There’s been plenty of hype surrounding Disney’s live-action remake of their 1991 animated hit Beauty and the Beast. Halfway through last year, the film’s trailer broke a record after it was watched 127.6 million times within 24 hours of its release, and much of that is due to the latest incarnation of Belle, actor-turned-celebrity feminist Emma Watson. Since becoming the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and starting the HeForShe campaign, in which she invited men to participate in conversations about gender equality, debate has raged over whether her speech was a positive step for intersectional feminism or a misguided attempt to render it palatable to the mainstream. As a result, it’s hard not to watch Beauty and the Beast without considering Watson’s active integration of feminism into her personal brand.
Watson’s role in Harry Potter led many to conflate her with Hermione Granger, and Beauty and the Beast could find her becoming similarly associated with Belle. Watson specialises in playing these uptight, bookish characters, and there’s so much in common between the actress and Belle that one wonders if she shaped her personal brand specifically in preparation for the film’s release. In early 2016, Watson announced she was taking a year off acting to read about feminism, started a feminist book club called Our Shared Self and hid copies of feminist books around the London tube. It was unsurprising then that her feminist agenda was called into question after she agreed to star in Beauty and the Beast, a story about a woman imprisoned in a castle, who falls in love with her captor. Sure enough, this new Beauty and the Beast, like the animation from which it is adapted, is a charming, fun film. Its biggest asset is its musical score, which renders one unexpectedly caught up, singing along about this “tale as old as time”, a tale that is, at its heart, about a girl who develops Stockholm syndrome for a literal beast.
And yet, while Watson herself promised a feminist bent to the Disney classic1, Belle herself is not actually an inventor; her father tells her to do laundry and she ties a barrel to a cow and has it do her chores instead. Belle teaches a girl to read. Belle wears pantaloons under her dress sometimes. Other than that, Watson’s Belle is the same old Belle, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the same old Beauty and the Beast, slavishly replicated, at times even down to the mise-en-scène. It is a live-action remake that is so faithful to the original film that one cannot help but question why it exists at all. It adds so little to the original film; the teapots and candlesticks are three-dimensional instead of two. The costumes, while impressively opulent, are heavily influenced by the original film. Even the original soundtrack by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is retained, the only difference being that some new songs have been added (also written by Menken but with Tim Rice) and that the old title song, made famous by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, is now sung by Ariana Grande and John Legend.
But nostalgia is fashionable these days, and although Beauty and the Beast is far from original, it is sure to be commercially successful. Part of its success is undoubtedly due to how well received the original film was, in particular its stellar soundtrack, which carries both the original film and the remake. The other primary part we should attribute to the Watson’s celebrity and the fact that she has a bevy of fans all too happy to watch her play another wholesome character. In Beauty, though, Watson lacks a filmic presence, only able to flick between two moods: she spends half the film being quietly indignant (at Gaston) and the other half being awkwardly bemused (at the Beast). Her flirting with the Beast is cringe-worthy, but fortunately it’s only a rare occurrence. In Watson’s defence, it is probably difficult to have on-screen chemistry with a CGI character, but there is no on-screen chemistry and no character development at all.
That said, the film has its moments. The musical numbers are both engaging (“Gaston”) and whimsical, featuring some experimental Fantasia-esque sequences (“Be Our Guest” specifically). The CGI supporting characters are designed very well. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) are exquisite, and the actors manage to exude charisma using their voices alone. Also, the casting is excellent. Luke Evans is perfect as Gaston and his scenes are by far the most engrossing of the film. In fact, for me, Gaston was the film’s most likeable character, since everyone else was so boring and inhibited. Josh Gad also makes a wonderful LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick. There is also the not so subtle implication that LeFou is in love with Gaston, which fits neatly with the mood of the film, and as such avoids being merely tokenistic. At times, though, the directing is a little over-zealous. Watching Belle and the Beast dance, the camera revolves around them at a dizzying pace and in other scenes the camera skips about, zooming in so quickly so as to leave me somewhat nauseated.
In conclusion, there is nothing new about Condon’s Beauty and the Beast. Anyone who expected it to be a feminist revamp of the old classic will be disappointed. There is, in fact, nothing feminist about this film, aside from Belle’s occasional pantaloons. I imagine the only person this is problematic for is Watson herself. I would recommend this film for only two types of people: those who loved the original and are feeling nostalgic, and those who love Emma Watson.