For a minute, Beauty and the Beast had me. At the start of Bill Condon’s live-action update of the 1991 Disney classic, the titular Beast is still a human prince (played by Dan Stevens), and he’s getting glammed up for a party in his castle. It’s ultimately the same beginning as last time: We’re here to see the prince get cursed to beastdom by an old woman who, scorned by the prince’s lack of hospitality, reveals herself to be a marvelous enchantress. Don’t judge people by their appearance, is the basic lesson — so it’s a little funny that the movie starts off with shots of the prince’s big wig and eye glitter, and that from there, we get treated to singing by a primped, pompous Audra McDonald and funky dancing in period costume. When the prince turns the old woman away, it’s with a stylish flick of his wrist.
It’s aristocratic punk — drag, even. And in the context of a Disney movie, it has potential to make things a little more interesting. It feels inspired by the blueprint of the original, but not beholden to it. Then again, that’s how the scene tricked me. No one expects Disney’s live-action remakes of its classic animated properties, of which there will be several, to reinvent the wheel. But they’re undeniably a chance to reimagine familiar Disney stories slightly, if only by embracing the fantastical creative leaps that made us fall in love with the stories to begin with. Beauty and the Beast is, after all, a movie in which a bookish farm girl named Belle falls in love with a man-beast, who is also her captor, and whose castle happens also to be full of enchanted housewares. It’s wild stuff. It ought to feel like it.
Yes, then, to the glam rock prince. But a soft no to the rest of the movie, which offers few other refreshing takes on the original material, preferring instead to add dramatic depth where the story never needed any. Mind you, much is the same. The Beast is still a Rich Bitch, Gaston is still an egomaniac, and the ostensibly gay Le Fou — who may as well have been gay in the first place; otherwise, what’s his purpose? — is still an idiot, per his name. This is a movie whose secondary objective is to update Disney’s 20th-century optics for the 21st century, with more people of color (in supporting, and often nonspeaking, roles) and enough of an assertive attitude from Belle that some will be moved to argue that the movie is “quietly feminist.” But its primary purpose is to get asses in seats — especially those of the nostalgic parents dragging their kids to movies on weekends, but also everyone else of a certain age who saw the movie as children.
The thing is, everyone old enough to remember the 1991 movie’s release is an adult now. Is that why the movie feels so normie and adult? Surely no child cares whether Belle’s mother died of the plague, or whether the prince’s dad was mean to him — but adults who need their drama well rounded, for their characters to have “arcs,” certainly do. The more of this kind of material the movie adds, the less whimsical and magical it gets, and the harder it becomes to see the point of calling this a fantasy.
That said, the movie does improve on the character of Belle, who gets punished early in the movie for teaching another girl how to read. Played somewhat stiffly by Emma Watson, this is a Belle who bravely steps forward to see the Beast for the first time, in the fullness of the light, rather than passively waits for him to reveal himself, as occurs in the first movie. This is also a Belle who threatens to run away and really means it. Belle’s father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), calls her a modern woman, and the small village they’re from is more openly antagonistic to that idea than before. “Oh, Belle,” asks Gaston. “Do you know what happens to spinsters in this village when their fathers die?” Later, he outright calls a woman from the village a “hag.”
You get the distinct sense the people who made this movie anticipated releasing it during a new Clinton era — that the barbs thrown at women are meant to resonate with that in mind. Its nominally progressive improvements on the original feel like supplements to a different national text than the one we’re living. Poor planning, but I’m sympathetic to that, and to the movie itself, which isn’t bad, merely a little boring for kowtowing to what adult nostalgics want. In fact, that’s what’s useful about it. If what Disney thinks we want are boring movies, and we keep proving them right, what does that say about us?