Despite netting over $170 million at the opening weekend box office, Disney’s new live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, received somewhat mixed reviews. Many elite publications’ reviewers thumbed their noses at the film—what do these critics fail to see that audiences do?
“There’s nothing particularly outrageous about retelling or reimagining [Disney’s fairytale] stories,” The Atlantic’s senior associate editor David Sims wrote in one negative review. “But this 2017 edition of Beauty and the Beast feels particularly egregious, in part, because it’s so slavishly devoted to the original.”
Sims missed the point of movies like Beauty and the Beast and 2015’s Cinderella remake. They go all-out with elaborate sets, ornate costumes, and big-name talents because they tell a beautiful story in a beautiful way. Instead of ironically sending up or unconvincingly “updating” the originals, these remakes revel in the accomplishments of the originals.
Ours is a cynical age. Gruesome hyperviolence and sleazy hyper-sexuality dominate American culture. Too often, cash-grabbing studios remake movies to fit in with this dark and ironic zeitgeist. In this climate, audiences find Disney’s new live-action remakes refreshingly pure, sincere, and delightful.
The opening moments of the film are the perfect illustration of what Beauty and the Beast was made for. In the animated movie, the Beast’s backstory is told through narration and a series of stained glass windows; then the movie launches into the opening number, “Belle.”
In the live-action remake, by contrast, the backstory is told through a lavish scene, with the pre-cursed Prince’s decadence on full display. It is only after that glimpse of backstory that Beauty and the Beast gets underway with what is almost a shot-for-shot remake of “Belle.” The only “updating” the movie does is to take it from the second to the third dimension.
And that’s why it works, at least for the many movie-goers who have embraced it. As J.R.R. Tolkien described about makes fairytales so moving, in his 1947 essay “On Fairy-Stories”:
“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind . . . That however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ [toward a happy ending] comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”
The 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast accomplished that “turn” toward joy better than perhaps any animated film had before. That’s why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated it for Best Picture. The filmmakers in charge of the remake knew that too much tinkering with the story would undermine its purpose, and wisely stuck as closely as possible to the original. Disney rejected the possibilities of subversion, and instead sincerely magnified what made the original film so wonderful in the first place.
Many critics seem to ignore this uplifting sincerity, instead focusing on the controversy which erupted when director Bill Condon said that LeFou (Josh Gad)—Gaston’s (Luke Evans) manservant—has a storyline with an “exclusively gay moment.” In his review of the film, for example, Washington Free Beacon executive editor Sonny Bunch wrote that this moment represents the “death of subtext,” leaving only a paragraph at the end of the review for an actual review of the movie.
That moment—spoiler alert—is a blink-and-you-missed-it shot of LeFou dancing with a man at the very end of the film. It’s hardly a reason for Christians to call for boycotts or leftists to hail the film as a major milestone for LGBT representation. The media hype about this supposed “gay moment” is dramatically out of proportion to its appearance in the film. And yet, everyone on social media seems to want to turn the latest cultural phenomenon into a rallying cry for their agenda.
Instead of trying to read too much into Beauty and the Beast, critics ought to experience the movie on its own terms. It is not a reinvention or update of the original, nor is it political propaganda. The story of the movie is too timeless for that. Beauty and the Beast is a sincere homage to the 1991 animated masterpiece and the 1740 fairytale the movies are based on. It is not some innovative product of 2017—which is exactly why audiences across the world fell in love with it.