Of Function and Feeling: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Sometimes it’s hard to pin down what makes a movie good; most times, we’re simply running off of feeling. Yet, our brains have been so honed by a century of cinematic history and the modern obsession with all things visual that intuition tends to be accurate. We can feel the problems or strengths of a movie, even if we can’t name them. And so, when looking at movies and talking about movies, it’s really about getting to the root of how they worked or didn’t work—subjectively of course, because whoever tries to apply a formula to celluloid doesn’t get the point of moviemaking. This is why I love talking about movies with everyone, because I can only ever see them from my viewpoint. The conversation offers a chance to figure out just what touched other people and what experiences or emotions were tapped into.

So, in essence, conversing about movies is an exercise in understanding another person’s movie-going experience. And writing about movies is an exercise in exploring my own movie-going experience, beyond the final verdict: it’s a lot like life in that way, but I digress. With Beauty and the Beast (2017), I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and talking with my friends and family about the movie because so many people were moved or touched by it, and I kind of left the theater feeling so meh.

Before diving into it, I’m going to probably qualify myself by mentioning that I truly believe the people working on these movies, from top to bottom, strongly believe in the vision they hope to get across; or at least, they want to have an engaging, timeless final product. But, I can also confidently say that I believe in these moviemakers while also believing Disney’s live-action remakes are being built from an inherently problematic place.

This Beauty and the Beast (2017) tells the timeless story (again) of a young woman who dreams of more of her provincial town and the Beast who falls in love with her. It’s a fairy tale particularly bound to it’s antiquated message; namely, one of Stockholm syndrome. Yet the movie does make well-meaning and, in some cases, successful attempts to craft a progressive vision. In this update, Belle is an engineer who is mocked and ostracized for being able to and wanting to read; that is, for being a woman with ambition. Her father Maurice is a music box maker and her mother is passed, but not forgotten—a welcome change to the “missing mother” problems of many Disney films. Changes of this nature, beyond Belle’s profession and her mother’s story, are added throughout the update. The Enchantress plays a larger role, Lefou has a legitimate character arc, the Beast’s parents are explained in detail, and the curse has spread a general amnesia to the town—perhaps the cleverest addition to the story, as well as one that proves to be emotionally satisfying by movie’s end.

It is in the details and changes that the live-action version excels and falters. Many of them are precise in their attempt to update the story for the modern eye. But, just as wonderful and functional as some additions are—Belle’s engineering career, the inclusion of Belle’s mother’s backstory, even Lefou’s “exclusively gay moment”—other additions come without the same precise execution. The Enchantress is given a larger role in the story as a hermit woman Agatha, whose only reason for inclusion I think is because someone had to untie Maurice in one scene. Beyond that, her arc seems one of wasted time: I don’t even remember her and Belle ever interacting. Was she meant to point out what Belle’s life could become? Was she meant to demonstrate how terrible Gaston is? The former is painfully tone-deaf, and the latter is just overkill. In another superfluous scene, the Beast gives Belle a book that can take her anywhere. She chooses Paris and returns to her childhood home, where she learns that her mother had the plague, so Maurice and Belle had to leave her behind. It is not that we didn’t need Belle’s backstory, but more that it comes at a weird time, especially since Belle’s arc was never one predicated on this reveal. I suppose one could argue that this information was meant to be the Beast’s gift to Belle, an important step towards them falling in love. Yet it’s unnecessary in the larger scheme of the gifts he does give her, especially the one of her release later in the movie. Arguably, the reveal would have been more emotionally powerful coming from Maurice, who although contrasts from the townsfolk in his pride and encouragement of Belle’s ambition, still believes in paternalistically protecting her by withholding this information.

Creative details and changes like these bloat the whole thing or slow it down to a two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The length is especially acute since this story isn’t just predictable to many, but intimately known. There never seemed to be a reason for many of the story changes or additions beyond “we have to make it different.” Why was the Enchantress made a character now? Why was the traveling book included? Why the amnesia subplot? Why is Lefou “gay”? Why the inclusion of the Beast’s parents? Why the return to the stealing of the rose of the original fairy tale? Why this change, why that one … I know I could go on and on, and I would really, but it’s more of an attempt to figure out the deeper meaning behind these decisions and, unfortunately, coming up short for the movie as a whole.

Similarly, an excess of story is my primary problem with another Bill Condon movie musical, Dreamgirls, which is an amazing movie: do not misquote me. With Dreamgirls, there is a fear of editing. It is exceptionally acted, brilliantly shot, and ultimately, emotionally affecting and satisfying, but it also has at least two songs and scenes that could be cut away. Condon seems to be an amazing musical director, but gets a little lost when it comes to the movie musical. Movie musicals, especially modern ones, live and die on economy. It’s not that long movie musicals are necessarily bad, it’s more that movie musicals with filler songs or scenes without urgency to the story are going to be more acutely disrupting on the big screen than they would in a live show: the functional economy of the movie musical compensates for the lack of theater’s visceral connection.

This isn’t to imply that every little detail of the story should be plain as day and immediately able to be understood from a critical eye, connected to the larger story of the movie. Nor do I think that, unequivocally, filler songs are irredeemable. If I did, Mamma Mia wouldn’t be one of my favorite movie musicals; yet, Mamma Mia compensated by leaning into the fun of the whole thing, creating a function out of the otherwise unnecessary songs. The filmmakers wanted to have fun with the audience and delivered via these scenes and numbers.

With Beauty and the Beast (2017), there is rarely any sort of intent or function when it comes to certain changes or even to whole scenes, and so, the movie seems without momentum, without essence. The filmmakers didn’t really seem to know just what the audience was there for nor what they wanted to give the audience.

This conversation of functional storytelling, of being precise in meaning, especially when considering Beauty and the Beast (2017), is all held up in comparison to the original animated classic. In the nature of full disclosure, I love Beauty and the Beast (1992). It’s easily not just one of the greatest animated movies, but also one of the greatest movies ever made—I mean, it was the first animated movie nominated for Best Picture, so I feel like history’s on my side at the moment. And although admittedly, Disney owes so much to Jean Cocteau and Rene Clement when it comes to both versions, Beauty and the Beast (1992) typically dominates the conversation. It holds up just so damn well. I literally wept the last time I saw it—a week or two before the live-action’s release. It’s filled with subtle little moments and details that tie the whole movie together perfectly. Whereas the live-action movie blasted the transformation scene with roses and a light show, the animated version paints the Beast’s cape as a rose petal, gently laying him down. His savior then, the vessel to his salvation, is likened to the rose’s delicate softness. This is a parallel not just to Belle’s womanhood, but also his own inner softness and emotion; namely, his feelings of love. One is a display of superficial motifs, the other a culmination of thematic goals.

Superficiality is found all over the live-action remakes and it contributes to a larger state of meaningless for these movies. Consider Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: it’s literally a CGI blast of superficiality and stunt casting. The live-action movies are essentially empty without the source material from the animated one. Which is to say, these live-action movies prove to be so financially successful precisely because they’re exploiting the intrinsic power of the originals, working to recapture their essence without understanding how much function informs essence—how much style, plot, and technique contribute to meaning. It’s why so many of the Disney animated versions become definitive for these fairy tales that have been told for centuries.

I’m not arguing that Beauty and the Beast (2017) wasn’t good because it wasn’t “original”. In some scenes, there was true vision and execution. The town’s amnesia from the curse explained a lot of the townsfolk’s general myopia, while also explaining how a whole town could forget they live under royal rule. Beyond its practical application, it also said something larger about how easy selfishness and indifference can poison a community—whether it is the Prince’s curse or Gaston’s toxic masculinity. Likewise, Lefou’s updated arc was touching, because it felt as though there was thought behind the decision to connect the character to the more textual statements on masculinity, love, and redemption: there was a coherent attempt to say something larger about the character and his ties to the story’s themes. These changes worked because they were full of intent and meaning. But, for the most part, other changes felt thoughtless, intent-less, and ultimately, meaningless.

Beauty and the Beast (2017) is a sort of perfect example of how important it is to let function guide decisions, which I don’t think is an argument against creativity. Its more an argument of making things work, which means sometimes editing out the things that don’t or creatively problem solving until they do. If an Agatha/Enchantress character feels necessary, be coherent in your attempt to include her. If having a magical world-traveling book is important to the story, then utilize it for more than simple exposition—especially since, now that I think about it, that book could have solved a lot of problems in the finale of this movie. These decisions extend deeper than even simple plot and character choices. Everything about these movies, from cinematography to casting, comes across as more intently based on how the whole thing should look as opposed to how it should feel.

Maybe I’m being needlessly nitpicky (which I’ve been accused of before), but I also know that movies are best when they are experiential and memorable. Beautiful scenes and well-loved actors can certainly help make a movie, but there’s no guarantee superficial choices will create an experience, tell a story, or even inspire feeling.

And, when it comes to movies, we tend to focus more on feeling.

  • Does a movie count as passing the Bechdel test even if some of it’s female characters are CGI furniture?
  • That library scene was such a disappointment and kind of kickstarted this whole piece. Like, where’s the wonder?
  • Movie musicals really need to start getting people with stronger voices. Emma Watson is fine, but there’s a large amount of depth of character that comes from the voice in a musical. Watson simply can’t cut it, the hillside scene had me going “oh, honey.” Especially when compared to actresses and singers like Audra Mcdonald, who IS a national treasure.
  • It’s a shame that the set design and clothes are so damn spectacular but nothing in the movie lives quite up to it.
  • This is armchair speculation, so take it with all the grains of salt, but it would’ve perhaps been cool to change the storyline so they don’t know what will lift the curse. It makes the curse more oblique, as well as makes him loving her not seen as because of the curse, but coming from within.
  • At the end of the day, the PR around this exclusively gay moment was a mistake and a disaster. To counterbalance it, they should have publicized how Howard Ashman, a gay man, wrote the songs while contending with AIDs and the AIDs crisis, almost certainly inserting that subtext into the lyrics. Or mentioning that the director and two of the leads in this movie are openly gay.
  • Every time the “missing mother” problem comes up, I am reminded of Brave. It’s such a good movie with an interesting exploration of the good mother/wicked mother dichotomy of fairy tales.
  • For some reason, hyper-realistic CGI characters are counterintuitively less real than their animated counterparts, and this definitely doesn’t help these movie’s problems. Fingers crossed for The Lion King though, amirite??

Beauty and the Beast (2017) is playing in theaters now.

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