If you grew up in the '90s, like I did, it’s likely Beauty and the Beast holds a special place in your heart. For me, the love has deep roots: As a kid I was so obsessed with the movie that my fourth birthday was spent watching a play adaptation at a local theater in Baltimore; I still remember flouncing my tiny tulle skirt while singing along to "Tale as old as time..." As I got older — well into my preteen years, and now adulthood — a shared love of books and similarly peculiar personalities made Belle my favorite Disney character.
Millions of people have stories like these — reasons why just the words Beauty and the Beast can elicit a weepy kind of nostalgia. So when Disney announced they’d be creating a live action version starring Emma Watson as Belle and Downtown Abbey’s Dan Stevens as a CGI-Beast, many skeptical eyebrows were raised. We all wondered: Would it be an overly-digitized butchering of an American classic? Or a fantastical, updated reimagining of the original, primed for a new generation?
I’m delighted to tell you that it’s the latter.
The new Beauty and the Beast is, in a word, magical. It's innovative and whimsical, and also close enough to the 1991 release that fans will not be disappointed. But yes, it does take a few creative leaps from the original — most of which work.
First, allow me to give you your biggest sigh of relief: Belle’s character is, for the most part, exactly the same. She’s still sweet, and headstrong, and ahead of her time. Still "with a dreamy, far-off look/And her nose stuck in a book." But she's even more assertive this time around: Like her father, she’s now actually a tinkering inventor herself, a dreamer who gets chastised by the village people when she tries out an ingenious laundry machine involving a barrel and a donkey. (Told you: Ahead of her time!) She's also now wearing sturdy leather boots, instead of those totally impractical ballet flats she wore to do everything from horseback riding to traipsing through the castle in the animated version. But almost everything else remains the same, like her hair, that blue apron dress, and the constant book in her hand.
One of the most nervously-anticipated changes, however, was the fact that this go-round would be live action. That meant CGI for Beast and his talking furniture, a fact that many fans (myself included) worried might look weird or even creepy; after all, the original Mrs. Potts and Chip are some of the most adored and adorable animated characters in Disney history. But director Bill Condon (who also directed Dreamgirls and the final two Twilight films) and the animators handled these details with careful consideration and attention to detail. From Lumière’s expressive face to Cogsworth’s mustache-like clock hands, every detail felt ethereal yet, somehow, real.
And yes, even the Beast: Stevens' expressive blue eyes shine brilliantly through his furry exterior so convincingly, you start to get Belle’s whole falling-in-love-with-a-hairy-creature-thing, just like in the original. In fact, that connection might have felt even more convincing in this new version, so much so that the viewer can almost forget about the non-feminist imbalance of power between the two that's forever plagued this story. Belle the woman is still forced to be the submissive to this powerful Beast/prince, but their chemistry is so potent, you can almost excuse it. Almost. (By the way, you will not be disappointed by the castle's grand library or Belle's gorgeous yellow ball gown. Both are breathtaking enough to send you on a shopping spree, whether it’s for novels, canary-colored dresses, or both.)
Some of the largest departures from the original were in the writing. Book nerds, rejoice: There's some great literary banter between Belle and Beast in the library scene and after, including some cute references to Shakespeare and the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. There are also quite a few more laugh-out-loud funny jokes meant more for adult viewers than kids, particularly from Gaston’s sidekick, Le Fou (played hilariously by Josh Gad), who is so head over heels in love with Gaston (Luke Evans) that at one point during the “Gaston” song, he wraps himself in his crush’s arms — then looks up and asks “Too much?”
That leads me to perhaps the film’s most important change: The diversity. Le Fou's unabashed pursuit of Gaston makes him Disney’s first official openly gay character. His moments with Gaston are humorous but not over the top; you can’t help but notice the way he makes googly eyes at the villain, but it doesn't feel forced just for progressiveness's sake. (There’s another amazing Le Fou moment at the end that I won’t spoil for you, but it’s so satisfying, I promise you. And a big step for Disney.)
There’s also much more racial diversity in this film than the original version — or any of the animated films we typically saw in the '90s. In most of the crowd and musical scenes in the “provincial town,” there are a sprinkling of brown faces. And in addition to Belle and Beast, there are two more love stories: Lumière, played by Ewan McGregor, and Plumette, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as well as a new couple: Audra McDonald is Garderobe (who appeared briefly in the original just as "Wardrobe"), and her love Cadenza, depicted by the ever-amusing Stanley Tucci. That’s right: Both are interracial couples, a fact that isn’t revealed on screen until the end of the movie when the (Spoiler alert! Although, come on, if you’re reading this, you've most likely seen the original about a gazillion times) cursed furniture return to their human forms.
All of these touches feel subtle — noticeable, but not something Disney is trying to beat us over the head with, a method that the rest of Hollywood could learn from when it comes to casting more realistically. After all, why shouldn’t a fairy tale story in an unnamed French village include characters (and inanimate — er, animated objects) of all shades and sexualities?
It wasn't all rosy, though (rose pun intended). The changes that were successful added some brilliant layers and texture to an already almost-perfect story; the ones that didn't work felt a bit forced and, well, unnecessary. First, there are three brand new songs — one, "Days In the Sun," was cute and bubbly, but the other two — especially a melancholy solo "For Evermore" by Beast — were dragging, resulting in two of the film's few lulls.
This version also tells us exactly what happened to Belle’s mother, in a scene that felt a bit superfluous — and also, dark and heavy — for a Disney movie. In my opinion, there was always something special about the relationship Belle had with her father; I didn’t think the writers needed to mess with that. Nor did they need to show us as much of Agathe, also known as the enchantress who curses Beast at the beginning of the original. We barely saw her in that one, but she’s in the remake quite a lot, in various forms, which takes away from her mystery and…well, enchanting-ness.
Overall, though, kudos to Disney for giving us a progressive update on a standard that's adored around the world. They could have changed the ending, or filled it with overly-enhanced animation, or made it just plain cheesy, all of which would have ruined a classic. Instead, viewers will leave the theater cheering and clapping (like the early screening audience that I was a part of), feeling grateful for this update and wistful for their childhood.
I beamed at the big screen when Emma Watson-as-Belle skipped through her town as her neighbors cried out “Bonjour!”, danced in my seat at the joyously colorful recreation of "Be Our Guest," and teared up at Audra McDonald’s soaring take on the “Beauty and The Beast" theme song, just like I did (many a time) as a little girl. Ok, okay, and also as an adult who likes to re-watch it every now and again when she needs a mood boost. I’m just happy that now when I want to take that sunny walk down a French provincial memory lane, I’ll be able to choose from two versions of my most beloved fairy tale.
Beauty and the Beast opens March 17.