A Tale Not-So Old as Time

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in Beauty and the Beast
“A Tale Not-So Old as Time”
A Review of Beauty and the Beast (2017) by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

            The last three years have seen no less than four live action adaptations of Disney animated classics (Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon), and now comes the next annual addition – Beauty and the Beast. Each of these previous four films succeeded by taking the original material and improving it by creating an entirely new story. Thus, Cinderella focused on the importance of kindness and forgiveness despite suffering to become a potent and countercultural morality tale. Even better, Pete’s Dragon took perhaps the worst Disney film ever made and turned it into a Spielbergian adventure of mystery and magic. The powers-that-be at Disney had a problem with adapting the classic French fairy tale, however. While the other four were lesser entries, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is a beloved masterpiece – the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture at the Oscars and even honored with a place in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Instead of new adaptation, they opted for a straight imitation with only minor – but thematically deliberate – changes. The result is a film that is pleasant only when it reminds its audience of the past while every new detail sticks out like a sore thumb. I was not pleased to be its guest.
            As mentioned, the story changes very little from the original. Prince Adam (Dan Stevens) is a vain and spoiled royal living in a large castle on the edge of a village that apparently forgot he existed (more on that later). He is cursed by an enchantress for refusing her hospitality and transformed into a “hideous beast” while his servants become anthropomorphic household objects. Later, the artist (not inventor) Maurice (Kevin Kline) gets lost in the woods and happens on the castle. Imprisoned for stealing a rose, his daughter Belle (Emma Watson) takes his place. Gradually, Adam learns to love Belle and she him but there is trouble brewing as the brutish soldier Gaston (Luke Evans) wants Belle for his own wife. Not only does the plot follow point for point, but the dialogue and songs are left largely unaltered too – so much so that I often found myself anticipating whole lines of dialogue word for word.
            This is isn’t to say that Beauty and the Beast is just an imitation. There are several small changes, yet they all seem to come from a need to correct perceived criticisms of the original. A funny one right off the bat is that, as part of the curse, all the townspeople of the village also have their memories erased, which solves the puzzling fact that none of the villagers in the original film seem to remember a giant castle and royal family living in their backyard. Yet where these changes go astray are in the more thematic areas. It turns out that Adam’s father was domineering and abusive, a common trope in almost every film these days to excuse bad behavior. The film also addresses the most common criticism of the original: that it promoted domestic abuse and/or that Belle suffers from Stockholm Syndrome. At first, Belle tries several times to escape. When that doesn’t work out, she is still cautious around Adam. “Are you happy here,” Adam asks Belle after she seems to be used to her surroundings. “Can anyone be happy who isn’t free?” she replies. While these attacks are not totally without merit, it is important to remember that this is a fantasy, not a docudrama. It sends a strong message that even truly evil people can be converted by love and that God can use even a lack of freedom as a means for greater good; think of St. Paul, St. John of the Cross, Cardinal Kung, and MLK, whose prison experiences forged them into great Christian witnesses. It’s clear that these changes were intentionally made to re-create Beauty and the Beast into a movie that was more palatable to Millennial tastes, which based on initial box office receipts worked magnificently. What suffers in the process is the universal message of hope and love that made the original so memorable.
            This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of great promise. While the film fails in its story, it makes up for it a little in smaller details. Emma Watson’s performance, as expected, was flawless and her singing abilities were good too. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen also had great chemistry as Lumière and Cogsworth. We haven’t heard McGregor sing since Moulin Rouge, so “Be Our Guest” was a treat too. Lastly, all the elements of mise-en-scène (production design, costumes, makeup, visual effects) were wonderful and no doubt we will be hearing of them again as Oscar season rolls around.
            Yet the biggest story – and the one CWR readers of this review have probably been waiting for – is the highly publicized inclusion of homosexuality into the narrative. Mere weeks before its premiere, it was announced that the character of LeFou – Gaston’s sidekick played by Josh Gad of Frozen fame – would be the first explicitly gay character in a Disney theatrical production and that the film would contain “an exclusively gay moment.” This caused a flurry of free press, including the news that some countries had banned the film unless edited versions were provided. Disney boldly “rebelled” by refusing to do so.
            The reality of how this played out on screen was not as exciting. The first problem was constantly anticipating this “moment” through the whole movie, always suspicious of every male character. In addition, it was hard not to read any of LaFou’s dialogue or actions without this in mind. Both Evans and Gad did a great job with their roles, but with the looming prospect of a gay kiss at every turn, it was difficult to stay focused. The second problem is when the moments did happen (yes, more than one), they ruined the narrative – the first spoiling a great joke from the original and the second interrupting the beautiful epilogue. The third and most vexing problem is that, for all its many modern adaptations, this is still a medieval European fairy tale with archetypal patterns rooted in Christian storytelling. Thus, it is impossible to portray a homosexual relationship as moral without being dishonest to the genre. This is easily seen in the fact that, despite our culture’s best efforts, the relationship feels completely out of place. It doesn’t fit in the story; instead, it was a crude inception designed to bring the story into the post-Christian era.
            This year’s Beauty and the Beast represents the next step in a troubling trend that has been brewing at Disney the last decade. They seem embarrassed by their own past and have gone to great lengths to show they are not racist, sexist, or in any way against a liberal interpretation of common behavior. Now, they have turned on their own center, going after the very ethics that made them so memorable in the first place. They have no reason to be ashamed. It was their heartfelt and brilliant depiction of Judeo-Christian morality that made Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid into masterpieces of cinema. Yet today, Disney shuns its own legacy, and it’s only a matter of time until the first lesbian princess. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast was one of the greatest movies ever made, and my kids will watch it again and again on Blu-Ray the same as I did on VHS. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is not “a tale as old as time,” but sadly “of the times.” Therefore, I will give it perhaps the harshest criticism any reviewer can offer. Watching Beauty and the Beast, I was constantly reminded – from beginning to end – that I was in a movie theater in Southern California in the year 2017.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on March 23rd, 2017