Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” has long been my favorite animated film. I suspect this is also true for many of my peers. Even if it wasn’t someone’s favorite film, I highly suspect that it is undoubtedly extremely well regarded. Beauty and the Beast’s reputation stems from more than just childhood nostalgia, too. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, and the only one to do so until 2009’s Up. In 2002, the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, which means the institution found it worthy of preservation for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
So, how did the 2017 live action adaptation live up to this childhood icon and masterpiece of animation? Quite well, I would say.
To be sure, the 2017 adaptation follows the 1991 version extremely closely. Many parts of the songs and much of the dialogue are identical. It received some criticism for this. However, I don’t see a problem with it. When adapting a film that is so beloved, there is no reason to make changes just for the sake of being different. Also, it would definitely be a mistake to say that this film is identical to its predecessor (not counting the obvious difference of being live action).
The 2017 film is 45 minutes longer, and it expands upon many aspects that were lacking in the original. The most superficial of these are the questions that have bothered fans for a quarter century. For instance, how does no one realize that there is a castle a short journey from town? Was Beast cursed as a ten or eleven year old? (For those who don’t know, the prologue and the lyrics of “Be Our Guest” seem to imply so in the original). What’s the deal with Mrs. Potts? She appears to be a little old to have several young children. Is every object in the castle alive? The new version either answers or at least pokes fun at all of these.
Answering a few fan theories would not be enough to make a good movie, though, so it’s good that the movie also expands on a few characters. The beast/prince and Maurice in particular are given better characterization. In the original, Beast was primarily characterized by his significant anger issues, at least until he became more “dear” and “so unsure” as Belle might say. In this version, he is still a jerk, but less obviously in need of significant counseling.
He is also given more emotional depth. He is given a backstory which helps to explain his personality. His imprisonment of Maurice, while still unjustified, is less wantonly cruel (and closer to the original book). While 1991’s beast was illiterate according to a deleted scene and to my knowledge is never shown reading, 2017’s beast can recite Shakespeare from memory and is shown to enjoy literature. Beast is even given a song in which he beautifully expresses his sorrow at Belle’s departure.
Finally, Beast’s wooing of Belle is less forced. I always found it off-putting how Beast gives Belle a room in the original simply because she could potentially break the spell. In the new version, it’s the servants who do that sort of plotting. Beast even tells his servants that a woman who has just been imprisoned probably does not want to have dinner with him or try for a romantic relationship. Things like this make the unfolding relationship between Beast and Belle seem more real in the 2017 version.
I also appreciated the changes made to Maurice. In the 1991 version he was certainly loving towards Belle, but he also often seemed foolish. He was shown to be seen as the town loon even before he started talking about a beast living in a nearby castle. He never seemed aware of how crazy he sounded after he did start talking about the beast. While it was certainly brave of him to try to rescue Belle by himself, his near death in the snow shows a much more limited competency without someone helping him.
In the 2017 version, Kevin Kline’s portrays a much stronger Maurice. He seems much more self-aware, but still mildly eccentric. His limitations against Beast and Gaston seem much more of him just being less physically strong than they are, rather than as him lacking a certain competence.
The 2017 version also offers a few other nice additions. Lumiere’s design as a more anthropomorphized candelabra enabled his character to move in ways his 1991 version could not. Plumette, who goes unnamed in the 1991 version, is designed as a bird. I thought I would make Lumiere’s flirtations with her creepier, but it actually had the reverse effect. Her looking less human made their romance more tragic and simultaneously endearing. Her ability to fly added a level of grace.
The 2017 version also treated the songs more realistically. The colors in the “Be Our Guest” sequence were justified as an effect orchestrated by Plumette. People joined in on the “Gaston” song in part because LeFou paid them. The musical background in “Beauty and the Beast” was justified because musical instruments were in the wall. There was nothing wrong with not having these features in the 1991 version, but seeing them added to the novelty of the 2017 version.
So, do all of these things make the 2017 adaptation a better film? No. Part of the problem is that it borrows so heavily from the 1991 version that it can’t really get credit for the creative features of that film. Also, some of the changes either don’t make much sense or are distracting.
The most hyped change was making LeFou gay. Disney bragged about having its first “exclusively gay moment.” That moment probably lasts less than two seconds. There are other parts that imply LeFou to be gay, but I generally found them to be somewhat off-putting, sometimes because I thought his infatuation with his friend was somewhat creepy, and sometimes because I thought the film relied too heavily on the stereotype of homosexual effiminacy. But in any case, for all the hype from Disney and backlash from Russia, Malaysia, and Alabama, LeFou’s sexuality is not a major part of the film, and I just thought it was unnecessary.
The film also added in a new magical object, and I still cannot figure out why. The enchantress gave Beast a book that, I kid you not, is a teleportation device. It doesn’t just let one figuratively travel anywhere in the world. It actually transports him and Belle somewhere and back to the castle. They use this device once. To learn backstory. Backstory that could have been explained without teleportation. For what could be such a powerful device, it is ultimately rather inconsequential.
This next point is a bit of a spoiler, but the enchantress is given an expanded role. Again, I don’t know why. Her motivations aren’t actually explained any better. In the end, she serves as a completely needless deus ex machina. The 1991 version did not need her to come back and fix things. I see no reason why this version did either. The curse already had a way to be lifted.
The 2017 version also made a point of Beast saying “I am not a beast” after Gaston called him such. This could have been a much more powerful moment, especially since this film expanded on his less beastly side. However, the conflict between beastliness and humanity was never really shown before. Most importantly, we never learn his name. In a video game he was named Prince Adam, but in this film the audience (and presumably Belle) still have to call him Beast, even as he declares that he is not one.
Finally, I was underwhelmed with some of the visuals in the 2017 adaptation, particularly in regard to the transformation. Everything had been leading up to that moment, but it was less visually stunning than the animated version. The servants’ transformations did not even happen on screen. I suspect because showing the transformations would be too cartoony, but it still seemed lacking to me.
Overall, though, the 2017 adaptation is thoroughly enjoyable. I have seen it twice and actually enjoyed it more the second time. While some of the additions don’t work in my opinion, they generally do add to more depth to the animated version’s story. Anyone who loves the 1991 movie half as much as I do should see this adaptation of a tale as old as time.