, a somber melody Belle hears emanating from her father's workshop. She enters the cottage to find him softly singing "How Does a Moment Last Forever" (the answer, of course, is love), and tinkering with a beautiful music box. It is a moving miniature model of the tiny windmill attic the family once occupied in Paris, depicting a scene of her father painting his wife and newborn child. I saw this and thought maybe the workings of the narrative could yet be as meticulous as the motif cradled so delicately in Kevin Kline's hands. Unfortunately no movie, no matter how efficient, has time to be two movies at once.

Of Disney's new live-action remakes I've seen, I was most invested in this one, but it's barely coherent. It suffers from the increasingly familiar tension between capitalizing on nostalgia and finding a legitimate reason to exist; it hits all the essential old beats and adds just enough twist to appear inspired. There are awkward appendages of new vision here. I did appreciate that Belle and the Beast find they have a mutual love of literature, and it was particularly gratifying to see Emma Watson squeal over the castle library. More notably, Gaston's close-admirer LeFou (Josh Gad) is infinitely more entertaining in this version than in the original, but his new subplot steals focus in an already unfocused film. There's a feeble attempt to add familial trauma to motivate the Prince's curse rather than simple selfishness, poured into a single line of exposition by Mrs. Potts. There's potential for Belle and the Beast to bond over the early loss of their mothers, but the two never share their feelings on the subject so it seems like an insignificant coincidence. The Beast does randomly take Belle through a magical plot device that happens to help her learn the truth about how her mother died, so she can finally reconcile with her father who never told her...not that the mystery seemed to strain their relationship at all. What was the point of showing Belle's mom dying of plague?

It would be one thing if this film adequately re-captured the magic of the original, but it's too busy showing off how hard it is to make computers do exclusively what mostly hand-drawn animation did satisfactorily 26 years ago. Of course the Gothic opulence of the castle is fully realized by the elaborate detail the new effects can accomplish, the impact of the curse on the wacky servants made more grim by their increasingly objectified bodies. But the film easily sacrifices storytelling for CGI splendor. The camera lingers on set-pieces rather than characters. We are repeatedly asked to be impressed by the sweeping scale of a crumbling castle we can often barely see. The editing is so restless that it cuts away from the climax, the Beast's transformation into the Prince, to an exterior shot looking in through a window. I would rather see Belle's reaction to what's happening than squint like a random voyeur just dropping in on the story, but I guess Disney desires that my vision be as insular as theirs is here.    

Despite all the talent involved, the passion of actors, designers and imagineers, this is not a re-telling. This is an update, one that breaks more than it fixes. To her credit Emma Watson's Belle seems less captive and more proactive than her animated predecessor, it's just a shame the film itself is slavishly procedural. The closing credits clearly state this film is based on Disney's 1991 animated film as opposed to the original source material, then have the gall to include a subtitle in the original French. The storytelling suffers because there is no new take on the story to breathe life into it, just an obligation to reproduce past success. And no, adding a happy ending for a gay side-character isn't a good enough reason for this to exist. You're not earning those kudos until Elsa comes all the way out of the closet, Disney.

Trevor Flynn is a contributing member to The Movie Gang Podcast and Animania. To hear more from Trevor about Beauty and the Beast Check out the Movie Gang Podcast for our full review.