Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Beauty (and Brains and Bravery) and the Beast’

If you are considering a trip to see Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast, I have two suggestions. One, see it in IMAX if you can. From the “poor provincial town” to the dazzling ballroom, the movie is a larger-than-life feast for the eyes.

And two, try and see it sitting next to a little girl who’s about to turn ten. Whether she is your daughter, your granddaughter, neighbor or (in my case) niece, you will get so much more out of the experience.

The animated Beauty and the Beast, upon which this new version is based, was released in 1991. It was an enormous success — even by Disney standards — grossing $425 million worldwide. It was also the first of now several Disney animated films to become successful Broadway musicals. I was thoroughly familiar with it from countless watchings with my goddaughters before my mother took my own daughter to see it in re-release in about 2000. The only part I thought might be a bit scary for a four year-old was a sequence with wolves, and I warned my mom about it in advance. Sure enough, when that scene started, my daughter crawled silently into her grandmother’s lap. As soon as everyone was safe again, she returned to her own seat.

I bring up these memories, because a large part of the joy you’ll experience watching the new Beauty and the Beast is nostalgia. But, that’s just the beginning. The movie is beautifully re-imagined, and fleshed out with additional music and story material that enhances the original. The sets and costumes are gorgeous and the special effects are dazzling. The cast is uniformly marvelous, and no one more so than the movie’s leading lady.

Belle was always one of my favorite Disney princesses. Like her predecessors, she had an impossibly tiny waist and her “happily ever after” was predictably bridal. But, she was a book worm. And she longed for “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” And, perhaps most importantly, she saved the Beast at least as much as he saved her. By Disney standards of the day, Belle was downright feminist.

In the capable hands of Emma Watson, Belle becomes even more of a heroine for girls my niece’s age. It’s no surprise given that the actress herself is a voice for women’s rights. Having grown up onscreen as the irrepressible Hermione Granger in eight Harry Potter movies, Watson attended Ivy League Brown University before becoming the U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2014. If you don’t already admire her, take a few minutes to listen to her speech marking the launch of the “HeForShe” campaign at the U.N. If you still don’t admire her, take another moment to reflect upon the fact that she was only 24 years old at the time. She recently screened Beauty and the Beast for one of her own heroines, Gloria Steinem.

Watson, who was still an infant when Disney first introduced Belle, takes her responsibility toward her young female fans seriously. She encouraged director Bill Condon to evolve the character in ways that made her even stronger. Watson’s Belle doesn’t wear a corset or dainty slippers. She wears sturdy boots and is an inventor herself rather than just the inventor’s bookish daughter. “The original Belle was very progressive and quite modern for her time,” she observes. In that spirit, the actress even added a line to the script. When the operatic wardrobe, voiced with gusto by Broadway legend Audra McDonald, tries to dress her up, Belle asserts, “But, I’m not a princess.”

McDonald, who clearly admires her young co-star, explains, “Belle’s self-reliance, her independence, her strength, her courage — was going to be put in even sharper focus in a live-action film because Emma I don’t think would have had it any other way . . .  she’s very aware of the impact she has on a whole generation of children.” Watson worked hard to bring Belle to life, walking away from the lead in the much bally-hooed La La Land to get it right. “I knew I had horse training, I knew I had dancing, I knew I had three months of singing ahead of me and I knew I had to be in London to really do that. [Beauty and the Beast] wasn’t a movie I could just kind of parachute into. I knew I had to do the work, and I had to be where I had to be.” Her work certainly pays off.

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