If you come to Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast hoping for something along the lines of Ever After: A Cinderella Story — a live-action fairytale adaptation grounded in a relatively realistic setting — well, sorry to disappoint. Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, is a gilded affair, gaudy and ornate and a little overcooked. But Condon wisely preserves the goofy spirit and eye-popping color palette of the 1991 animated version. The film doesn’t need to be given a dark twist like 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman; as with every fairytale, there’s enough darkness in this story to begin with.
The 1991 version, which was adapted from a French fairytale first published in the late 18th century, cast Belle as an “odd” girl with her “nose stuck in a book.” Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos have apparently taken that directive and run with it in an attempt to turn this somewhat troubling story of a woman falling for her captor into a rah-rah feminist parable about spreading one’s wings.
When Belle complains that their picturesque French village is too small — in this version, she and her father, Maurice (a serviceable Kevin Kline), moved there from Paris after the death of Belle’s mother — her father replies, “Small also means safe.” In a disastrous attempt to woo her, local strongman Gaston (Luke Evans) threatens Belle with visions of spinsterhood, and, in a sadly familiar pattern, turns violent when she rejects him.
In terms of updating the story for a new generation of young viewers, Beauty and the Beast largely focuses its efforts on the characterization of Belle, whom the film would like us to see not as a beautiful inmate but a symbol of woman’s empowerment. The dialogue is tweaked to emphasize the connection to contemporary debates about sexual politics — like when Gaston tells his effete sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad), “It’s the ones that play hard to get that are the sweetest prey.” When Belle tries to teach a little girl to read, a townsman complains, “Isn’t one enough?”
Condon effectively transplants the colorful spectacle of the cartoon to a live-action setting, and while there’s far too much digital interference for my taste, the exquisitely ornate design of the beast’s castle and its sentient household objects is pretty freaking magical. Emma Watson is the perfect choice to play this headstrong character, who shares more than a few similarities with Hermione Granger.
Luke Evans and Josh Gad are standouts, a physical and temperamental odd couple that functions as the movie’s comic engine. Evans expertly transmits Gaston’s preening masculinity; he even looks suspiciously similar to the cartoon version. Crucially, both Evans and Gad are both experienced staged actors and trained singers, the kind of performers I wish more movie musicals would cast. (Watson does her best, but she’s clearly no singer, a fact that’s only highlighted by talent like Gad and Audra McDonald, who plays the opera-voiced wardrobe Madame Garderobe.)
Dan Stevens is subsumed in a CGI-enhanced animal suit for the majority of the film, which makes it hard to judge his performance; he’s a good beast, I guess? Turning Beauty and the Beast into a live-action feature, however, just emphasizes the degree to which this story only works as a children’s fairytale, because otherwise our very first question is, of course, but what about his dick?!
The problems begin when Belle agrees to take her father’s place as the beast’s prisoner, after Maurice takes shelter in the castle during a storm. Soon, Belle is led to her ornate, pink-and-white bedchamber high up in a tower — her gilded cage. Again, the writers do their best to draw her not as a helpless victim but a badass bitch; she uses the frilly pink dress issued by Madame Garderobe to fasten a rope with which to climb down the tower in a failed escape attempt. And when the beast invites her to join him for dinner, she’s explicit in her refusal: “You’ve taken me as a prisoner and now you want to have dinner with me?”
But all the feminist window dressing in the world won’t change the problem at the heart of Beauty and the Beast, which is not Belle’s “Stockholm syndrome,” a revisionist theory that’s been floating around the internet for years, but rather the narrative arc of the romance plot itself. No matter how adorable the talking mice or squabbling housewares may be, they must lead the heroine to her ultimate fate — not imprisonment up in a tower, but marriage, a different kind of incarceration for a French woman in the 1700s. Like Cinderella’s little helpers — the birds and mice that swoop in and save the day when she needs a new dress for the ball — Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and the rest represent the real magical aspect of these stories: The enchanted creatures who band together to help a woman who has no one else.
The arc of the romance plot will always bend toward injustice. Belle may be stubborn and headstrong; she may bond with the beast over their shared knowledge of literature (in both the 1991 and the 2017 films, the beast finally earns Belle’s trust and affection when he gives her unfettered access to his mammoth library). But the beast still needs to save her life when she foolishly runs off into the woods and is attacked by wolves, so that she can feel grateful to her jailer. The film still needs to include a montage in which Belle and the beast pore over books and stroll through his snow-covered gardens. It still can’t quite help but get a cheap laugh out of the spectacle of Belle tossing a snowball at her fluffy captor — and of the beast responding to her playful provocation by clocking her in the face with a snowball so big it knocks her over.
We don’t need to trot out pseudo-scientific justifications for Belle’s growing interest in the beast; it’s the rote tyranny of the romance plot that consigns her to her fate. All those gorgeous, leather-bound books lining the shelves in that grand library — of course Romeo and Juliet is Belle’s favorite Shakespeare play — as wondrous as they are, are full of lies, poison-tipped arrows issued from Cupid’s bow and aimed straight at the hearts of young girls with big dreams and bigger imaginations.
The lie is that love conquers all. And before you start Googling my name to assure yourself that I must be fat, ugly, and alone, my point is not that romantic relationships never work out, or are inherently misogynist; they do, and they’re not. There’s a reason that fairytales, blueprints for modern romance narratives, work so hard to demonstrate the life-changing power of falling in love. Love is what we use to excuse people from doing terrible things. It’s a tale as old as time.
Beauty and the Beast is out Friday.