As expected, this was last weekend’s most popular movie. It is an energetic and beautiful remake of Disney’s 1991 feature-length cartoon and the follow-on play that ran on Broadway for 13 years.
The source material is an 18th century French fairy tale whose theme, “beauty lies within,” has resonated in dramas from “Cyrano de Bergerac” to “Groundhog Day.”
The film starts with a ballroom scene in which a shallow prince misbehaves and is turned into the titular beast by a sorceress. It ends, neatly, with another ballroom scene after he and the other characters in his castle have been restored into the good graces of the fates.
In the second act, we meet the beauty, Belle, a book-loving young woman who lives with her widowed father in a lovely provincial town that she finds stifling. An older man scolds her for helping a young girl learn to read. A handsome soldier who is vain and dim pursues her, determined to marry her against her strong and sensible objections.
Circumstances contrive to find Belle locked in the Beast’s ominous castle where, even in June, the sky is dark and snow is falling. Events proceed from there.
Disney demonstrated in last year’s “The Jungle Book” that it could remake its cartoon classics with very realistic, largely animatronic jungle animals. In this movie, we get a computer-generated beast as well as a candlestick, furniture pieces and crockery with personalities. Their lines are spoken by movie stars who are revealed at the end of the movie.
The 1991 cartoon movie has been enhanced with three new songs and backstories for Belle and the Beast. The imagery also is much more detailed, and is virtually perfect. It’s impossible to tell where the real ends and the CGI begins. Quite an achievement.
Other updates include the currently de rigueur “mighty girl” theme, which is certainly not inappropriate. (“I’m not a princess,” Belle says, echoing Moana from last year’s Disney movie.) I do wonder, now that the girl project has moved into kids’ drama, when we are going to see boys excelling in battles and courageous derring-do, the kinds of stories they crave. The only boy-centric movie trailer I’ve seen lately is a film project based on the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books.
Lovely as it all is, I’m not sure what audience Disney is seeking here. When I attended, there were young children in the theater, including a small girl in a yellow Belle costume. I imagine she and the others already had seen the 1991 cartoon, which ran 84 minutes. This new rendition is 45 minutes longer; it held my attention, but it may run long for young audiences.
(I looked online and found an egghead who said 95 minutes was the mean running time for a children’s movie, with a standard deviation of 10 minutes on either side. By this calculation, the 1991 cartoon movie was one standard deviation shorter than the average kids’ show, and this new version is almost 3.5 standard deviations longer. Make of this what you will.)
The appetite for the “beauty lies within” idea is strong, as evidenced by Amazon’s 20-page list of books sharing the theme. I looked at the first three pages, and here is what I found:
–The original fairy tale, translated, from 1740
— More than a few women’s romance novels with muscled men for cover illustrations
— At least three sci-fi stories, including “a novella-length steamy romance set in a dystopian world where women are sold as property”
— A high-school story with a “boy who feels like a freak and the witty, imperfect, wise trans girl he loves”
— “A steamy 135,000-word contemporary gay May-December romance” in which the beast is a former Wall Street executive named Wolfram.
It is possible that “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which I have not read, also fits the template.