Posted on Monday, March 20th, 2017 by Josh Spiegel
(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast.)
Once Walt Disney Pictures began adapting its animated classics for live-action, starting with Tim Burton’s 2010 take on Alice in Wonderland and moving into villain-centered fairy tales like Maleficent, it was a safe bet that a new version of Beauty and the Beast wouldn’t be too far behind. The 1991 film is beloved the world over and was a central part of pop culture for countless Millennials growing up. Plus, it garnered heaps of critical praise and a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, the first for an animated film. So it’s no surprise that Disney has gone all-in with its live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast: it boasts an all-star cast including Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, and more; its director, Bill Condon, has directed everything from entries in the Twilight Saga to the Dreamgirls musical adaptation; and its reported $160 million budget is evident in the sets, costumes, and extensive CGI.
But can the new Beauty and the Beast compare to the 1991 classic? Does this remake feel as timeless as the film that inspired its existence? Or do its changes — and there are quite a few — feel dull and lifeless? Let’s dive in and compare the original and its remake to find out.
Change That Doesn’t Work: The Mystery of The Missing Mother
The new Beauty and the Beast answers a number of questions that the 1991 film either raises without answering or simply ignores. If the young Prince and his servants were cursed by an enchantress, whatever happened to the parents of this spoiled child? How exactly does the timeline work if a human was turned into a monstrous beast roughly 10 years before his 21st birthday? Wouldn’t the people of the small village where Belle and Maurice live remember a period when there was a castle and royalty nearby? All of these questions, and more, are answered in the live-action film; at times, it seems more like a direct response to one of those Everything That’s Wrong With Movie X viral videos than an actual romance.
Answering these questions is an obvious change, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s an improvement. The animated classic has stood the test of time in part because not providing the answers to those questions allows for some mystery. We don’t need to know, for example, that the villagers don’t remember the castle or its denizens because the same enchantress who cursed the Prince to be a Beast also had the power to make them forget that Prince or his castle ever existed.
But of all the not-necessary-to-solve mysteries that get clarified in the live-action film, the most baffling and useless is that of Belle’s mother. In the animated film, Belle’s mother isn’t mentioned; there’s the inventor Maurice, his bookish daughter Belle, and that’s it. In this movie, from the beginning, it’s evident that we will learn the truth behind a Very Important Backstory: what happened to Belle’s mother. Maurice, it turns out, has never revealed to Belle what happened to her mom, and is fearful of ever revealing the truth lest she try to…run away, perhaps. Or maybe just get really, really mad. Lucky for Maurice, he doesn’t even have to worry about telling her the real story behind her mother’s death.
During her initial time in the Beast’s castle, Belle is introduced to what might as well be called a bonus spell that the enchantress left behind to taunt the victim of her curse: a magical book that allows its reader to transport himself or herself to any place (and at any period of time) in the world. Belle sends herself, and the Beast, to Paris. Specifically, she sends herself to the small flat where she lived as a baby with Maurice and her very sick mother. Yes, you see, in this version of Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s mother died of the plague, which is why Maurice took her away into the countryside. (We know it’s the plague because the Beast says it dryly after inspecting a doctor’s mask that also looks like a prop from the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.)
Leave aside, for an instant, the question of how, or why, it is that the enchantress put a spell on a magic book to allow its user to travel in space and time. Leave aside, for an instant, the fact that this magic book is not mentioned at any other point in the film, nor is it referenced elsewhere, making its existence necessary solely for this revelation and sequence. Focus only on the revelation: Belle’s mother died when her child was barely out of the womb, and her father left the woman to die so their child could survive. It is indeed a noble sacrifice, and one that Belle appreciates instantly.
But it doesn’t serve much of a purpose within the story. All it does is allow the Beast to realize that when he called Maurice a thief for taking a rose from his garden (by request of Belle), he might have been, oh, a little bit harsh. Belle does not change because of this new information; instead, it raises the obvious question of why Maurice refused to tell her this before. The idea that Belle’s mother dying of the plague was some unspeakable secret is baffling especially because Belle is such a strong character, clearly able to handle even a devastating bit of news like this. Emma Watson—who acquits herself nicely as long as she’s not singing here—plays Belle as even more forthright and strident than the character is in the animated film, not as a wilting flower. Thus, in a movie that ends up nearly 130 minutes long, a scene where Belle discovers the not-at-all-shocking truth of her mother’s death feels like a waste of time.