By Ashley Tan (18A13A)
After months of hype and speculation over its actors and musical numbers, Beauty and The Beast finally hit the screen in March, with throngs of Disney aficionados filling cinema seats. While the 1991 animated version of the film may remain a well venerated classic in the eyes of many, the latest version aims to complement and reflect the complexities of contemporary society.
Going into the theatre, I must confess that I had several doubts as to whether the film was as “unnecessary” and “disappointing” as it was made out to be by several movie critics. However, these reservations soon dissipated. With its opulent sets and elaborate costumes that elicited gasps of awe and delight, the prodigious amount of effort that had been channeled into the film’s scenic design did not go unnoticed, and contributed significantly to its overall tone and mood.
This version of Beauty and the Beast followed its prescribed storyline rather closely, with Belle (Emma Watson) being stigmatised by the villagers in her town due to her defiance of social norms. She’s deemed to be “funny” because of her penchant for reading and designing innovative contraptions qualities that a girl would not typically possess. Leading a provincial life in the village is frustrating for her, partly owing to the treatment she has to endure as a social outcast, as well as her awareness that there exists greater meaning and purpose beyond the village.
The plot follows the trials and tribulations that Belle has to overcome – from dealing with the narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans) who seeks her hand in marriage and galvanises the masses to vilify the beast, to saving her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) from adversities with the help of some familiar personified household items. At every key juncture of the film, each of the characters performs musical numbers to convey their sentiments.
While most of the actors were fairly able to carry the familiar tunes of the original soundtrack, Emma Watson’s singing voice was a letdown. I was anticipating a fuller, more solid voice that would accurately reflect the nuances of Belle’s core identity. However, Watson’s tone was thin and wispy, patently antithetical to the expectations that I had held for a character as resilient and headstrong as Belle. On the other hand, Gaston’s’ musical numbers – Gaston and The Mob Song – were flamboyant and theatrical, unerringly capturing the essence of his character with his sonorous voice honed to perfection from spending a decade of his career in musical theatre.
Another notable quality of this film was the detailed backstory that it offered, which allowed for deeper characterisation of its protagonists. The original movie did little to explain Belle’s origins and the absence of her mother, as well as the reasons as to how and why the beast turned out to become a baleful and uncaring Prince before being cursed. However, the latest version filled in these gaps, enabling the audience to grasp a deeper understanding of how each character’s history has influenced and moulded them.
Thematically speaking, this film was imbued with a spectrum of political undertones that pandered to present-day debates in the media and society at large. The attempt to portray Belle as an empowered character who subverts conventional roles of women (i.e. Belle as an inventor who is even more adept at devising appliances than her father) was a commendable one, but failed to live up to the expectations induced by mainstream media. Though it is understandable why the film may have been marketed as part of the feminist pop culture movement since its leading actress is a self-proclaimed feminist and a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Belle’s role as an inventor was only surfaced a few paltry times in the film, and failed to contribute to its overall plot in a pronounced or consequential way.
Moreover, the “gay scenes” which incited public furore and film bans turned out to be rather misleading. One scene included Gaston’s loyal sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) embracing him in a hug during a dramatic musical number, and another presented LeFou dancing with a peripheral male background actor.
Ultimately, these were scenes that would typically be brushed off and instinctively categorised as a natural part of theatrics. Perhaps this attempt to introduce greater diversity would have flown better with audiences without Disney’s need to pat itself on the back for what has been labelled a ‘groundbreaking representation’.
Shortcomings aside, the je ne sais quoi factor that really sold the film for me was not its leading actors, but rather the supporting characters – Mrs. Potts (the teapot), Chip (the teacup), Cogsworth (the clock), and the ever-romantic Lumière (the candelabra).
Embellished with tints of gold and intricate details, each supporting character was a living, breathing masterpiece. Their singing voices were rich and vibrant, reverberating through the theatre with a kind of clarity that only Broadway professionals can achieve. Their presence added emotional depth to the story, propelling the audience into rooting for the beast.
Interestingly, the scene which drew me to tears was not Belle’s ultimate declaration of love following the beast’s death – it was actually the succeeding scene where the charmed household items, about to be transformed into inanimate objects, expressed their love and gratitude towards one another. There was simply something there that managed to capture the essence of camaraderie that hit close to home. The final exchange between Cogsworth and Lumière was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the waterworks that struck me would not cease.
While the latest version of this well-known chronicle contains a handful of flaws, it was an enchanting rendition that succeeded in captivating and enthralling its audience from the very first scene to end.
Despite many individuals terming this film as a mere “remake” of the original animation released in 1991, the contemporary version of this tale as old as time should undoubtedly be lauded for its own merits. Barricading the waves of nostalgia during familiar musical numbers proved impossible, but this film also managed to bring forth fresh and previously unexplored elements. By coalescing the old and the new, this film’s days in the sun are far from over.
But if you would like to experience the magic for yourself, then by all means, be our guest.