Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity -1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:6-8
Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.
Romans 12:2a (J.B. Phillips)
Any doubts or qualms concerning Disney’s releasing a new version of the French fairytale were quickly overcome for myself and the large audience at the advance screening in Cincinnati. Once you hear the two new songs added to the film’s original score, “Ever More” and “How Does a Moment Last Forever”—I think you also will agree that these alone make the new version worthwhile. This remake also is even more directed at adults, and not just little girls in need of an injection of feminism so beautifully embedded in Belle, in that it is both longer (c. 40 minutes!) and darker than the 1991 animated version.
Before the film title comes on the screen, we are given the backstory of a young prince (Dan Stevens) hosting a ball. He refuses to give a beggar woman shelter from the cold in exchange for a rose because he does not like her unkempt appearance. She warns him not to judge by appearances, but he pays no heed. Amidst a blinding light, she is transformed into a beautiful sorceress who changes the prince into the Beast and his servants into household items, telling him that unless he can learn to love and win the love of another, he will remain a beast forever when the last petal of the rose falls off.
Years later in a village outside the forest, young Belle (Emily Watson), a book in hand, somewhat dejectedly goes through her daily routine as the various villagers she encounters sing about her. They admit she is the most beautiful woman in town, but far too different to be acceptable: “Her looks have got no parallel. But behind that fair façade, Very diff’rent from the rest of us. She’s nothing like the rest of us. I’m afraid she’s rather odd.” Belle knows well that she does not fit into the small village as she sings, “I want adventure in the great-wide somewhere, I wanted more than I can tell… For once it might be grand to have someone understand, I want so much more than they’ve got planned!”
Belle’s most unpleasant encounter is with Gaston (Luke Evans), a vain hunter whom the local maidens love almost as much as he loves himself. Belle again rebuffs his attempt to gain her hand, as does her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Gaston is always shadowed by his companion/servant LeFou (Josh Gad), who would like to be more than the man’s friend and lackey (something which has aroused a lot of discussion).
Maurice, a skilled maker of mechanical toys and clocks, sets out in his horse-drawn cart on an overnight trip to deliver some of his ingenious toys to customers on the other side of the forest. He becomes lost during a storm when a lightning-struck tree blocks the road, and he discovers another path. Following it while avoiding a pack of ravenous wolves, he winds up at the old castle, is admitted, but finds no host in any of the rooms. Scared by a talking mantel clock, a tea pot, and candelabra (voiced respectively by Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor), he rushes out into the storm again. He plucks one of the roses growing out front, whereupon a huge shadowy figure accuses him of stealing and drags him into a barred room.
The next day, Belle, rejecting another of Gaston’s attempt to marry her, sees their horse, and rides into the snow-laden forest in search of her father. She enters the castle, discovers her father, and volunteers to take his place. Back at the village Gaston and the villagers think the old man crazy, with his tale of the Beast and talking artifacts.
At the castle the talking artifacts befriend Belle and try to get their gruff master to deal gently with his captive. Easier said than done, but they do finally succeed after the Beast saves the runaway Belle from a pack of vicious wolves, and she in turn saves her badly wounded rescuer from freezing to death by placing him on his horse and returning with him to the castle. Both of them, guided by the household artifacts who hope that Belle might be “the one” who lifts the curse, gain a new perspective on one another as the days past. When she comes across him reading a book that she takes to be a romance, she asks, “What are you reading?” Quickly hiding its cover, he replies, “Nothing.” She says, “Guinevere and Lancelot.” He insists on its more adventuresome title, “King Arthur and the Round Table.” Belle replies, “Still a romance.” Beast lamely replies, “Mmm. Felt like a change.”
Bell is almost ecstatic when the Beast shows her his huge library, the walls lined with books clear up to its high ceiling. Back in her village she had access just to the half dozen or so leant to her by the priest, so the sight of so many volumes fills her with awe. “Have you really read every one of these books?” she asks admiringly. He replies, “No, some of them are in Greek.”
They enjoy hours of taking down books to be read at their leisure. During dinner, the Beast moves from the opposite end of the long table to sit next to Belle. Then comes the day when the Beast shows Belle his precious hand mirror and tells her that it will show her what she most desires. She sees her father, and he clearly is in bad trouble with the villagers. It is the Beast himself who says that Belle must go to his aid.
There is much more to their story, including a fight between the villagers, aroused against the Beast by Gaston, and a deadly rooftop duel between the latter and the Beast that should excite those who love action films—and for musical spectacle fans, the dinner song “Be Our Guest” is a show stopper. But more important is the winning of the hearts of the two main characters. By encouraging Belle to go to the aid of her father, the Beast shows that he understands that love is not possessing, but letting the loved one go, something that the grasping Gaston can never understand. And Belle is now aware of this too. I am not sure just when she says this, but she shows that she can now look beneath surface appearances, the real beast turning out to be, not her captor, but Gaston, the lustful rabble-rouser, when she sings the song “Something There” with its words, “New and a bit alarming. Who’d have ever thought this could be? True that he’s no Prince Charming but there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.”
The music by Allen Menken and song lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice make this film soar, despite what the grouches on IMDB’s page claim (they must have ingested some bad popcorn before they wrote their condemnations). The backstory about why Maurice took baby Belle from Paris and settled in their present small village adds to the poignancy of their story. The new song “Evermore,” sung by the Beast when Belle returns to her village strikingly reveals his internal anguish. He has learned at last to love, only to have to let her go, and now he laments, “And as the long, long nights begin I’ll think of all that might have been, Waiting here for evermore.”
This is a good film for inter-generational discussion because of the lesson that both the Prince and Belle learn the hard way, a lesson that the prophet Samuel also was taught while examining the sons of Jesse in search of a king to replace King Saul. In a culture obsessed with appearances, it is important that our sons and daughters learn what is true beauty. There are those who reap huge profits from those seeking beauty (and youth), from the makers of skin creams and fragrances, designers of fashionable but expensive clothing, publishers of glossy magazines that extol the wares of the beauty industry, to plastic surgeons promising that “a new you” will become more attractive and successful. Add in the weight-loss industry and the reporters specializing in celebrity stories, “the beautiful people,” for cable and magazines, and you have a powerful force constantly trying to seduce our children to buy into the” you are not going to be successful and happy unless you are physically beautiful” value system.
The message of the apostle Paul to the Romans about resisting the world’s making us toe the line is important—I’m sure some of you have noted how often I have quoted this in my reviews. Therefore, Belle is such a great role model for our children, daughters in particular. Her father says that she is ahead of her times, and so she is when we consider the subservient role assigned women in the 18th century. But, we should point out to our children, she still is “ahead of” our time as well, a person preferring books to a hollow romantic relationship or acquiring fancy dresses, refusing to cave in to the criticisms of her neighbors. Her one blind spot, that is eventually corrected, is like that of the heroine in another film currently showing in our cinemas, Samantha in Before I Fall. Samantha and her mean girl pack constantly torment the disheveled Juliet at school and at a party, with Samantha arriving at a new perspective on the unattractive target of their bullying only late in that film. Both films testify to our ability to change for the better.
The Disney people in a way are going against their own values in that their products usually tout the virtues of youth and beauty—have any of the pack of Disney heroines ever been plain looking or ugly? But then their film is based on an almost 300-year-old French fairy tale, so they have to go along with its subversive message since this is the core of the story. Good. I can only hope that the individual artists, especially composer Allen Menken and his partners who wrote the meaningful lyrics, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, are sincere in their sentiments. Disney has been helpful in that they have set up the beautiful webpage Lyrics for Beauty & the Beast where you can both read the lyrics and listen to the songs. I especially urge you to click onto it if you discuss the film with others, whether they be children or adults. This new film might not replace the beloved animated version for you, but you definitely should be seeing and discussing it.
This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP. If you have found this or other reviews helpful, please visit the store & purchase an issue or a year’s subscription.