Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast is the latest cinematic turn for the 18th-century fairy tale about a cursed prince transformed into a hideous monster who yearns for a beauty who might see beyond his gruesome countenance and love him for what’s beneath his twisting horns. The first and best Beauty and the Beast is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of the tale. The painter, poet and filmmaker’s visionary movie was a huge influence on Disney’s animated 1991 take on the story, but the anthropomorphized house furnishings and gothic trappings of the Beast’s castle have never been more magical than in their first flourishes by the French master. That said, Disney’s cartoon castle and its uninhibited inhabitants marked a return to form for Disney animation, and also introduced one of their most iconic contemporary characters: the irrepressible “princess” Belle.
Belle is one of Disney’s first successes at realizing a truly modern heroine who is smart and self-motivated. Disney princesses have taken a lot of criticism for being bad role models for contemporary girls. Don’t young ladies growing up in the 21st century deserve heroines whose examples demonstrate something more than how to be damsels in distress? Disney’s Belle was one of the first real feminist princesses, and here Disney’s biggest tribute to their original cartoon is Emma Watson’s smart, willful, loving take on Belle.
Belle is a young French country girl growing up in a small provincial village with her eccentric artist/tinkerer father. Belle is also eccentric – she’s a bookish daydreamer who knows her fate lies beyond the boundaries of her “little town.” Watson sings her way onto the screen here and even pulls off a Sound of Music-style turn on a mountain, effortlessly proving herself as a capable Belle in the film’s first frames. Watson’s utter Britishness at first feels a bit confusing in the story’s French milieu, but it only bothered me for a minute – the cartoon Belle spoke like she’d been born in Kansas. As in the cartoon, Belle resists the expectations of her fellow villagers who think she’s strange, and she also resists the expectations – and unwanted advances – of Gaston.
Gaston is the sociopathic narcissistic baddie that our selfie-centered culture deserves, and Lucas Evans’ turn as the broad-shouldered blowhard is the best performance in a film that’s packed with colorful characters: Kevin Kline’s take as Belle’s eccentric papa is lovingly off-kilter, Dan Stevens’ Beast is solid even if he can’t hold a candle to Robbie Benson’s animated version, and Ewan McGregor’s exuberant, French-accented, go-for-broke performance as Lumière the candelabra is as ridiculous as it is irresistible.
The original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale was written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 at the first flowering of the gothic literature period which officially began with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. Gothic style has always influenced Beauty and the Beast’s on screen stylings: Cocteua’s La Belle et la Bête featured a lonely monster brooding in a haunted castle, and this latest film version climaxes with an angry, torch-carrying horde just like audiences might remember from the original Frankenstein (1931) film that brought another gothic classic to the screen.
This new take on Disney’s cartoon musical is a delightful revisiting of a familiar property, but there’s no beating their original – just as it’s unlikely that any version will ever best the spellbinding beauty of Cocteau’s vision. That said, all three of these takes on Belle and her Beast have their moments of romantic anguish, painful alienation, and – most importantly – that trait that connects cinema to all the stories of childhood: magic. As it reads on Jean Cocteau’s 1946 opening title card:
"Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's 'Open Sesame,' Once upon a time ..."
Beauty and the Beast is playing locally in wide release.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.