Beauty and the Beast (129 minutes) is based on my favorite animated Disney film. When I was younger, I watched the original once a month or so, and revisiting the story now was like slipping on a pair of comfy pajamas. I didn’t really need to watch it. I anticipated every line. When the live-action version diverted from the cartoon, I literally twitched. I like Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, but the eight years between the two actors seemed like a much bigger difference than it really is because she was Hermione in Harry Potter and he was Cousin Matthew in Downton Abby.
Belle (Watson) is stuck in a village full of illiterate hicks. Her father (Kevin Kline) is emotionally absent and her suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) is verbally abusive. When her father is waylaid in his travels, she rushes to his rescue (not for the first time, I expect), in a classic parentified child move. She finds him in the enchanted castle of the Beast, who is, like, the fourth verbally and/or emotionally abusive man she has come across within a 30-minute time span. He imprisons her, yells at her and gives her lots of gifts to make up for his cruel treatment. Turns out she’s cool with that because she dresses up and goes dancing with him. Her father gets in trouble yet again, and the Beast sends her back so she can rescue him. For some reason, he thinks she might come back. For some reason, she does. Then her kidnapper kills her creepy stalker, and magic makes everything all better.
I might be skimming over some of the finer details. Admittedly, there are two ways to look at this, and I am familiar with them both. On the one hand, it is an enjoyable family film, leaning on nostalgia and likable (and, more importantly, bankable) leads to tell a sweet and simple love story. On the other hand, it’s not a very healthy love story to tell. The Beast is an abusive kidnapper and, however much Watson tries to sell her Belle as empowered, there is nothing here to empower her with. What message does it send to girls? Love angry, violent, men and they will shower you with gifts? Men are selfish and can do whatever they want, and girls just have to sing pretty songs and deal with it? Girls need to take care of everyone except themselves? Everyone should go watch Legion because Dan Stevens is so awesome? OK that last one is actually a very positive message. Legion is 50 shades of fabulous.
But I digress. Probably because everyone on Earth knows the story and the Disney cartoon version of the story, and not much has changed. There are a couple of new (and … terrible. Just … terrible) songs. There is a little extra magic, and the transformation of the castle folk into knick-knacks is given a bit more context. It is a huge issue with the original version that the witch chose to punish the castle servants when their only real sin was working for a selfish narcissist. Here, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) explains that the servants were complicit in the bad behavior of the prince, and thus shared his fate. Also, in this version, when the witch cast her spell, she also made everybody forget that the prince, castle and servants ever existed, which means approximately half the village lost family they no longer remember ever having. Ends and means aside, that witch is kind of a bad person.
Overall, I enjoyed it. The Disney machine made enough money that they will no doubt speed into production several more animated properties. I can’t say I’m looking forward to The Lion King, but my kids will probably love it.
Now playing at Patriot 14 + IMAX.