'Beauty and the Beast' – a revamped tale

By Dr Lorna-Piatti Farnell
27 Nov, 2017

Corset removals, profession switches, contentious casting choices, and controversial portrayals of gay characters. It looks like people are pretty horrified by the new version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast already, and for all the wrong reasons, it would seem. And yet, there is no doubt that the film is finding financial success. The numbers from the international box office already label it as one of the most profitable Disney films of all time, an impressive feat for a film that is based on what was then a low-budget animation. Whenever a classic film is remade, opinions are known to abound. Feelings of cultural attachment often kick in, and prospective audiences are not known to remain quiet whenever one of their favourite films is given the remake treatment. Responses tend to generally be unfairly negative – enter the recent remake of Ghostbusters (2016) – and long before anyone has even had the chance to see the remake itself. One will find that nostalgia has a part to play in shaping our opinions on remaking classic films.

A cartoony fairy tale scenario in the moonlight

But let’s not digress…back to Disney. In an age when the film industry has given us a prolific stream of remakes, sequels, prequels, and other fantastical off-shoots, it has not been surprising to see Disney Studios jumping on the re-telling bandwagon. Having made their name producing now unarguably iconic animated features, Disney have recently grown their own brand of re-make (with their own distinct filmic flavour) by resurrecting what in the past had been, for other studios and even for Disney, an only moderately successful breed of film narrative: the ‘animated to live-action’ remake, also now known simply as the ‘live-action remake’ (trust Disney to want to appropriate something so forcefully and successfully, that the mere mention of it warrants no further explanation). Recent years have seen Disney producing a stream of live-action remakes, from lucrative examples such as The Jungle Book (2016), to more moderately received re-made tales such as Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015). In 2017, it is the turn of Beauty and the Beast. The excitement over the new film has been building for many months now, and the majority of questions will soon be answered, as it is due to open in New Zealand on 30th March, regrettably two weeks behind the UK and the US.

When Disney announced that they were remaking Beauty and the Beast into a live-action film, the reception was (surprisingly) generally positive. This particular film was beloved by audiences, and only a few eyebrows were raised at the prospect of seeing it remade. Disney, after all, had already ‘remade’ Beauty and the Beast into a successful theatre show, which had joined the ranks of other successful film-to-theatre adaptations such as Aladdin (1992). The few original eyebrows that were raised in relation to remaking Beauty and the Beast, however, were mainly in connection to who was going to be cast as the protagonist of the tale, Belle. Who would be filling the shoes of the dissatisfied young woman, who dreams of leaving her provincial life in favour of the adventures she so keenly reads about in books? As it happens, the choice fell on Emma Watson, the well-known Hermione of Harry Potter fame. And while I am not willing to entertain some of the audience’s conversation-stopping claims as to why Watson was not ‘fit’ for the role – remember, nostalgia is a dangerous animal for sure – there is no doubting that the choice was surrounded by whispers and enquiring tones. Watson, for her part, wasted absolutely no time in throwing herself into the role, far beyond the limits of the film: an international activist for women’s rights, Watson used her involvement with Beauty and the Beast to make a few changes to what she saw as out-dated patriarchal views in the classic tale. Many of us were excited to see the young actress taking her activism on set, and rejoiced in hearing that Watson had demanded for Belle’s corset to be removed from her iconic yellow ballroom dress.

Disney seemed careful with what details of the new remake they wanted to disclose and, as ever, what was confirmed seemed to be perfectly orchestrated for publicity effect. It was quickly revealed that several changes were made to the original Disney Beauty and the Beast plot, which left at least some of us very pleasantly surprised. Chief among all – at least in the beginning – was the knowledge that Disney has made Belle herself the inventor, rather than her father Maurice, a move that was hailed by many as a feminist act. It was less pleasing to learn that Belle would probably be inventing excellent contraptions as a hobby, rather than a profession: while this does not diminish the core values of the shift of the inventor role from father to daughter, it does make us wonder as to extent of the film’s ‘feminism’. But that is, perhaps, not a helpful question at this stage.  Making Belle the inventor of the narrative finally draws attention to her intellectual abilities, which were generally denied in the original 1991 Beauty and the Beast. I hear that her desire to read, as well as her penchant for inventions, continue to label her as ‘strange’ in the film’s set up even in this 2017 edition, so in that respect fans will meet a now painfully familiar narrative. Beside the changes to Belle’s wardrobe, and her choice of hobbies (with all its politicised narratives), questions about what the remake will be like continued to abound: would there be singing? Would the plot remain the same? Is it still set in France? [warning: 26-year-old-spoiler alert ] Does Gaston still die at the end? And most importantly: what does the ‘grey stuff’ taste like?

It looks like, however, the film will not be hitting all theatres around the world. It is now no longer news that a number of religious groups have boycotted the film after it was confirmed that it would include the ‘first’ overtly gay character in a Disney film. The incriminating subject is none other than LeFou (played by Josh Gad), Gaston’s loyal sidekick, and major provider of comic relief in the original Disney film. Screaming outrage and perhaps even sacrilege, religious groups have demanded that the film be removed from the show list at several cinemas. Of course. Let alone the fact that Disney have been circulating heavily coded gay and transgender characters in its films for decades, including Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989), who was modelled on beloved American drag queen Divine. Forget that LeFou was actually already one of those coded characters in the original Beauty and the Beast (how any audience member could miss this, is truly baffling). Who cares that what we are dealing with overall is essentially a tale of abuse, where the Beast emotionally tortures Belle by imprisoning her, keeping her away from her family, and growling at her at every possible occasion (and for those who insist on the fact that Belle makes the Beast a  ‘better man’…that stance does have a bit too many Fifty-Shades-echoes in it, and none of them are good). And what else can we say about the strange set up between a young woman and a horned humanoid wildebeest. Truly, the romance narrative writes itself. Tale as old as time, indeed. The outrage that the film has generated is telling, and proves that, once again, the heterosexual narrative is forever favoured, even if it is problematic. But thank goodness for that Disney-style narrative of redemption. All is well in the jungle, or the castle, or the sea. And if you really want some shock and outrage, check out the fairy tales on which the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast is actually based. We might have to redefine the notion of being horrified, for who doesn’t like being trampled to death by a pig. Enjoy the film, the fairy tales, and the waves of social media commentary.

Dr Lorna-Piatti Farnell is Associate Professor in Popular Culture at AUT.