To cut to the chase, my ten-year-old daughter really liked Beauty and the Beast. And given you’re probably going to be watching this as a child’s plus-one, I’d say hers is the view that matters. Her favourite character was Le Fou, the baddie’s gay sidekick, though I’m not sure she realised. But then the gay scene that Disney’s been making such a fuss about, in which the adorably camp and chubby Josh Gad gives Luke Evans — the fabulous Gaston — a bit of a shoulder massage when they’re relaxing at the inn, honestly isn’t such a big deal. Sorry.
This would be a digression, except that there’s been so much baggage piled on to B and the B that the ideology is what you end up looking out for. To the question, why bother making a real version of a movie that Disney did brilliantly in the 1991 animated version with Angela Lansbury as the teapot, there’s not much of an answer, except that this has got more of a message and notional emotional depth. As to the message, there’s the feminism, obviously; or there’s the gay thing — and now Stanley Tucci (the harpsichord) has surfaced to declare that it’s actually the interracial couples that make it contemporary. Take your pick.
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There are, in fact, scenes where you might as well have animation, such as Emma Watson as Belle picking her way through the whimsically cartoonish French village market, with the overblown flower stalls and buxom peasant girls. She’s got her book, you see, and that’s all that matters. Naturally, the village elders take a dim view of this; when she tries to teach a little girl to read — while her donkey washes the clothes by churning them round the pond in a barrel — they up-end her useful device. So that’s the female literacy message sorted. Undaunted, she sees off Gaston, the deplorable suitor, who, being a soldier, does like a challenge. Luke Evans does smirking self-regard possibly even better than the animated version, though he does have Josh Gad imitating his every gesture.
Emma, however, is devoted to her widowed father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). She’s able, handily, to help with his mechanical contraptions. So when his horse returns home from market riderless, she doesn’t hesitate, but gallops all the way back to the castle. Her dress, you see, is perpetually hitched up, ready for action, but given that she’s later able to make the return journey on the horse in a full, flouncy ballgown, this is more about signalling capability than anything else.
Duly, her horse is chased into the Beast’s castle by slavering wolves. The critic from the New York Times claims he could see that they were computer-generated, but they looked really scary to me. Ditto the Beast. He is huge: a lion-ram with weird feet and a frock-coat, having been a sneery prince to begin with. Belle is undaunted and apparently willing to take him on with a stick. Her dad had fainted clean away at the sight, which is what I would have done. But there’s no limit to her feistiness; combativeness is her default mode, although occasionally she consents to be amused.
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That’s where the furniture comes in. Where Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête’s most striking image was the candelabra in the beast’s castle with human arms, here we have an animated clock (Ian McKellen as a lugubrious Cogsworth), Ewan MacGregor as the optimistic candelabra, and Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, a clever cross between an opera singer and a wardrobe. Plus Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts; she is way better as a teapot than anything else. The episode (Be Our Guest) where they swirl round Belle in a Wonderland-ish dinner is bravura Disney.
So, was it worth the remake? The emotional depth is odd: we get the back story to Belle when she and the Beast are transported back to the Paris garret where her mother died of plague. Dunno what that adds. But Belle’s relationship with the Beast has its humorous side; when, on his sickbed, she marvels that he recognises a passage from Romeo and Juliet, he observes sardonically: ‘I had an expensive education.’ It must be said that Dan Stevens is way sexier as a beast than as the Prince. The Cocteau take was to make the beast identical with Gaston and the Prince, which tells you something about the darker aspect of male desires. Actually, I’m with the ten-year-old; Beauty and the Beast is funny and lively and preposterous. I prefer Cocteau, but then I’m just the plus-one.