Minor spoilers below from released trailers and clips of the forthcoming film.
If you are planning on watching Disney’s new live-action “Beauty and the Beast” starring Emma Watson this weekend, do not expect the same characters you delighted in back in 1991. Belle, Beast, Gaston, LeFou, and the others certainly have come to life, but they have also convoluted and perverted the beautiful themes of Disney’s original animated movie.
The story of Belle in Disney’s animated film is the tale of a beautiful, curious, kind French girl who cared more about reading than marrying. While she was a complex character—adventurous yet devoted to her father, honest yet kind—the beauty of her story came from her selfless love, first for her father and then for the Beast.
In Disney’s animated story, Belle is the Beast’s prisoner of her own volition. When she discovers her father’s imprisonment, she begs the Beast to release him because he is sick, pleading, “Surely there’s something I can do!” Beast callously replies, “There’s nothing you can do.” In the following pause, Belle is obviously considering her choices, then softly says, “Take me instead.” Rather than allow her ailing father, Maurice, to remain locked in a dank dungeon, Belle willingly relinquishes her freedom in exchange for her father’s release.
Disney’s live-action movie obscures this powerful act. Instead, it is Beast who asks, “Do you wish to take your father’s place?” The exchange of Belle for her father is no longer of Belle’s own initiative, which considerably cheapens the sacrifice.
A More Selfish and Feminist Belle
Furthermore, Watson’s Belle, whose accent is distractingly British, does not display the same depth of character as the animated Belle. As trailers indicate, Watson further reduces Belle’s moving sacrifice by whispering to Maurice as she shoves him out of the dungeon, “I promise I will escape!” A later scene shows her attempting to escape out her bedroom window using a rope made out of bed sheets. Her imprisonment is not established as a permanent condition. This erodes the depth that made Belle a true heroine. Watson’s sacrifice is not as grand as Belle’s in older versions of the tale.
Instead of emphasizing Belle’s selfless love, Watson instead chose to draw attention to Belle’s dismissal of Gaston’s advances as evidence of her individuality. In an interview with Watson, she comments that the part of Belle’s character that spoke to her most was Belle’s independence, which Watson magnifies into defiant independence. Watson even comments that she would have refused the role if the fairytale had not been a feminist reinvention.
In the animated film, Belle’s refusal of Gaston is a side story that contrasts Gaston’s self-absorption with Belle’s self-denial. In this film Belle is independent, but it is not Belle’s defining characteristic, as Watson would have the audience believe. In Watson’s retelling, Belle does not want to marry Gaston because she expects it to be an imprisonment of washing clothes, shining boots, cooking meals, and birthing children. She wants an adventure like in one of her beloved books. In the new retelling Belle’s major concerns are for herself, rather than a commitment of love to others such as her father.
As Belle’s affection for the Beast grows in the animated film, however, she remarks in song that the “something there that wasn’t there before” is “new” and importantly “a bit alarming.” The animated Belle’s growing love for the Beast is exciting, adventurous, and anything but an imprisonment. Unlike Gaston’s selfish affection, that of the animated Beast is giving, as he enriches Belle with clothing and, to her greatest delight, an immense library of books. Belle is open to a relationship of mutual giving and affection. It is not marriage in general the animated Belle denies, but marriage to Gaston.
Belle Isn’t the Only One Who Has Become More Selfish
In the animated film, Maurice returns Belle’s selfless love for him. When Maurice returns to the village after being freed by Belle’s sacrifice, the first place he goes is to the town pub to gather a rescue party. When the townspeople throw him out, assuming he is crazy, he gathers his things and decides to storm the castle by himself. Regardless of the impossibility of the situation, he is determined to save his daughter.
Maurice vividly portrays a father’s selfless love. Belle and her father’s mutually self-sacrificing love advances the plotline while teaching lessons about loyalty and family. In contrast, Disney’s live-action film seems to portray Maurice as a bumbling idiot, diminishing the powerfulness of his actions.
Later in the animated version, the self-sacrifice theme continues, culminating in the scene following Belle and Beast’s famous ballroom dance where Mrs. Potts sings the Academy Award-winning titular song. After the magical moment in the ballroom, the following scene is, incredibly, equally moving. Its intensity of devotion and self-sacrifice leaves movie-watchers breathless.
In it, when Beast notices Belle’s longing to see her father, he allows Belle to use the magic mirror. Maurice is shown struggling through a snowstorm in an attempt to free his daughter. Belle is stirred to go to her father’s aid, and the Beast, seeing her distress, releases her. He sacrifices his own desire to keep Belle close, instead granting her freedom even if he knows she might never return. This portrays true love as sacrificial, not selfish, a timeless lesson for any generation.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the “Beauty and the Beast” story is the romance between the title characters. The Beast is cursed for his cold-hearted response to an enchantress who revealed his selfish nature. It is Belle, a kind, beautiful, self-made prisoner, who sees through the Beast’s ugly exterior, his crude manners and gruff personality, and loves him in spite of it all. The turning point in the relationship between the animated Belle and Beast comes during the song “Something There,” where they share a meal, feed the birds together, and have a snowball fight. Their relationship is full of humor, playfulness, and compromise.
Beast softens as he interacts with Belle, and her love transforms him. Belle’s redemptive love for the Beast, which is not based on looks, charm, or riches (she even concedes that “He’s no Prince Charming”), breaks the curse that binds him. Love frees the Beast. It restores him.
From Timeless Themes to Ephemeral Identity Politics
Unfortunately, in the lead-up to the live-action movie’s release, Watson’s feminism and the director’s identity politics have far overshadowed the story’s inherent themes of selflessness and redemption. In a recent article, director Bill Condon explained that LeFou, Gaston’s bumbling sidekick, was reinterpreted as a gay character who gradually comes to terms with his sexuality and true feelings for Gaston.
Condon and Luke Evans, who plays Gaston, are both openly gay. Condon said the live-action interplay between LeFou and Gaston is “a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.” The new, reinterpreted Lefou is “somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston,” Condon said. Actor Josh Gad, whom Condon says makes “something really subtle and delicious” out of LeFou’s character, tweeted he was “beyond proud” of his role in the film.
In Disney’s animated film, LeFou was written as comic relief and to showcase Gaston’s cruelness. The new interpretation of LeFou is appalling in inserting adult-level latent sexuality and upstaging the beauty and selflessness of Belle’s love with the shallow love LeFou has for the villain Gaston. Indeed, how can audiences celebrate an infatuation with a cruel, self-absorbed object? “Groundbreaking” though this alteration may claim to be, it still falls woefully short of being praiseworthy.
Perhaps the themes that made the animated “Beauty and the Beast” so powerful will come out in the new film once it is available in its entirety, but in the months and weeks leading to the latter’s release in the states, interviews, trailers, and clips seem to indicate it will not reflect the Disney classic so many have treasured.
Instead, audiences may find on March 17 that Disney’s live-action movie has tattered and distorted a beautiful story of self-sacrifice and love for the unlovely. The new cast has read into their characters elements that either obstruct or completely obliterate these timeless themes in a pathetic attempt to make Belle a twenty-first-century heroine. Belle was already an enduring heroine. Watson and company should have let her timelessness shine instead of reshaping her into yet another timebound, defiant feminist.