When I was a toddler, I was addicted to “Beauty and the Beast.” I would run across the living room, arms flung behind me, and stand in front of the television as Belle sang, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell…” I’ve watched it more times than I can remember. I’ve got the whole soundtrack memorized.
So on Thursday night, I went to see Disney’s new live-action “Beauty and the Beast” with my mom. Considering our long history of love for this movie, we had to see it for ourselves.
It matters to us, too, because we heard rumors of changes and progressive rewrites of the old Disney classic, and we were curious as to how far they’d go in diverting the film from the original. Some of our friends and family even considered boycotting the film, for fear their young children would receive confusing and too-mature messages from the movie.
Well, I have now seen it, and I think it is a good and lovely film. You should probably go watch it. Let me tell you why.
Mild Spoilers Follow
The Beginning Has Hardly Changed
In both the animated film and this, the Beast’s pride is his original undoing. The prince was notoriously spoiled and selfish as a young man. But rather than just telling us in this film, we get to see it—and the director gives a very Louis XVI spin to things. If the prince were to look at the poor beggar who comes to his door and say, “Let her eat cake,” I wouldn’t have been all that surprised.
Of course, we know what happens: the prince turns away a beggar woman who comes to his home seeking shelter, offering a rose in return. When he sneers at her twice, she turns into a beautiful enchantress, and curses him—and his entire castle—for his sins.
The cursed prince must learn to love and to be loved in return before the last petal on the beggar’s enchanted rose falls. Or else, he will be a beast for all eternity (or “all time,” as this new rendition tells us).
This Movie Is Faithful To The Storyline Of The Original
Most people know these plot points. Why do they matter? Because this story undergirds the entire film. It gives depth and meaning to everything else that follows.
In some reviews of the film I read, the Beast was painted as a victim: someone wrongfully treated by the villagers because of his hideous appearance, someone cruelly cursed by an evil witch, someone who was tolerably “enlightened” by his reading and had almost an emo disposition about him.
But a Beast who does not have to struggle with his own pride and temper is no “beast” at all. All conversations surrounding the bestiality of his relationship with Belle are missing the metaphor that this movie centers on, because they missed the lesson presented at the beginning of the film.
“Beauty and the Beast” shows us that selfishness makes us all beasts. In the Beast’s case, his inner decay and monstrosity merely gets to take outward form. While the prince does make some advances into virtue as Belle stays with him in his castle, he is still despicable and cruel when she first arrives. There’s no “emo” prince here.
The Idea of Virtue Is Still Strong In This Movie
Also, importantly, the virtuous and kind-hearted characteristics of Belle remain intact. If anything, they’re stronger. Belle isn’t just someone who daydreams of adventure and eventually sacrifices herself for her father. She’s someone who seeks to teach reading to a young village girl. She sacrifices herself valiantly for her father. She’s kind to all members of the castle, even as she resolutely stands up to the Beast. Crucially, she sacrifices her freedom and comfort to care for the Beast after he saves her life. This detail is not glazed over in this film.
(Reports of Belle being an inventor “because it’s more feminist” were greatly exaggerated—she does some inventing, but is still a passionate reader. The character of Belle felt largely unchanged. If anything, slight changes in her village activities and interests just made the reality of her situation more visceral: obviously, a village “library” would only have a handful of books in Belle’s time. She would have interests aside from the written word, and given her father’s work, invention makes sense.)
Belle’s always been independent and headstrong. She always refused the courtiers of her village in the animated film. There are actually strong streaks of feminist disdain for home life in the first film: Belle walks past a desperate mother juggling babies, begging, “I need… six eggs…” and she sings, “There must be more than this provincial life!” I noticed the absence of this stock character from the village in the new film.
The original Belle turns up her nose in disdain when Gaston suggests she should become a mother and wife. In this version, she tells him she isn’t ready for children—yet. Emma Watson’s Belle actually responds with notes of kindness and amusement to Gaston, even as she turns him down. Her kindness extends past the characters she likes, even to the “boorish, brainless” Gaston.
This aspect of Belle’s character means that her relationship with the Beast makes more sense. Belle is a character who offers charity, even to the unkindest of persons. As the Beast softens under her influence, he begins to take on the characteristics of a more human—and humane—person. He becomes less “beastly.” That’s the only reason she learns to love him.
Changes To The Storyline Do Not Hurt The Whole
There are changes to the storyline, but many are actually aligned with the original fairytale, or used to fill out plot holes that, while not bugging us in the original version, would probably gape at us in a live-action film.
In the beginning, Belle asks her father to bring her back a rose from the market; that’s actually how the original fairytale goes. We get more of the prince’s backstory, and discover his mother died when he was young. There are also notes of the original fairytale in this. Belle asks the servants why they were cursed alongside the Beast, something that is a bit puzzling in the original, and they give a worthy and believable answer.
We discover more of Belle’s backstory, and get more context for her father’s eccentricities and sadness. It’s worth noting that this is one of the few Disney films in which a father and daughter mutually love each other, in which the daughter doesn’t rebel against the constraints of her “backward” parent, and in which the father is actually respectable and wise in many ways. (Although it wouldn’t be Disney if there weren’t a moment at the end in which Belle gets to school her father on “letting go” and allowing his daughter to be adventurous.)
We’re told that Gaston is a captain who fought in the wars, which gives us more background for his militarism and eagerness to take up arms against the beast. And the servants are etched out in more detail and depth: they’re not just complements to the Beast and Belle’s love story. They have their own narrative.
This Is a Lovely Tale About Friendship And Sacrifice
Indeed, the castle servants are in many ways the highlight of this film. They transform it from a mere love story into a worthy tale of friendship and camaraderie, even in the most difficult of times. There’s a very poignant scene at the end, in which we get a taste of what would happen if time were to run out for the Beast, and all our favorite characters were to die along with him.
Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, and Emma Thompson are brilliant as Cogsworth, Lumiere, and Mrs. Potts, respectively. McKellen’s Cogsworth is everything that his character should be—his voice is deep and rough and stodgy, capturing all the stoic caution of his clock. Lumiere sparkles, and kept the entire theater laughing. Thompson’s cockney accent actually kept me from recognizing her voice there for a while, but the accent is perfect for her character.
The love and friendship between all these characters—along with the clever and era-appropriate addition of a harpsichord—makes the film sing (not just literally). It’s worth noting, too, that LeFou’s steadfast friendship with Gaston is admirable, and that his loyalty—although often misguided—shows signs of real companionship and steadfastness.
What Of The ‘Gay Scene’ In The Film?
This brings us to the big controversy surrounding “Beauty and the Beast,” one that has taken over the conversation ever since the director mentioned it a few weeks ago. Here’s the thing. It’s subtle. It’s really, really subtle. And LeFou is such an amusing and fun character, most kids aren’t going to pick up on it at all.
There’s a moment in which LeFou rubs Gaston’s shoulders. This was painted to me as sensual in one review I read. But in actuality, LeFou maybe rubs his shoulders for three seconds, and then gets a beggar to take over for him. It’s very far from sensual.
There are moments when LeFou hints at the closeness of his relationship with Gaston, suggesting that they’re “perfect for each other.” Most kids are going to interpret this as friendship, and nothing else.
Only three moments—and they’re very fleeting—suggest anything stronger. During his song about Gaston, LeFou puts Gaston’s arms over his shoulders in an embrace. He then quickly says, “Too much?” and Gaston replies in the affirmative. The moment is over almost before it’s begun. I doubt young kids would interpret that in a sexual way.
In another scene (original to the animated film), the castle wardrobe fights off village intruders by dressing them in her clothing, wigs, and rouge. Two of the villagers run off terrified. Another looks at the camera, and smiles. Adults know what that means. Older kids will probably be confused or curious about it. Most young children won’t pay it any mind whatsoever.
In the film’s final scene, at which Belle and the Prince dance with the entire film ensemble, LeFou’s partner accidentally twirls off and he ends up dancing with the dress-clad male villager from that prior scene. It’s a two-second shot of them staring at each other blankly. Far from deeply “suggestive.”
Meanwhile, Le Fou is an admirable friend and hilariously acted character. He sees Gaston turn into his own “beast” as the story continues, and valiantly chooses a different path despite his devotion.
This Is A Matter Of Knowing Your Kids
I tell you these things so that you have a sense of the length and depth of these moments (hardly anything at all).
I think the key is in knowing your kids. My mother, who raised four of them, agreed that any child under the age of nine or 10 isn’t likely to pick up on these references. Beyond this, it’s a matter of knowing your children and the nature of their querying minds. It’s a matter of determining when—and how—you want to have a conversation with them. In my opinion, this film wouldn’t be a bad way to talk with older children about homosexuality. The moments are subtle and innocent enough to keep the conversation PG.
In sum, for some parents with kids between the ages of nine and 12, this film may not be the best or first choice. For the rest of us, I think the good far outweighs the bad.
This Film Is Definitely Worth Seeing
The few moments in the film that felt “poor” compared to the whole had more to do with acting than anything else. Watson’s portrayal of Belle felt a bit emotionless at times, although it got better as the film progressed. After seeing Watson play Hermione in the “Harry Potter” series, I had high hopes for her in this role. While she did well, it wasn’t an A+ performance.
The questionable scenes in the film are not huge for me, as a 20-something adult with a baby. But I can understand why a lot of parents are saddened by them. They wanted an innocent night out to the movies with their children, not another opportunity to worriedly read film reviews and debate the age-appropriateness of a movie’s content. However, hopefully the above details give lots of parents a chance to reconsider boycotting the film altogether.
That’s because the music and visuals in this film are stunning. The heart of the tale—its depiction of sacrificial love, kindness, and virtue—is still there. Watson’s Belle, much like Lily James’s Cinderella, is a lovely and inspiring character for young girls to watch. In the important ways, this film stays true to the heart of the original.
I’ll never be that toddler or eight-year-old girl, watching Belle run across an open field with wonder and delight. But I can watch this film as an adult, and say it was more than just nostalgic. It was enjoyable for its own sake. Hopefully others will enjoy it, too.