Two questions came to mind as I left the popcorn-strewn theater. The first is somewhat existential: what’s the point? The second is more practical: how can a “live-action” remake of a cartoon be more fake, reproduced, and counterfeit than the original animated feature?
The first question is not directed at remakes in general. There have been masterful remakes of classic movies that present a new perspective on the original: True Grit (2010), Nosferatu (1979), and others. To remake a movie is to assume that the movie needs to be remade–that there is a story untold by the original or that there is a more effective way to tell the original story. Otherwise, what’s the point? If the only reason to remake a movie is to “bring it into the 21st century,” that remake is most likely doomed to disaster. Indeed, if the driving motivation for remaking a film, not to mention a classic, well-beloved, Oscar-winning film, is either money or “wouldn’t that be cool in CG,” it stands to reason that the film most likely shouldn’t be made. Comparisons are inevitable between films, so my guiding principle is that remakes should only be made if there is a riveting new perspective with which to view the original source material.
Unfortunately, Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast is a stale, campy knock-off of the original 1991 film.
Beauty and the Beast (2017) follows the same structure as the original and a majority of the shots are identical. Part of the success of the original animated film is its tight edit. In order to fit within the typical 90 minute time frame, every second of on-screen storytelling must work. The 2017 remake makes additions, but these additions simply bloat the run time without doing much work. This problem in itself makes watching the remake seem sluggish.
It’s when we get to the particulars, however, that the remake’s flaws stand in greater relief.
Who Wrote This Thing?
Some of the original’s snappy, well-written dialogue remains in the remake, but so much of the additional dialogue is pedantic and redundant. So often, characters onscreen narrate their actions. All characters suffer from this, and most are written as if they have to remind themselves of their stage directions. For instance, it is established in the film that Belle is given a rose every year for her birthday, and Maurice promises to bring back a rose from the market. Instead of trusting the audience to remember Maurice’s promise made 20 minutes earlier, Maurice talks to himself through his action of cutting a rose: “Oh I almost forgot, I will cut a rose to bring back to Belle.” Sure enough, he cuts the rose to bring back to Belle.
Additionally, many of the original iconic and important lines of dialogue or situations are altered. The Beast no longer is given the character development of planning a gift of his library; instead, he gives the library to Belle with an apathetic shrug. Why change this moment? It serves no purpose and instead cheapens the Beast’s already quick character development.
Indeed, it is the Beast’s character which is the most disappointingly lacking. The original’s beast is dangerous, bestial, and in some scenes quite scary. His screen presence is fraught with potential danger, and his looming, permanent dehumanization makes him even more primal. When Belle enters the west wing in the 1991 original, the Beast reacts as a territorial animal, and screams “Do you realize what you could have done? Get out!” In the remake, the Beast’s lines are padded: “Do you realize what you could have done? You could have damned us all! Get out of here! GO!” This wordiness and the performance by Dan Stevens is weak compared to the original, and instead of Belle (or the audience) fearing for Belle’s life, we instead feel annoyance at the Beast’s rudeness.
Perhaps the most egregious damage to the Beast’s character comes when Belle leaves to find her father. In the original, the Beast roars in a howl of pain and loss that is haunting and unnerving. In the remake? The Beast is given a sappy singing number. The first few lines juxtapose the original well:
I was the one who had it all
I was the master of my fate
I never needed anybody in my life
I learned the truth too late
I’ll never shake away the pain
I close my eyes but she’s still there
I let her steal into my melancholy heart
It’s more than I can bear . . .
So the question is raised: who is the Beast? Is he simply an emotionally charged, spoiled Prince in a fur suit? Or is he a beast? The beast loses his danger, isolation, and dehumanized plight; instead, he is characterized by sappy, teenage angst. Gag me with an enchanted spoon.
What Could Have Been
So what could the remake have been? The seeds for an interesting and powerful remake are within the 2017 film. In contrast to the 1991 original, the transformed servants become more and more inhuman as the enchanted rose loses its petals. While it would make sense for this to be true of the Beast, we never see any indication that he loses his humanity as the petals fall.
This simple device could have transformed (no pun intended) the watery remake into a much more thrilling and gripping film.
If the Beast had suffered from the same plight as the servants, he would truly be a character struggling to fight his increasing animal instincts in an effort to remain human. In a beautiful twist on the original, the Beast’s growing love and sacrifice for Belle would have not only been a change from his previous, entitled self but also a true expression of love (self-sacrifice) in the face of impending damnation as an inhuman animal.
Belle’s character would have likewise been more developed. She would be demonstrating true love herself–showing courage in the face of real danger (the Beast would be, after all, more animal than human), showing compassion for an man who is slowly losing his humanity, and actually falling in love with the person he is striving to be, even as every circumstance is fighting against his newfound humanity.
Stripping away all the musical performances (which let’s face it, there are no songs on the 2017 remake which top the 1991 original, so why even invite such a comparison?), the film would be free from constraint and able to tell a truly new perspective on the original. Would this re-imagined film be child friendly? Most likely not: the Beast would be terrifying and the film would be much darker.
Perhaps Disney would not have made the incredible profits they did by releasing a watered down, nostalgic version of the beloved 1991 film. Perhaps Disney would not have been able to sell as much merchandise as they are currently profiting from. But Disney’s gains would have far exceeded their loss: they would have proved that they are committed to pursuing fine storytelling and film-making, hearkening back to their “golden years” of animation; they would have given legitimacy to their rather obvious cash-grab in remaking their own classics; they would have at least made an enjoyable film to watch.
Final Grade: C-