Topicality is the primary concern when the disneyfication of fairy tales tales takes place. So this 2017 version of the classic French tale, is designed to suit the politics of our times. ‘Beauty’ is played by Emma Watson, who has our instant recall as Hermione in the Harry Potter series; pretty and well read. In other words, ‘Beauty’ in this film is a girl called Belle, not just beautiful, but also neat and nerdy.
Gaston is Belle’s vain and deceitful suitor in the village she leaves behind, when she is imprisoned by the ‘Beast’. It is possible that Gaston (Luke Evans) is presented as bi-sexual, because the side kick for whom he preens his vanity, LeFou (Josh Gad) is openly gay. The duo have a complicated relationship, with Gaston displaying his sadistic side; fanning his sexuality to attract LeFou, while making himself unavailable to him because of his heterosexual passion for Belle. This is an interesting, though very pat explanation for a sexual orientation.
The Gaston character is also clearly adapted, nearly three centuries after the fairy tale was developed, to a Donald Trump kind of political instigator and populist. When Belle’s father comes back to the village looking for help after his daughter has been imprisoned by the ‘Beast’ in his castle, Gaston urges the villagers to declare the old man insane for talking of unheard things like a beast living in a snow bound castle in the middle of summer. He then tries to pack him off to a lunatic asylum, with the villagers turning into a laughing gang of philistines, mocking the old man, and urging Gaston on.
Later, when the existence of the ‘Beast’ is proved to be true, Gaston changes his politics in an instant and builds up mob frenzy in the village to kill the ‘Beast’. The ‘Beast’, he says, is the evil non conformist, and must be destroyed in order to save the village. What is again interesting is the contrast that the film makes between the illiterate and stupid villagers who are, without exception, swayed by mob fury and ask no logical or reasonable question, and, on the other hand, the erudite Belle and her learned father (Kevin Kline).
The ‘Beast’ himself (Dan Stevens) is actually a handsome Prince who has been transformed into a beast. He has a well stocked library in his castle, and claims to have read almost all the books there, except those written in Greek. Belle starts to quote from Shakespeare’s ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” and the Beast completes the next line “And therefore is winged Cupid painted Blind”. But the discussion that follows is on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, giving us a distinct, and erroneous impression, that the quote is from the second play.
Beauty and the Beast is a musical, of course, but the music, though toe tapping, has the unaltered tone, rhythm, voices and beat of many of the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1960s. This is the one area where the makers seem to have neglected their upgrading exercise. They have concentrated on the aesthetics of inner and outer beauty, and the politics of internal and external beastliness.
As a result, this is an uneven film, a musical that entertains you in individual scenes, but seems to lose focus on the larger picture. While it is a pleasant watch overall, your focus drifts in and out of the film, as you try to catch up with the overt attempt to draw contemporary references from a well worn fairy tale.