I read a review of Beauty and the Beast today from someone who hasn’t even seen the film, but rather is trusting someone else’s review. The conclusion is that Disney has ascended to new levels of inane vapidity and somehow managed to leverage it to make money hand over fist. While I agree that media does indeed exist which is so mind numbing that inane and vapid are the best words to describe it, I would also argue that we meet such characteristics only when we expect to find them. It is severely unfortunate in my opinion, that musicals especially have fallen into a realm of vapid consumerism when the content does not necessarily reflect that. eg – Les Miserable, Sweeny Todd, and Hamilton.
One case and point is in Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods which Disney turned into a film to great success and which I wrote about on this blog HERE. It is a case which I will now make for Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast.
Certainly Disney is expecting to make money off of the nostalgia factor and they accomplish by keeping some of the key elements which attracted my generation to the film in the first place: a misunderstood kid who is marginalized and outcast, becomes a powerful and happy member of the ruling class. The songs of course, play a role here with all of the original songs coming back. The servants of the castle are anthropomorphic bric-a-brac that sing and dance and shoot magical fireworks across the table. There is without a doubt a high level of escapist fantasy woven throughout the piece. However, the live action remake draws more on the source material to offer the target audience (most of us in our 30s) depth which was left out of the animation.
To understand this, one must first understand that Beauty and the Beast is a French novel first published in the 1740s and is a product of the Late Baroque or Roccoco era which placed an emphasis on visceral responses (The animated film has a nod to its baroque origins in case you were wondering but it is not particularly significant). A great deal of the story is designed to draw out these kinds of responses from the audience by using what we now consider clichéd parallels. Eg the outer appearance of the Beast and the inner manner of Gaston; Belle’s devotion to her father with LeFou’s cronyism to Gaston.
The key theme of the source material which is preserved better in the live action than in the animated version is the question of what makes one beautiful and what makes one beastly? The conflict is less apparent because Belle does not really have anyone to compare against in the films, while in the source material she has three siblings who are thought to be more beautiful than she, if far less compassionate and generous. What the film DOES add is more examples of this conflict especially with the “old hag Agathe.” We shake our heads at this painfully obvious juxtaposition today, because it has been around for three centuries, and so it is easy to dismiss the film as vapid and un-original. Yet, how often are parents required to explain the same thing to their children every year? How many times do we say
- “It’s what’s on the inside that counts”
- “Handsome is as handsome does.”
- “Who can find a wife of noble character? She is worth far more than rubies.”
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that Beauty and the Beast is some great opus of modern film making but it does have its bright points. It even comes to the table with very high artistic standards beyond the singing plates and dancing bears…wildebeest…whatever – which are also in line with the Roccoco style (eg, the red rose, the style of singing, set design, even the enchantress). The film is a study in the Late Baroque to an almost academic degree.
The point I am trying to make is that if you go looking for something to be horrible, you will find reasons for it to be horrible. If you go looking for something to be wonderful, you will find reasons for it to be wonderful. But if we can train ourselves to see things for what they truly are, then we might begin to not only better the world around us, but appreciate it for what it is. In this case, Beauty and the Beast is a nostalgic throw back to 1991 designed by a corporation to make money, and created by artists who wanted to make something beautiful.