Try to watch Disney’s new live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” with a completely clear and open mind. I dare you.
To begin with, it’s based on an animated film that’s still near and dear to our hearts. The fact that it came out before today’s kids were even born (thanks for the reminder of my age, Disney!) makes no difference: The generations ahead of them loved it, and made sure that younger generations saw it and loved it too. A new film that has to deal with the legacy of such a beloved older film is facing a daunting challenge.
Then there were the expectations, hopes, and fears of various segments of society. When director Bill Condon said in an interview that LeFou, the villain’s sidekick, would have a “gay moment,” he tossed a lit match into an already explosive atmosphere. A nation that had been fighting over the definition of marriage and who should use what bathroom started fighting over LGBT characters in children’s movies. That wasn’t the only gender- or sex-related controversy, either; when lead actress Emma Watson talked about reinterpreting the character of Belle for 21st-century viewers, some observers complained about “bumper sticker feminism and ‘girl power.’“
And then the movie actually came out, and the reactions all over social media — ranging from distaste to euphoria — were so emphatic, so insistent, that by the time I settled into my seat at the movie theater, it was all I could do to shove all the hubbub out of my head and simply watch the movie as a movie. I could feel the weight of all those expectations about what I should think and feel about every moment of it.
It’s strangely appropriate, then, that the film itself deals with expectations — good ones and bad ones, those that hold us back and those that lift us up. Each of the titular characters has felt the pressure of different kinds of expectations and responded differently.
The prince-turned-Beast — as we see in a new and highly stylized opening sequence, in which everyone is tricked out in the height of 18th-century French fashion — fails to live up to the most basic standards of decency and kindness, bringing his punishment upon himself. Belle, by contrast, faces the suffocating weight of unfair expectations in her small village — and this film does an even better job than the original of creating a truly claustrophobic environment there — but manages to transcend them through the power of an intelligent mind and a caring heart. There’s nothing offensively radical about the work she does with her father, or on her own, or about her desire to teach little girls to read — only a generosity and strength of spirit that would look good on any woman, in any age.
Where the new film is weakest is when it tries too hard to emulate the old film, such as in the big ensemble numbers like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest.” While the original versions felt fresh, even spontaneous, the new ones generally felt simply like the rehashes they were. And while the CGI in the new film was about as well done as CGI can be, in many ways I preferred the animation of the old film. Still, strong performances by Emma Watson, Dan Stevens as the Beast, and a gifted supporting cast, against some breathtaking indoor and outdoor backdrops, make up for a lot.
Additionally, this telling of the story makes a strong case for the need for a good father. Both lead characters lost their mothers in childhood, but while Belle’s father protected and nurtured her, the prince’s cruel and selfish father turned his young son into a carbon copy of himself. This kind of fleshing out of characters, motives, and relationships is what the new “Beauty and the Beast” does best. For a film weighed down by expectations, there are unexpectedly thoughtful and nuanced moments and ideas throughout.
For instance, the formerly illiterate Beast is now well-educated and well-read, but — even in a film with lots of points to make about the importance of education and reading –this wasn’t enough to save him from becoming a bad person. Only learning to love someone else and put her first can change him. And then there was the shop of the bookseller, one of the few kind people in Belle’s town — with a giant crucifix on the wall.*
Suffice it to say, one sometimes got the feeling that there were deeper forces at work here than many had expected. Though in a story about grace, forgiveness, and transformed hearts, perhaps that’s what we should have expected.
But what about that moment that many Christians were concerned about? Well, it’s just that — a moment. Two moments, to be precise. Before that, everything that LeFou (Josh Gad) says to and about Gaston (Luke Evans) is so ambiguous that it could be interpreted as coming from a place of friendship. Not a healthy friendship, to be sure, but then it never was that, even in the original. And Gaston’s villainy this time is ramped up to the point where even LeFou becomes disgusted.
In the final sequences of the film, we see one man who looks happy to end up dressed in women’s clothes after a fight with a wardrobe, and we see LeFou look happy to end up (very briefly) dancing with a man during an extended dance sequence. From what the director told us about his intentions, it’s clear what this means, but kids’ interpretations and responses will probably depend on what they’ve already been taught. The moments pass so quickly that many kids may not catch on at all. (Some of my colleagues have identified other moments that they see as suggestive; I respect their judgment, but I can only tell you what I saw and the way I think that kids might see it.)
Of course it’s crucial that Christians advocate for our beliefs about God’s design for sexuality, and guide and protect our children. And of course we’re called upon to evaluate the worldviews, healthy and otherwise, of the culture around us. But at some level, a movie is just a movie, and deserves to be taken on its own merits, not buried under the weight of too many aesthetic and cultural expectations. And when viewed in that light, “Beauty and the Beast,” despite some flaws, has much to offer. Perhaps it’s a sign of common grace that even an entertainment industry dominated by some damaging worldviews can still give us glimpses of true beauty.
*Update: The person from whom Belle borrowed books was actually a priest. I didn’t catch this at the time because of the way he was dressed, but one of our commenters pointed it out to me, and Disney Wiki confirms it.
Image copyright Walt Disney Pictures.