Beauty and the Beast: Why We Don’t Mess with a Classic

I went to see the Beauty and the Beast live action movie over the weekend.

I have opinions.

To give you a little backstory…

Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite stories of all time. It caught my imagination at a young and impressionable age, and it has stuck with me relentlessly into adulthood. I love all versions of it. I love the classic Disney cartoon. I love Robin McKinley’s Beauty. I love Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter. I even love Sheri Tepper’s darker, grittier Beauty. In fact, I’ve got a soft spot for fairy tale retellings of all sorts, but Beauty and the Beast remains one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen different book-length versions of this story.

I say all this to lay a little groundwork. Yes, I have high expectations when you mess with a classic. But I also feel there’s plenty of room for interpretation, if it’s done well, as evidenced by all the various book versions of Beauty that I love. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly a purist, or a snob about having the story told a certain way. If anything, I think I’d call myself an aficionado of the tale.

Now with all that out of the way… I was disappointed by the film.

(I know, you’re shocked, right? With all those qualifiers, you must have thought I was going to say I loved it.)

Note: I did not hate it. I would not say: “Oh, if you go to see it, you’re going to wish you’d had your eyes ripped out and your memory erased.” But I also would not say: “Oh, if you loved the Disney cartoon, you’re going to love this, so go see it.” If anything, I’d say: “If you loved the Disney cartoon, you may find this mildly disappointing - so maybe don’t go see it.”

So why did I find it mildly disappointing, when I’m normally so prepared to love every version of this tale?

Let us take a foray into the way my mind works…


Beef 1: The making of the beast

Alright, so it’s tradition to begin the story with the tale of how the Beast got cursed in the first place. If you know the story at all, you know how it went down. He was arrogant and entitled, in love with surrounding himself with beautiful things and beautiful people, and refused shelter to an old beggar woman because she was ‘hideously ugly.’ Or something.

Turns out, she was a beautiful enchantress, and she cursed him. The Beast gets what he deserves! Comeuppance!

In the live action movie, the director does a little too good of a job of setting up the spoiled prince. He’s ridiculously entitled, and the ball scene where he’s surrounded by beautiful women, who are all so focused on looking beautiful and catching his attention, while he cavalierly dances among them, swapping them out interchangeably, with an almost manic energy as he looks around himself - while still managing to be completely empty and soulless - that does too good of a job setting him up as a heartless beast.

Maybe it’s because I’m older and more cynical now. Maybe it’s because of the current political administration, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and all the Bad Shit I see going down in the regular world these days. For whatever reason, seeing his obsession with all that empty splendor, and the utter frivolity of his life, made him extremely unsympathetic to me. The entire scene seemed a little tone deaf to me - a little too on the nose given the current state of the world - and all I felt was “good riddance” when the enchantress cursed him.

The thing about this story is; you’re supposed to want to root for the Beast. You’re supposed to be glad, and relieved, and encouraged, to see him changing. But as the story progressed, all I kept thinking was: “No! Don’t let him change back. That arrogant human male was ridiculously entitled and horrible. Let him stay the Beast forever, and learn humility, and lead a simple life, and be happy.” Because they did too good of a job setting up the horrible spoiled prince, I didn’t want to see him again.

In all the other versions of the story, the prince is portrayed as an arrogant little jackass who needs to learn a lesson. That’s OK. He’s not truly a bad person - there’s a good heart in there somewhere under the spoiled veneer - he just needs someone to help guide it out of him.

In this version, he’s completely unsympathetic right out of the gate. Irredeemable. He’s a cold-hearted snake… look into his eyes. Uh oh.

For reals, though, they went too far establishing his backstory.

Beef 2: Belle’s village

Belle has always been different. She’s smart, and bookish, and that sets her apart. She longs for adventure, while the rest of the villagers are content to live their small, petty, unchanging lives, day-in, day-out.

Fine. Well and good. That version of Belle is just blandly sympathetic enough that we can project our own version of ‘otherness’ onto her. The village people look a little askance at her - they recognize that she’s different - but for the most part, there’s no malice in it. They’re just simple people, and they can’t understand her.

In the live action version of the movie, the villagers cross the line from being understandable, simple, village people (hah!) to… horrible, illiterate, Republicans.

I mean no disrespect to Republicans.

Well, OK, only a little.

The villagers are downright pissy that Belle is so different. But I was chilled by how they reacted when they caught her trying to teach another girl to read. They were absolutely appalled by the idea of educating another girl - “One is bad enough!” - and they decide they have to ’teach Belle a lesson.’ So they destroy her invention, literally breaking it into pieces and scattering it across the paving stones.

There was so much wrong with this scene for me.

As a woman, we already face this kind of bullshit on a regular basis. Education for women isn’t prioritized as much as education for men, and if you’re at all progressive, you’re aware of the lack of representation of women in STEM. This is exactly the kind of thing that keeps women down. Showing repression in such a stark way in a Disney film? I know we’re supposed to empathize with Belle, and think the villagers are horrible - but according to Oscar Wilde, “Life imitates art.” I can’t help but feel that some people are going to take the wrong message from this.

“Crap, that woman is educated, and she’s trying to improve the lot of other women, too! Let’s break her cool stuff and teach her a lesson so she shuts up and gets back in the kitchen and makes us a pie.”

There’s just too much of this type of thing that happens in real life for me to feel easy about watching it in a Disney movie. And it takes the villagers from being simple but harmless people who can’t understand the more complex Belle, to being horrible people who are actively repressing women.

Of course, it’s exacerbated by how Gaston then tries to mansplain to her how she should handle the headmaster. “Smile a little more and be more pleasant.” As a woman? ZOMG I am so sick of hearing how we need to be more pleasant to protect fragile masculinity, or live up to some stupid masculine ideal of what a woman should be. Just… no.

Yes, Emma Watson then gets to sing that iconic Belle reprise about how she wants much more than this provincial life… and it definitely has more teeth in this version, after that chilling series of exchanges. But there’s also a sort of stark hopelessness about it, when you think about how many other women are suffering similar fates in Belle’s world, and how she herself would have ultimately succumbed to ’the provincial life’ if she hadn’t been kidnapped and locked up by some monster.

Which brings me to…

Beef 3: The Beast/Belle relationship

This wasn’t all bad, actually. In fact, I think I’d say this was probably the best part of the movie. Emma Watson was very convincing as a Belle who was capable of standing up to the hideous monster who held her captive. And you really felt she had more agency in helping to change and humanize the Beast than you did in the old Disney cartoon.

That being said… because they’d done such a good job of setting up the horrible spoiled prince in the beginning, and the beastly Beast before Belle started working her magic on him, the progression of their relationship seemed uneven. The progression seemed reasonable in the beginning - “Oh, he’s horrible, he’s horrible… ok, ok, she’s starting to change him a little, he’s becoming more likeable…” but then there was a big jump from that to the Something There moment. It didn’t feel earned in the same way it did in the Disney cartoon version. (Or at least, there wasn’t as far to go in the Disney cartoon, so the relatively short progression was a little more believable.)

There’s also the fact that as an adult, the Stockholm Syndrome aspect of it bothers me way more than it did when I was a kid who was too young to understand it.

Plus, with how unsympathetic the prince had been before he’d been transformed into the Beast, I really didn’t want him to turn human again. I wanted him and Belle to remain platonic buddies, and she could live in the castle, and educate herself in the library, and maybe start a school for all the poor girls in the village who the ridiculous headmaster wouldn’t educate.

Beef 4: Gay lefou

I have very mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand: Yay! Inclusive representation in a Disney film! An openly gay character!

On the other hand: seriously? You had to make him a ridiculous caricature who’s in love with a straight man and too blinded by his love to see how bad the straight man is? The gay man is a bumbling fool who plays second fiddle to an arrogant egomaniac, who is the one true ‘bad guy’ in the film? There are so many things that are bad about this portrayal, and the fact that it’s this character that’s gay, that it basically undoes all the goodwill toward Disney in including a gay character at all.

I have a lot more opinions about it, but as someone who is outside the community, I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth - or ‘straightsplain’ something that isn’t really my issue. I’ll just leave it at: I feel really ambivalent about this.

Beef 5: the cross-dressing queen

Similar to the openly gay LeFou, there’s another moment in the film that I have very mixed feelings about. In the scene where the villagers are attacking the castle, the Wardrobe (who is Madame Garderobe in this version of the film) does some magic with ribbons and bolts of cloths, and when it’s all done, three men are standing there in dresses and wigs. Two of them look at each other and bolt, terrified to see that they’re cross-dressed… but the third turns toward the camera and ‘works it.’ He’s obviously happy with the transformation.

Now… yay? And… boo. Shame on you, Disney, for turning this into a cross-dressing queen joke. I want to give Disney the benefit of the doubt and say they’re shooting for inclusiveness, but the way they’ve done it here is absolutely tone-deaf. It’s a joke, another caricature like LeFou. And of course, in the end of the movie, this man ends up ballroom dancing with LeFou. Because the one gay man in the film, and the one cross-dresser, must end up together.

Just… no. Bad Disney. Do better. If you’re going to try to be more inclusive, and bring in marginalized cultures, do it right. Don’t make it a joke, or make the people portraying these lifestyles caricatures. Bad filmmakers.

Beef 6: gaston

Right, so in the Disney cartoon, Gaston was a bad guy. He’s probably one of the worse bad guys across Disney films, in fact - shooting the Beast in cold blood. That’s tough to outdo. But in this live action version, they’ve managed to outdo it.

Instead of being the arrogant asshat we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing, this version of Gaston is positively… evil. He doesn’t just pay off the asylum worker to lock up Maurice and get him out of the way so Gaston can woo Belle… he actually ties the poor old man up and leaves him for dead in the woods, where he (and a nervous LeFou) believe Maurice will get eaten by wolves. When the old man shows up later in town, Gaston lies about what happened, asks if the villagers are going to take a crazy old man’s word - and the woman who rescues him - against Gaston’s own, and spins it that “Maurice is a danger to himself and others,” getting the man locked up.

You know… I could keep unpacking how much more horrible and evil Gaston was in this version of the story versus the old Disney cartoon, because there’s a lot more… but I don’t want to waste more time on it. Bottom line: they went way farther with this character than they did with the old Gaston, and it didn’t add anything to the story. They were probably attempting to justify his ultimate demise, but I found it off-putting.

Beef 7: Unnecessary new music

Alright, so I know this director wants to put his own mark on the story, and Disney somehow wants to justify remaking the film… but just NO on the new music. Unnecessary. Didn’t add anything to the story. Just beat us over the head with stuff we already knew, to the form of music that wasn’t nearly as catchy as the original. Fell flat here.

Beef 8: unnecessary story/lines

There were other parts of the film where Disney added new story or new lines. Maybe to justify the way a character behaves - such as the motivation for the Beast becoming the horrible man he was as the prince - to the backstory on what happened to Belle’s mom. I didn’t feel that any of this really added to the story. And in some cases, the lines verbally explained things that we already knew from subtext. I hate when writers feel the need to do that. This is an old, beloved story - we already know what’s going on here. You don’t need to add two new lines of dialogue that state it aloud. You’re just beating a dead horse.

Bottom Line

It’s clear that Disney was attempting to update and modernize an old, beloved, classic story. But classics become classics for a reason - they’re timeless. By adding some of the things that Disney added, they’re either beating us over the head with story we already know, or didn’t need to know - or trying to force some more modern ideal on a film that didn’t need it.

Am I happy with this movie? Nah. It was disappointing.

Will I watch it again? I’ll probably rent it when it comes out, just to see whether or not my initial complaints hold up after a little distance from my first reaction.

But I won’t bother to buy it. I’ll reserve that for the original Disney classic cartoon, and all the book versions of the story that get things so right.

In the meantime, I’ll sit here and quietly muse on how a studio that can get things so right - like with Moana, or the original Beauty and the Beast, and some of the old classic Disney cartoons - can also do stuff like this, that comes off as tone-deaf and goes too far in ways that don’t add to the story, but do drive away loyal fans.