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It had to happen eventually. At some point, Disney’s brilliant streak of remaking its animated classics into live-action blockbusters would hit a flat note. Not that the new Beauty and the Beast doesn’t offer a visual feast or better flesh out certain characters. But as a whole, the production doesn’t hold a candelabrum to Kenneth Branagh’s lovely 2015 version of Cinderella, to say nothing of the 1991 Beauty original.
To start with the good is to start with the two leading men—Luke Evans and Dan Stevens playing, respectively, the villain Gaston and the princely Beast. What Evans lacks in size and chin-jut he makes up for in rakish swagger. Stevens gives the Beast, whose personality previously consisted of little more than temper and regret, real individuality. The temper’s still there, but comes with dry wit and a sweet, self-reflective melancholy.
Thanks to a storyline that bestows more humanity on the living objects populating the castle, the supporting cast provides more emotional heft as well. Much as I adored Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts, she never made my eyes go misty as Emma Thompson does when she’s reunited with young Chip.
Emma Watson, on the other hand, fails to fill Belle’s slippers. While she certainly looks the part and her singing voice is pretty, her overall presence lacks liveliness. However, even the lead actress’s detached performance wouldn’t have tarnished all the glitter and gilt in this Beauty if not for the tedious changes director Bill Condon (Chicago, Kinsey) makes to the story.
Reportedly at the behest of Watson, Condon tacks in a clumsy attempt to make Belle more “feminist” by giving her a desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an inventor. Nothing wrong with being an inventor, but this new characteristic constitutes nothing more than a single scene, disconnected from anything that comes before or after it. Was a country girl loving literature and yearning for adventure in the great wide somewhere not iconoclastic enough for 18th-century France?
Condon also takes pains to make those poor provincial villagers (whom, let’s be honest, Belle was a little hard on back in 1991) as ugly and anti-intellectual as he can. Here they not only think Belle’s bookishness is peculiar, they threaten her for teaching a young girl to read, and they shun a penniless widow who lives in the woods.
At a recent press conference, the composer of the original Beauty and the Beast songs, Alan Menken, tried to dampen furor over Condon’s revelation that his LeFou is Disney’s first openly gay character. Said Menken: “To me, [LeFou] has always [looked] up to Gaston, in a nerdy kind of way. … As far as I can tell, some journalist in England decided to make it his cause célèbre to push this agenda. And it’s really not really part of the movie in any overt way at all … any more than it was in the original.”
Kudos to Menken for standing against the trend to rewrite classics in the image of modern cultural obsessions, but as for the current film, he’s simply wrong. While the film’s “exclusively gay moment” has been oversold, it is undeniably present.
Josh Gad’s LeFou minces and gazes at Gaston with undisguised ardor, wrapping the bigger man’s arms around him in the tavern number and cheekily asking “too much?” Yes, it is. And so is a gender-bending moment when a thug finds himself delighted to be dressed in women’s clothes. A split second at the end where LeFou and the gown-loving goon lock eyes in a dance apparently accounts for the groundbreaking scene Condon promised.
While younger children might not catch the message, older ones certainly will. So although the PG rating is officially for fairy-tale battle scenes, the real concern should be over the film’s sneering attitude toward those little townspeople kids may very well equate with their Bible-believing parents.