Beauty and the Beast is one of my earliest moviegoing memories. Growing up as an imaginative, bookish little girl, my onscreen female role models were fairly limited. And while I wasn’t a full-on Disney Princess devotee, I did love Belle. Like me, she loved books. She was brave and smart. She loved her family and didn’t put up with lame guys who wanted to limit her future.
Well, kind of.
See, while Belle does manage to put the film’s conniving, chauvinist villain, Gaston, in his place, Beauty and the Beast still ends with the heroine finding her prince charming, the titular Beast, in a way that isn’t entirely healthy. Their relationship starts out with her being held captive in his castle. She eventually comes around not only because her captor starts being nicer to her, but also because of outside pressure — the household’s servants are also pushing them to get together.
As much as I always loved other parts of Beauty and the Beast, this was a situation that never sat well with me as a kid. If I’m honest, it felt a little like betrayal.
The updated, live-action version of the film, out this weekend, manages to make the development of its central romance a little more redemptive. It’s mainly a recreation of the original film, but manages to squeeze in some additional context that make its characters more fully-rounded, and their circumstances more understandable. But while this progressive package [complete with a more diverse cast and LGBTQ-friendly supporting characters] is a bit easier to swallow, the core problem of the story still remains.
This film’s Belle [Emma Watson] is a smart, practical girl who feels stuck and misunderstood in her small-minded village. This isn’t just because she’s a bookworm, but also because she’s innovative and independent, and, as we see in an early scene where she teaches a young girl to read, she has a desire to improve the world by sharing her knowledge with others. This is juxtaposed with the extremely limited traditional female roles the film shows us. In her town, Belle can either get married or live as a beggar. Those are her only two options. Given this, it’s a little easier to see why she might be drawn to a fellow outcast like the Beast.
On that score, the movie also does a little extra work in fleshing out — so to speak — its romantic hero (played by Dan Stevens). The Beast is still a vain prince cursed into animal form by an enchantress because of his cruelty, but the script makes an effort to address the events that made him that way. The character is also more well-read, suggesting that his ability to match Belle’s intellect means he brings a little more to the relationship than a giant castle and heaps of brooding fairytale drama.
So, yes, this 2017 edition of Beauty and the Beast brings a little more compassion and an extra dose of feminism, along with its gorgeous visuals and great songs. But it would take a monster overhaul to fix what’s always been the central problem of this story — a smart, independent woman sticking with a partner who’s prone to unpredictable bouts of violence because she believes he can change. That uncomfortable aspect still sits front and center of the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, and it’s a problem that added musical numbers won’t solve. It’s true that redemptive romance makes for a great fairy tale. But it’s important to remember, especially when talking about a movie that’s been influential for generations of little girls, that the reality of a situation like this one is often very different.
So yes, this new version of Beauty and the Beast is fun, exciting to watch, and beautiful to look at, every bit as enjoyable as its animated predecessor. But it’s also still every bit as problematic, even with new-and-improved trappings.