There Must Be More To This Provincial Life Than a Faithful Remake of A 25-Year-Old Cartoon

When I took my daughter to an afternoon showing of Beauty And The Beast (I had no choice, you see, because: Hermione!) I noticed that, not surprisingly, the audience in our suburban movie theater was overwhelmingly female. Many mothers with young daughters, of course, but quite a few grown women watching the film alone or with girlfriends. I imagine the nighttime shows and more centrally located theaters trend toward the adult audience even more. I recall we’ve seen single women flocking en mass to see a live action version of Disney classic a few years ago when Cinderella came out.

We women like a romantic story without sex and gore but with a touch of whimsy — who knew!

Good children’s films appeal to both kids and adults. While many parents rather stereotypicaly like to complain about Disney’s marketing to kids, it certainly does look like Hollywood went an extra mile to reach out to adults this time. It designed as something of interest to women who grew up in the 90's and the aughts: the 2017 version of the classic fairytale faithfully imitates it’s 1991 Disney prototype and features Emma Watson, the star of Harry Potter series filmed ten years later.

The pitch to the older audience was made rather transparent during the rollout which seemed to be centered around the correspondence to the original animated feature, sex and homosexuality. Videos of scene-by-scene comparissions of the two Disney films flooded youtube. Risque pictures of Watson splattered over the pages of GQ on the wake of theatrical release (managing to promote something like a controversy, albeit on the grounds of feminism, not nudity) seems to suggest that your kindergartener was not the only demographic Disney targeted.

Then there is the much-touted Disney’s first evah “exclusively gay moment”. The subplot caused a minor controversy in the West, and in Russia the film earned adults only rating. Yet, despite all that and despite the fact that the movie is directed by Bill Condon who once made a soft-glow biopic about homosexuality-hack Kinsey, the queer references are subtle enough so that no mother needs to worry about having to explain a thing to her elementary school age daughters. The gay character is useful, though, because he reminds the adult viewers that they are modern and enlightened, and that the movie is more than just a kids’ movie.

Rachel Darnall wrote about the elitism of Disney’s Belle who enters the film singing “There must be more to this provincial life”. Point taken, but, having the misfortune to reside a rather close-minded small town, I can relate to Belle’s sentiment. It’s not that my neighbors don’t read books, they read avidly, it’s that they carefully prescreen any and all information that allows to come near their and their offsprings’ precious little brains. If you are to expose their sons and daughters to a rouge idea, they will throw your laundry in the dirt, and, boy, do they love to get together to kill the beast!

Watson makes little sense as Candon’s “the first an only choice” for misunderstood Belle, a young lady ahead of her time. Once upon a time, fifteen years ago, an unknown child actress was cast as an insufferable know-it-all, but that was then. Today she is the kind of young woman who thinks exactly the thoughts expected of her. What’s more, she grew up playing Hermione Granger, possibly the most admired heroine of children’s literature. Simply put, Emma Watson is the luckiest girl of her generation. I’m not saying that Watson isn’t the draw, or that she’s a bad actress. All I’m saying is that the movie isn’t a masterpiece.

If “this provincial life” fails to satisfy Belle, the film doesn’t present an alternative to the kind of narrow-mindedness that Belle resents. Sure, it instructs the viewer to look for fulfillment in books, art, science and love, but, the problem is, it tells, but doesn’t show. If we are going to belittle the ordinary, we have to be the extraordinary. And yet, the film’s cinematography is just OK, music is underwhelming, acting and directing are sufficient. My favorite part of the movie was Guston’s (played by Luke Evans) bar dance, yet even that number doesn’t have the creative energy of classic Hollywood musicals. The 2017 Beauty And The Beast is a major case of form/function malfunction.

Lost opportunities abound. For instance, multiculturalism seems to be a big thread considering the prevalence of black characters in the narrative presumably set in Baroque France. I’m very much willing to suspend disbelief, and, after all, it’s just a fairytale. However, as an attempt to show what the filmmakers learned from other cultures, this feels shallow. We would benefit from veering off the Disney cannon and studying, for instance, The Scarlet Flower, the more complete, and more feminist-friendly, Russian version of the traditional Indo-European tale of which Perrault’s is also a version.

A still from the Soviet era animation of The Scarlet Flower

Having said all that, the film is not a bad film, and I recommend taking your daughter to see it, it’s just it’s not a great film. The artistry is just not there and it contains no earth-shuttering insights. It’s a rather self-referential and self-congratulatory provincial movie; made in a very competent province, but province nevertheless.

Each fairytale is a journey. The hero or the heroine leaves home, slays dragons or fights witches, finds true love. It’s a story of coming of age and marriage. Something must had gone wrong in the lives of the slightly past their prime Millenial women in the audience so many of whom are stuck somewhere on that quest, having left home but unable to find the life’s partner. They are still waiting for beasts to conquer — or maybe they are finding a new beast every 7 years or so. And maybe it’s not Belle, but the spinster Clothilde that ultimately comforts them.

Old maids are not scary or sinister, and I’m glad our society doesn’t shun them. However, old maidenhood is not much to aspire to either. If in the end the grand total of a woman’s choices leaves her single and childless, does she have something to show for it? What kind of career is worth it? Is it true that she never encountered a man worthy of marriage?

Considering the cost of their education, one expects the grown up Beauty And The Beast fans to watch more sophisticated movies. Alternatively, they can be taking their daughters to the movies. Preferably both.