I wanted to come up with a clever title for this post, like “A Tale as Old as Time and as Fresh as 2017,” but that’s actually pretty cheesy, and since I’m surely the millionth blogger to enter this discussion over the past few days, there’s no point in trying to be original.
Well, I really enjoyed Beauty and the Beast. For me, it struck exactly the right balance between appealing to the nostalgia of people who were seven-year-old vicarious princesses when the original animated Disney movie was released (e.g., me) and providing the psychological depth and historical detail that has come be expected of fairy tale adaptations in recent years. I want to focus on the latter and tell you about an innovation that I appreciated in each of the two categories that I just mentioned.
- Psychological depth: In the animated film, Belle and the Beast–and even Gaston–were already surprisingly fleshed-out characters, but many of the minor characters were pretty flat (and I’m not talking about the 2D animation). One of those characters who gets some new depth in the new adaptation is Maurice, Belle’s father. The animated Maurice was exceedingly absent-minded and a rather clueless father, leading us to wonder where Belle got her good sense from. (I also always wondered why he was half Belle’s height and perfectly spherical.) When Gaston had him thrown into the asylum wagon, I felt bad for Maurice, but I kind of saw Gaston’s point. In the live-action film, Maurice (played by Kevin Kline) is still a bit of a dreamer–perhaps even more so, since he’s now portrayed as an artist rather than an inventor (in a neat twist, Belle is the inventor!)–but his speech and mannerisms are abundantly rational, which underscores the cruelty of Gaston’s and the townspeople’s insistence that he is crazy. Maurice gets added depth from the film’s revelations about Belle’s mother, who (this is not a spoiler; you find out very early in the movie) died of the plague in Paris when Belle was a baby. I like how many of the recent Disney movies are either showing two-parent families or at least making it clear that it takes two people to make a baby. (At the end of this one, we discover that there’s a Mr. Potts!)
- Historical detail: The fact that Maurice and Belle came from Paris is also significant because it explains why Belle is even literate, let alone the insatiable reader that we love her for being. The first few scenes of the new film subtly but clearly demonstrate the low priority that has been placed on reading and writing, especially for girls, throughout much of history and even in many places today. (I have a feeling that Emma Watson, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights, including the right to education, may have had some influence on this aspect of the movie.) Notice, especially, the tiny collection of books Belle has to choose from in her town in this version. Instead of the good-sized bookshop of the animated film, here we see a single shelf of volumes that appear to be owned by a clergyman, probably the only other educated person in town besides Belle and Maurice. The literacy theme comes back in the Beast’s castle, when we learn that not only does the Beast have a really nice library (cue all the Hermione references you can think of) but that he also has apparently read most of the books in it. I think this is the moment when Belle starts falling in love with the Beast–when she realizes they’re intellectual equals.
I don’t think I’ve quite done justice to the film yet, so I’ll probably return to this topic next week. Meaenwhile, go see it, and let me know what you think!