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Disney’s dreary, banal tale of the times

Watching the new “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.

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: L
Reel Rating: (2 out of 5 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 here, now, is the next annual addition: Beauty and the Beast. Each of these previous four films succeeded for the most part by taking the original material and 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, however, had a problem with adapting the classic 18th-century French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête. While the other four previous Disney movies 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, the studio opted for a straight imitation with only limited—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.

The story, again, 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) Mauric (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 the 1991 film point for point, but the dialogue and songs are also left largely unaltered—so much so that I often found myself anticipating whole lines of dialogue word for word.

This isn’t to say that Beauty and the Beast is just a slavish imitation. There are several small but important changes, all seeming to come from a need to correct perceived criticisms of the original. A rather funny one, at the start, is that as part of the curse all the townspeople 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. Where these changes go astray is 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 seeking to excuse bad behavior. The film also addresses the most common criticism of the original: that it promoted domestic abuse 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 criticisms are not without merit, it is important to remember 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 Martin Luther King, Jr., 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—and initial box office receipts indicate it 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 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, is flawless and her singing is quite good. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen also have great chemistry as Lumière and Cogsworth. We haven’t heard McGregor sing since Moulin Rouge, so “Be Our Guest” was a treat. Lastly, all the elements of mise-en-scène were wonderful and no doubt we will be hearing of them again when Oscar season rolls around.

Yet the biggest story—and the one many CWR readers are probably interested in—is the highly publicized inclusion of homosexuality into the narrative. Just weeks before the film’s 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.

In fact, how this played out on screen was neither exciting or edifying. 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 hear any of LaFou’s dialogue or view any his actions without this in mind. Both Evans and Gad are good with their roles, but the looming prospect of the kiss at every turn was a distraction. The second problem is that when the moments did happen—yes, there were 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, which is problematic enough, without being dishonest to the genre. This is easily seen in the fact that, despite our culture’s unrelenting efforts, the relationship is completely out of place and out of bounds. It doesn’t fit in the story, of course; indeed, it is a crude inception designed to bring the story into the post-Christian era.

Stepping back, this new version of Beauty and the Beast represents the next step in a troubling trend that has been developing at Disney over the last decade. The studio is apparently embarrassed by its own past and has gone to great lengths to show it is not racist, sexist, bigoted, or in any way against a liberal understanding of relationships, identities, and behavior. Disney has now turned against its own center, going after the very beliefs and truths that made its films so memorable in the first place. It was the heartfelt and brilliant depiction of Judeo-Christian morality that made Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid into cinematic masterpieces. But now Disney shuns its own legacy, and it is only a matter of time until they foist the first lesbian princess upon the screen and audience.

1991’s Beauty and the Beast was one of the finest family 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.

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About Nick Olszyk 205 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".

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