For a film with a budget of three hundred million claiming to be the live action treatment of a beloved Disney musical, which was itself a reconfigured version of a classic fairy tale mounted many times in the cinematic realm, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast struggles valiantly to capture the magic of the 1991 cartoon version (which netted an unprecedented Academy Award nomination for Best Picture). Condon may add some new tunes and command a capable cast, but all this feels like overextended lip-service with a running time of 129 minutes (compared to the 84 minute animated treatment, it’s hard to imagine this less efficient pacing to be conducive for the attention span of young children) and enough CGI to warrant this as more on par with the realm of animation than live action cinema.
When a cold-hearted Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed by a wronged enchantress whom he fails to show kindness to, he is turned into a horrid beast and his sycophantic court into various objects throughout the palace. Given a magical rose, he is allowed to live in this fashion until the last petal falls from its stem, allotting him enough time to convince a young woman to fall in love with him for what kind of creature he is on the outside despite his horrid visage. In doing so, the curse would be lifted from his kingdom. Opportunity comes knocking when bumbling fool Maurice (Kevin Kline) stumbles into the Beast’s wintry kingdom and steals a white rose off a frozen bush as a birthday gift for his daughter Belle (Emma Watson), a bookworm beauty shunned by the village for her headstrong independence. Cursed to live as the Beast’s slave for eternity, Belle offers herself in order to release her father. Her servitude eventually allows her to see the Beast for the creature he’s really become over years of solitude, but when her father alerts the village of her abduction, the town bully Gaston (Luke Evans), who has designs on making Belle his wife, instigates a mob to kill the beast and rescue her.
The most interesting (and foreboding) element of this latest version of Beauty and the Beast is how it has been championed as the first Disney film to feature an openly gay character. By the standards of how our culture tends to diagnose the dread dilemma of “flamboyancy” as an ear marker for the visibility of the effete homosexual, then yes, the fawning sidekick played by Josh Gad (whose name, LeFou, means crazy) to Luke Evans’ villainous cad Gaston surely fits the bill. However, this is the type of coded language which we adhered to back in the days of the Hays Code (the Motion Picture Production Code created by Will H. Hayes in 1930), when the word homosexual was not allowed on screen (the censorship towards stating the terminology was felled in 1961 by Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent and William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour).
Like the Kate Mackinnon character in Sony’s Ghostbusters reboot last summer, this kind of vague portraiture of homosexuality in studio fare is troubling. Sure, it gives the semblance of progression, but this ‘throw-em-some-scraps’ mentality (which is nearly as demeaning as the outright homophobic gesticulations from certain theater chains refusing to program the film), where these characters and their drives and desires are sublimated in honor of kowtowing to the sensibilities of what we define as the mainstream, suggests the aura of abnormality has not been displaced from queer representation. A brief cut-away of Gad dancing with another unnamed male villain during the film’s grand finale, where both worlds collide following the resolution, is still in line with this coded tradition—those familiar with the gaze of the racial or sexual other have a trained eye for these sorts of displacements from the (hetero) norm, while such slight details are generally seen as the kind of dismissive, forgettable innuendo floating right over the heads of propriety.
Condon’s film is almost a perfect storm of intersection queer theory thanks not only to the troubling detritus hovering in the wake of its reception, but even the casting of Josh Gad vs. Luke Evans, an actor who came out as gay several years prior, but following his casting in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, studio tradition censured his openness on the subject. As far as their performances go, both Gad and Evans are entertaining, and fault cannot be found in their turnout here (except when Evans blares he’s the size of a barge from Gaston’s famed ballad of braggadocio). However, knowing Evans is gay and watching the dueling juxtaposition of how a heterosexual man intent on conquering the only female who will refuse him with the quirky sidekick whose mannerisms (we have been so informed) are a testament to his queerness, the message is too trenchantly heteronormative not to call out as problematic both in and outside of the frame.
In the vast history of filmed adaptations of this scenario, at the pinnacle is Jean Cocteau’s unsurpassed 1946 version La Belle et la Bête. Famously, Cocteau lit star Jean Marais with the same luscious filters as the Belle played by Josette Day. Condon sexualizes Dan Stevens as the Beast using today’s contemporary markers of the prized stud, outfitting him in shirtless sequences with broad shoulders and a gym bunny body even Adonis would admire. The soft, glossy CGI monster, with his gigantic blue eyes and his undeniably hirsute yet well-kempt grooming, is hardly the smelly terror of Cocteau, or the prosthetically enhanced Ron Perlman who fell in love with Linda Hamilton in the late 1980s television series. Even Vincent Cassel in the recently mounted 2014 French production from Christophe Gans feels more tonally in line (although the only version brave enough to address the fairy tale’s subtexts is Walerian Borowczyk’s bestial odyssey in 1975’s La Bete). The effect of watching Emma Watson fall victim to his gruff yet gentle wiles is more akin to the human-cartoon relations of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and so our only real counterpoint is the 1991 version Condon and co. clearly photocopied.
As far as voice work goes, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and Ian McKellan as Cogsworth have their fun, while Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald all provide the requisite tone. And yet, there’s the nagging feeling of something amiss, something not quite cohesive. Kevin Kline is his dependable self, while Emma Watson, despite a serviceable (though not sensational) singing voice is more-or-less the kindhearted white pauper realized in the flesh, but none of these relationships nor their dramatic tensions ring true. Like earlier rehashes of Cinderella and even the Maleficent spin off, these live action fairy tale debacles lack the energy and zest of their original characters and fail to add anything relevant to our understanding of the narrative.
Screenwriters Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos simply reinforce Belle’s Stockholm Syndrome, created centuries before in the 1740 fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Empty hearted and empty-headed, this Beauty and the Beast is merely an expensive, perilously glossy throwback to the same gender norms and social mores circa the 1950s. Whereas the source material for Condon’s two part Twilight franchise entries took the brunt of the blame as concerns the questionable quality of the final outcome, there isn’t a similar scapegoat with his rendering of Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old as time finally beginning to show its age despite all the facelifts.