Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast' Remake Tries to Do Better

Disney's latest live-action remake is full of lavish musical numbers and features a strong heroine but can't move past its inherent flaws. 

Posted in , Mar 11, 2017

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in Beauty and the Beast

Disney’s “tale as old as time,” Beauty and the Beast is getting a live-action remake.

Starring Emma Watson as Belle, the remake doesn’t stray much from its animated predecessor. It's still the story of a young woman who imagines more than just her provincial life and would rather spend her time reading a book than marrying the town’s most eligible (and egotistical) bachelor Gaston (Luke Evans). She gets more adventure than she bargained for, however, when her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) ends up being imprisoned in an enchanted castle by a cursed and heartless prince who has been turned into a Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner and the castle’s inhabitants—servants turned animated inanimate objects—try to help Belle and the Beast fall in love and break the enchantress’s spell.

Beauty and the Beast has always been a problematic story, mostly because of the message it sends to young girls. Belle falls for a damaged man who treats her poorly, but she believes she can save him. She does save him and then they live happily ever after. There’s not much the remake can do to fix that, though it tries.

Watson, an outspoken feminist and activist for women’s rights, has been vocal about wanting this version of the story to empower the young girls that will doubtlessly flock to theaters to see it and her. She brings an energy and sincerity to the role of Belle, who, in this version, isn’t just a bookworm, but also an inventor, battling against her town’s sexist values, like the notion that young girls should be doing laundry instead of learning to read. We also get more of Belle's backstory in this version and learn that much of Belle's personality is due to her deceased mother, who was a similar free spirit. It's a detail that helps Belle feel less alone in the world and the audience feel more connected to her as a character.

But problems still abound. Although Gaston is a bit less troubling as a character since he's not planning his marriage to Belle without her knowledge or consent this time, he’s still just as aggressive in his courtship of her as the original character was. 

Where the movie shines is in its musical numbers. Ewan McGregor takes on the role of Lumière, the candlestick Casanova, with needed enthusiasm. He’s often the comic relief of the film and the story’s driving force, especially in terms of its romantic plot. His curmegeon of a sidekick Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) the motherly Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) the hopeless Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) and the fanciful Madame Gauderrobe (a woefully underutilized Audra McDonald) round out the rest of the castle’s crew.

But it's not enough to move the film past its inherent flaws – the story is about a woman who falls in love with the Beast holding her prisoner after all, it’s never not going to have problems.

Disney’s banking on the power of nostalgia to pull back in the older adults who may have loved the original, then grown up and realized it’s faulty message, while trying to offer something shinier and new to a younger crowd. They’ve been successful before, most recently with their beautifully stylized Jungle Book remake, and they’ll probably be financially successful again with Beauty and the Beast but the timing feels a bit off for this kind of movie. 

When it was released 30 years ago, watching Belle defy stereotypes, long for adventure and love to read despite sexist obstacles felt empowering to me as a young girl. Now, seeing a young woman be outcast because she enjoys books and doesn't want to get married yet just seems silly and depressing. Why is a woman with a book still such a dangerous thing? 

For all of its good intentions, lavish musical numbers and padded feminism, watching Belle fall into the classic, sexist love story tropes is just not a great lesson for young girls today. 

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