Beauty and the Beast
“Condon’s Beauty and the Beast delivers a strong female lead, but fails to break out of its nostalgic trappings.”
Title: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Director: Bill Condon 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Original animated screenplay by Linda Woolverton 👩🏼🇺🇸 and live-action screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos 👨🏼🇬🇷🇺🇸 and Stephen Chbosky 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I was a 90’s kid. I had all the Disney VHS tapes in those padded white cases and I watched them on repeat. On any given Halloween, I was dressed up as Aladdin or Pocahontas. In other words—I’m the exact target audience for Disney’s entry into the industry-wide grab for Millennial nostalgia. So how does the live-action Beauty and the Beast stack up against our rose-tinted memories?
It’s mixed for me, as it seems to be for many other film critics who point out the film’s visual opulence but contrast it with a confused interior world. Particularly jarring were the exact rehashes of the same scenes from the animated version, complete with the same blocking and line deliveries. But it’s in these wan mimicries where Condon’s Beauty and the Beast feels its most alien.
Luckily, the writers do pen some new material and I enjoyed the exploration of Belle’s backstory—particularly, the addition of why her mother went missing. It lends the narrative a much-needed presence of another woman, even if said woman is long dead and never appears onscreen. The other new bits, while fluffy, do give the audience a reprieve from the frustrating sense that this film is just riding on the coattails of the original.
If only Condon had chosen to be bolder! A fresh stance altogether could have really invigorated this classic tale. And I don’t use “classic” lightly; Beauty and the Beast lives on in our collective imaginations for a reason. At its core, the fantasy of falling in love with someone for their personality remains unblemished. No amount of clumsy retelling can remove that inner spark. So despite its flaws, I found myself genuinely moved by Condon's Beauty and the Beast, if inconsistently so.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Looking to 90s-era Disney for feminism is usually an exercise in futility. While the animated films do have a good track record of featuring strong heroines—Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, or Pocahontas are all kick-ass in their own ways—the very nature of requiring a Disney prince for a Happily Ever After has always been a tricky takeaway.
The latest Beauty and the Beast retains this built-in issue but tries hard as hell to modernize it. Emma Watson does a great job as Belle, even as her painfully British accent had me wincing for a film so reliant on a backdrop of pastoral France. Still, Belle occupies this film in full.
The rest of the cast, however, remain primarily male. Gaston (Luke Evans) and Maurice (Kevin Kline) receive the largest roles after the titular characters, while the smattering of Beast’s transformed house staff skew male with Lumière, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts—played by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson—receiving the lion's share of dialogue.
Visible efforts are made to diversify supporting characters. But the notion of “diversity” is simplistic—literally, black and white as we see no additions of brown or Asian actors. Still, I can comfortably chalk that up to being a nod to French demography. In 2011, of the 30% of the French population that belonged to an ethnic minority, most were North African or black.
This brings us to the obvious fact that 1700s France was predominately white. Why include “identity politics” at all, some people ask? First, I have to point out that only individuals who have always been seen by society would consider the fact of having major sections of the U.S. population—women at 51%, people of color at 39%—represented in media to be a matter of “politics”.
Second, my answer for them is simple: this is a fairytale made for 2017. It should be developed for a 2017 audience, and the fact of it being an entirely magical universe should make it that much easier to explain the presence of people of color.
With that in mind, Beauty and the Beast still falls far below where they could be with ethnic inclusion. The largest roles that go to non-white actors are Madame Garderobe, played by Audra McDonald (who is black American), and Plumette, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who is mixed-race South African and English). Both characters appear as household objects for the vast majority of their dialogue, only appearing as humans in the last scenes of the film.
A third black character is Père Robert, played by Ray Fearson who is black of Caribbean descent. As a villager his role is minor, but he does bring a more tangible sense throughout the film that this is not an all-white universe.
Beauty and the Beast garners a small bump in this category for its hiring of director Bill Condon, who is openly gay. However, the film’s LGBTQ material itself is watered down to the point of negligibility.
Leading up to the film’s release, much was made of Condon’s statement that LeFou, played by Josh Gad, would receive a “nice, exclusively gay moment.” In actuality, however, the screaming subtext of Gad’s LeFou never amounts to anything concrete. Instead, LeFou exists as a stereotypical gay character—an effeminate, cisgender white male who lusts after his straight best friend.
In addition, we see a split-second scene that could also be considered LGBTQ. Jackson McHenry describe it on Vulture:
“An enchanted wardrobe attacks a trio of Gaston’s henchman, forcing them into powder, wigs, and dresses. Two are disgusted, but the third smiles—a sort of gender-bending moment.”
He goes on to describe what may be the “exclusively gay moment” Condon was referring to:
“LeFou starts off dancing with a woman, and then strikes up with the dress-loving henchman. It’s certainly a moment, because it lasts for two seconds at the most. It’s gay, in the sense that two male characters are doing something that expresses affection, though it feels so platonic they might as well be shaking hands.”
All in all, no LGBTQ characters are demeaned, but neither are they represented in any elevated way.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.67/5
Condon’s Beauty and the Beast delivers a strong female lead, but fails to break out of its nostalgic trappings. Where the original delivered a glittering, theatrical fairytale, its 2017 counterpart feels like a subdued ghost going through the motions. Luckily, it does acknowledge its modern audience by gently sprinkling in people of color and infusing Belle’s storyline with a bit more depth, but ultimately it hedges on all fronts. By playing it safe in every regard, Beauty and the Beast feels hemmed in and incomplete.