The Beauty and the Backstory: Disney’s Remake Answers Questions You Didn’t Really Ask…and Does it Well Anyway

If there’s one thing I never thought I would say coming out of a Beauty and the Beast remake, it was probably “That rose is full of the plague.” That is what this version is: a backstory machine. It’s an expansion of the original, an answer to questions you weren’t really asking, and ultimately a thoughtfully inflated love letter to an animated gem (which will hopefully remain the primary point of entry for future generations). More invested fans of the original animated version will delight in the opportunity the remake takes to…erm…smell the roses: to expand a bit of backstory and answer to a few of its predecessor’s idiosyncrasies.

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Take the timeline. The original film stressed that the castle’s occupants had been cursed for ten years (from Be Our Guest, “ten years we’ve been rusting, needing so much more than dusting.“) At the same time, the prologue established that the rose offered by the witch was “an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his twenty-first year.” By that math, the pre-cursed Beast would have been less of a narcissistic adult and more of a bratty tweeny-bopper and, frankly, who isn’t at eleven years old?  This film gets the opportunity to sort out the math, showing a clearly adult prince turned into a beastie and dropping any reference to birthdays.

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The film further uses its expanded run time to elaborate on why the household staff have been cursed along with the Beast, why the Beast was so nasty to begin with, why Belle’s mother isn’t in the picture (who was asking?), and why no one in the town seems to know there’s a sinister castle and animal-man occupant just a few blocks away. Some additions work better than others – the backstory about Belle’s mother causes some serious slowness has little to no influence on Belle’s characterization or the plot moving forward.

This narrative lag is the chief issue with the expansion of the film from an 84 minute run-time to 129 minutes. In the perfectly edited 1991 original, the plot drives forward from the moment the Beast lets Belle go all the way to the end of the film. Each scene serves a purpose: Belle saving her father, showing the villagers proof of the Beast’s existence, the Mob Song, the battle at the castle, the transformation, roll end credits. In this remake, the Beast lets Belle go and then the momentum grinds to a halt as he bellows out a big solo number. The pacing is off.

With that said, there’s a bit more room for contextualization in this new iteration, though things are never taken too seriously – for example, Gaston is returning from “the war” though the war isn’t named and it’s played for laughs. The direction is more camp than grit and the movie wears it well.

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Though evenly acted throughout, Gaston (as portrayed by Luke Evans) really carries the show. He’s the best thing about the remake as a whole. He’s actually – dare I say it – one part of the film that improves on the original. You can tell both he and Josh Gad (LeFou) come from a stage background as the pair plays off each other. During the Gaston number, the person behind me was practically kicking my chair their foot was bopping so hard to the rhythm, I almost felt the need to clap at the end (even though it’s not live and be cool okay?) – it’s further substantiation to my theory that Hollywood needs to employ singers rather than actors that can carry a tune.

This Belle is different too. She’s functional – she’s not wearing an apron, those are pockets. Sure she’s wearing a dress but there are bloomers underneath suited for all the running, horse-riding, and wolf-fighting a poor provincial town has to offer. She’s telling Gaston what’s what and she’s not letting him into her house either (in this version the conversation is between LeFou and Gaston, where the suitor boasts of his future plans with his “little wife, massaging [his] feet”).

I’m not entirely convinced that this Belle is the type of person to be bothered by a Beast that’s “coarse and unrefined,” but this Beast isn’t an illiterate dope either – he’s read everything in the library (except the stuff in Greek). In this version, Belle and the Beast seem to actually have more things in common than just mutual self-isolation.

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The film uses logic to tie together narrative threads. Maurice is abandoned in the woods by Gaston and LeFou and is rescued by a transient woman who returns him to the village days later. However sometimes logic doesn’t adhere well to the narrative surfaces provided. For example there’s a clunky throwaway line of exposition from the Beast explaining how he suggested that he and Belle have a dance in the newly refreshed ballroom. It just makes the whole affair feel sillier than it might have been if the scene was left unexplained. This is a fairy tale after all.

As far as music goes, the most poignant missing piece from Beauty and the Beast‘s enchanted remake is Howard Ashman. The lyricist for the original flick, Ashman passed away just prior to its release in 1991. In 2017 composer Alan Menken, who also worked on the original, remains on point but he’s only one half of a dynamic duo and unfortunately the element that set the original apart was Ashman’s lyrical creativity and musical sensibility.

As an example, consider The Mob Song – a pretty standard go get em! song that’s not really doing anything different narratively – similar songs in Pocahontas and Wicked come to mind. Instead what we get is Gaston telling his companions to “screw your courage to the sticking place.” A sheer product of Ashman’s lyrical brilliance, this line is drawn directly from the scene in which Lady Macbeth urges her husband to buck up and quit worrying he’ll fail in his plot against Duncan. Not only is it ironic (has Gaston ever even opened a book?) it’s also prophetic of his eventual downfall. This kind of writing is strewn throughout Beauty and the Beast‘s soundtrack and its noticeably missing in the new songs.

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Another example is simply in the delivery of lyrical phrases. In the song Something There, Ashman coached Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle in 1991) to sing the line “new and a bit alarming” like Barbara Streisand would. The result is quirky, fun, and adds a bit of depth and intrigue to the song that wouldn’t be there if it was sung flatly, as it is in 2017.

Unfortunately, these kind of lines are clipped throughout and the Gaston number probably suffers the worst as rhyming couplets are removed to make room for a bit more exposition. The complete removal of Gaston‘s reprise means we lose one of my favourite lines:

Gaston: LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking
Lefou: A dangerous pastime
Gaston: I know.
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Ultimately I think that the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast is an example of a perfect film. Every scene, every song, and every beat is perfectly timed, cropped, and edited to tell a compact and effective story with real emotional weight. So many people my age know the lyrics to its songs that they can practically be considered folk songs. It maintains a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes 26 years after its release and is considered a classic for this very reason. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1992. Though it didn’t end up taking home the prize, it still broke down barriers and stigmas about what animation could do. It was ground-breaking.

With that said I didn’t watch the remake wishing that I was watching the original instead. I think that says a lot. I love this story and its clear that this film does too – it isn’t trying to supplant the original but to supplement it. In the end it’s not the best tale as old as time, but it’s a tale worth venturing out to the theatres to enjoy on a big screen and its a great companion to the original.

@ElysiaRM


All photos are taken from Beauty and the Beast (2017) on IMDB.

 

 

 

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