“Be Our Guest”
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson
As before, a handsome prince is cursed for being a world-class jerk and transformed into a Beast (Stevens) until and unless he can find and share true love, while his staff are turned into furniture. The time frame is unspecific, but the curse also removes the castle and its inhabitants from the memory of the outside world, in particular of the little town that supports it, to which years later a girl named Belle (Watson) and her father Maurice (Kline) move after the loss of her mother.
Belle works a smallholding and assists her father in making music boxes, while dreaming of adventures like the ones she reads of in the village priest’s small and eclectic library, but is ever an outsider, despite the pursuit of narcissistic local war hero-turned-hunter and pub owner Gaston (Evans).
Maurice gets lost and stumbles on the winter-bound castle and its master. He is taken for stealing a rose – the gift Belle always asks him to bring – and imprisoned until Belle trades her freedom for his, promising him that she will escape from the Beast. She is entertained by the servants including footman/candlestick Lumiere (McEwan), majordomo/clock Cogsworth (McKellan), housekeeper/teapot Mrs Potts (Thompson) and her son/teacup Chip (Nathan Mack), feather duster Plumette (Mbatha-Raw), the wardrobe Madame Garderobe (McDonald) and her husband the harpischord, Maestro Clavier (Tucci), but sneaks off to see what secrets the Beast keeps in the West Wing, and after he acts like a snarly douchebag flees, is rescued by wolves, and takes the injured Beast back to the castle. They grow closer, he opens his library to her and uses a magical book to let her see her childhood home, where they realise that her mother died of the plague, hence her father’s headlong flight into nowheresville.
Maurice tries to rescue Belle, but is betrayed by Gaston when he won’t back his marriage plans and only rescued from wolves by the local crazy old spinster Agathe (Hattie Morahan). Gaston has Maurice committed when he accuses him of murder. Belle and the Beast have their dance and sparks nearly fly, but she sees her father in trouble and the Beast tells her she must go to him. This leads to the attack on the castle, the fight with Gaston, the Beast getting shot in the back while Gaston falls to his doom, declarations of love and the enchantress – who is actually the widow Agathe – lifts the spell, restores the dying Beast to living prince status and all live happily ever after, including Gaston’s reformed flunky Lefou (Gad).
What’s wrong with it?
It was always going to be a big step, the first remake of the Renaissance, but in many ways the pressure to live up to what was, for all I mock, the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, has produced an almost slavish copy of the original, which is only going to exacerbate any complaints about the changes that there are, while at the same time keeping a few of the problems. In particular, the Beast’s temper is still referenced as if it is something out of his control. This may well be because the temper is an artefact of paternal abuse and/or the curse, but it’s still disturbing to hear kindly Mrs Potts offering the sort of advice that well-meaning mothers might have given to battered daughters. It’s literally one line, but damn.
The small-town folks of Villeneuve in this version are often really reactionary, like… ‘I’m amazed they haven’t burned Belle’s house down around her washing machine making carcass and strung up Lefou for being gay’ reactionary.
The timing of the action of the film is much improved, but its really unclear how long the curse has lasted. Years, they say, and it could be twenty or more, yet Chip has not aged and still recognises his father when they are reunited. My partner has a theory that this is because they are as immortal as the castle denizens appear to be, and that ‘every day is just the same’ because it almost literally is the same, and that this is also why the village reacts to Belle and her father the way they do, almost like a body rejecting an implant. It’s also possible that the Enchantress is just some creepy puppetmaster.
The actors are not the singers that the original cast were. This has led some people to propose a return to dubbing the songs with professional singers, although for my dollar I hate that; it takes me right out of the film nine times out of ten.
Although generally a strong build on one of the first modern Disney princesses, there is one worrying moment when Mrs Potts argues that a lot of things are said in anger, but that we can choose whether to listen. It’s not a bad sentiment in and of itself, but because the film is already much longer than the animated version there isn’t time to go into this at all, and as a result it simplifies a complicated issue to a point that could easily become abuse excusing.
What’s right with it?
The new cast are honestly superb, with Luke Evans playing Gaston with sufficient aplomb that it’s hard to be worried that he really isn’t the size of a barge.
Fuck you, internet; I like the singing in this one, whether it lacks technical precision or not. No, I probably wouldn’t be so accepting in a stage production, but this isn’t a stage production. A singer might have the same fall off in acting, and as I say, dubbing in a different voice takes me out of the film. It was my biggest gripe with The Lion King.
There’s a great deal of diversity in the cast. It’s still well below the averages, but it’s progress. I suspect that in twenty-five years, if I look back on this, it will be in the same way as looking at the original now: It’s huge for our time, but it isn’t the end, it’s just a start, and may well look like an infinitesimally tiny step in retrospect. There is also what they are calling Disney’s first exclusively gay moment, and I respect the studio’s decision not to trim that for the sake of a broader release in countries such as Russia and Malaysia.
Watson’s Belle builds on the original. She’s not the sharp edge of feminist dialectic, but she is at least somewhere on the blade. I also like the fact that despite keeping the ‘little people’ line, she interacts with the other villagers in a friendly and aware fashion when they aren’t measuring her up for a ducking stool or a wedding dress. I like that her initial intention is to escape and damn the promise, and that when the Beast asks if she could be happy in the castle, she says that she would need her freedom to be happy, rather than just asking for one last look at Daddy.
There are a lot of little changes that I love, including making the Beast less goofy (I mean, he’s still kind of adorkable, but less like a sulky teenager and more of an awkward misanthrope.) In particular, instead of Belle planting his hand on her waist for the dance like he’s still afraid of cooties, they take hands tentatively and dance in an open stance, until a moment when they naturally move closer together. I also approve the reduction of Lumiere’s french lounge lizard characterisation.
How bad is it really?
Overall, Beauty and the Beast retains all of the things that people loved about the original and touches up where time has revealed gaps in the original production. Its flaw is that it is not a new thing, and there are elements – most notably in the song performances – where it doesn’t live up to the original, and I do think that in the future it will suffer to a fresh eye in the same way that the original does now. In itself, it is a beautiful, glorious thing and a worthy successor.
Best bit (if such there is)?
As good as Thompson is, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ can never stand up to the Lansbury. This leaves Gaston’s oompa patter song as the highlight of the movie, with the awesomeness of the Beast’s library as an also ran.
What’s up with…?
- Belle’s running speed? The house is moved into the town, but she still needs to make it from there to the hills between ‘Madame Gaston’ and ‘I want adventure in the great wide somewhere’, breaking Julie Andrews previous distance record for uphill dash during a musical bridge.
- The timing? Are the villagers immortal? How many years have Belle and Maurice been there and why haven’t they noticed if no-one gets older?
Production values – The film is gorgeous. I mean… it looks very, very good. 1
Dialogue and performances – Most of the cast are not professional singers. They wouldn’t cut it on Broadway, but they do a fine job here, and rock the acting. The script is in many ways the same tried and tested one used in the original, but with just enough updating to stay zippy and fresh. 4
Plot and execution – The film makes significant headway in both temporal and narrative consistency, but in many ways the 25 year time gap means that the film has fewer excuses when it does go astray and make excuses for abusive behaviours. 8
Randomness – Again, mostly improved, although there are still some oddities, like the variable attitudes of the villagers. 4
Waste of potential – This one is kind of complicated. On the one hand, it avoids most of the pitfalls that fans of the original thought it would fall into; on the other, based on its pedigree its kind of disappointing that it isn’t healing the sick. 5
NB. In my original version of this review I referenced the Stockholm Syndrome thing, but in truth that’s inaccurate. I’ve edited to remove that reference, but wanted to own my mistake rather than erasing it.