“Oh, I’m not a princess.”
For many of us, Belle was our entry into a previously inaccessible world of Disney heroines. She’s not secret royalty or a mermaid; she’s not awoken by true love’s kiss or reared by fairies. She’s a small town girl who dreams of something more. She’s a bookworm who loves her dad and isn’t interested in the town jock.
In Bill Condon’s live-action update of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, this most crucial quality of Belle’s character remains. Emma Watson is warm and believable as Belle, a fiercely independent girl who just wants to be left alone to read her books and dream of adventure. This is the Disney princess we know and love – the one who was never really a princess in the first place.
But there are some updates to Belle’s character here: an increased fearlessness (a trait she inherited from her mother, we learn), an elevated ire that runs beneath that serene surface. Belle’s mad: at Gaston, at the Beast, at the small-minded neighborhood gossips that circle like buzzards. It’s this righteous anger that should stave off a hundred Stockholm Syndrome thinkpieces, and it’s a perfect representation of what Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos have done with the source material: they kept everything we loved about the original, but made it current.
Of course that goes double for Josh Gad as LeFou, much-discussed as Disney’s first openly gay character. LeFou as he stands in the original film would make for a troubling first gay characterization: he’s clingy and foolish and treated like garbage by Gaston. But here, LeFou is presented with much more dignity. He takes care of Gaston because he’s the only person who can calm him down and make him see reason. He shows a lot of agency, and Gaston treats him with much better respect than we’re used to seeing between these two characters. It’s no small thing, seeing this character in a family film in 2017, and Gad is a highlight in a movie with one of the most impressive cast lists in recent memory.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s up against Luke Evans as Gaston, giving a performance so completely delicious that it illuminates everyone performing around him. He is note-perfect, this dashing doofus, all muscle and hair and hot air. Gad and Evans’ rendition of “Gaston” makes for the best musical number of the film – though all of the old standbys are well-executed here, and Watson and Stevens do a lovely, if low-key, job on their tunes. The new songs feel like they don’t add much but runtime, but “Be Our Guest” had me giddy – basically, any time Ewan McGregor sang as Lumière, Beauty and the Beast was as good as it gets.
Watson and Stevens – professional singers, neither of them – are helped by virtue of their remarkable chemistry. There were some concerns that the Beast looked a little half-baked in the trailers, but whether the effects were more polished by the final version or whether Stevens’ performance made the difference, the Beast’s look was not a problem here. Stevens and Watson seem to cultivate a real romance, as implausible as it seems between this beautiful girl and this hulking monster. Every book nerd’s heart fluttered at the library scene in the original film, and it’s even better here, because the Beast stays to talk to Belle about the books he’s read. They share a love of Shakespeare – though he rolls his eyes at her admission that Romeo and Juliet is her favorite – and for Belle, coming from this provincial town where she’s considered a dangerous oddball for being literate, that must have been one of the most exciting conversations of her life. A shared love of books is one of the best possible bonding experiences, and it creates a credible foundation on which this romance can grow.
Like anything here, the love story feels like magic. Beauty and the Beast feels like magic. It’s a little overlong and not every new plot is necessary – though a brief detour telling us about Belle’s mom makes for an important reminder that this girl did not spring forth fully-formed from her father – but it still delivers the charm and whimsy of the original while managing to also feel new, an adaptation that is respectful but never slavish. It’s a stunning visual carnival, sumptuous in color and texture, and it’s a heartening reminder that the same old tale can still hold new surprises.