Revitalising Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast' for a new generation

17 Mar 2017 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

6 mins
Beauty and the Beast 2017
Beauty and the Beast 2017

Continuing the trend that started with 2015's Cinderella, 2017's Beauty and the Beast brings another Disney animated classic to vivid life, drawing from its source material to provide a deeper look at its characters. Stories hinted at in the original songs are fleshed out in this new version, with Belle and her father given a reason for being relative newcomers in their small village, having fled tragedy in Paris. New songs - in addition to the old favourites - also help to sweep the audience deeper into the film, to further understand Belle and the Beast's family histories, and how they have been shaped by them.

Many of the other elements of the film have also been expanded for visual impact. Over 1,000 crew members created the film's sets, while the Beast's fantastical castle - which shares many gothic elements with the surreal French adaptation, La Belle et La Bête - makes use of CG technology to physically show the effects of the curse. The showdown scene between the castle's inhabitants and the angry villagers also benefits from an update, becoming a full-scale and very chaotic battle, with each household object having their moment in the spotlight as they react to the assault. 

There is plenty of fun to be had transforming the magic of the animation into realistic-looking action, and while most elements have been made bigger and more impressive, a couple of things from the 1991 film had to be toned down. As Josh Gad, who plays Lefou, explained to our reporter Blesina at the film's premiere, the frantic slapstick that delivers laugh after laugh in the animated version doesn't hold up to a live action interpretation, and so Lefou had to be reconsidered and given a role that allowed for a little more subtlety and character development.

A major concern for the film is increasing the focus on gender representation, not least because gender equality advocate Emma Watson (who interviewed influential education equality campaigner Malala Yousafzai for us at the 2015 Into Film Festival) took on the role and shaped it as her own. Known from a young age as Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Emma Watson has since starred in a diverse range of films, from coming-of-age adaptation The Perks of Being a Wallflower to heist drama The Bling Ring, before arriving at Beauty and the Beast, which sees her returning to the sort of dark and magical-leaning family fare that launched her career. The original Belle of the 1991 animation set the standard for a Disney hero who was more active and not afraid to think for herself; qualities that Emma Watson and her other cast members want a young audience to be inspired by; a trend that has continued from Mulan through to Moana.

Emma Watson's influence can be seen in taking Belle's book-loving nature up a notch in order to embody creativity as well as curiosity, and her character comes up with several ingenious schemes to allow her to spend more time reading, and to share her love of knowledge with the community. However, Belle is widely treated with suspicion, and there are cautionary tales of other village women who refused to conform that have been outcast and left to beg in the street or live in the woods. Adding a historical context to show that women of Belle's time were so dependent upon men - even if just to keep a roof over their heads - reveals how brave Belle's defiant spirit is. It makes her comparable to the character of the same name in 2013's Belle, in which a woman struggles against racial prejudice as well as her position as a female in order to make her own choices and pursue wider justice. The fate of cast-out women is also explored in films such as MaleficentParaNorman, and, with a gentler effect, Howl's Moving Castle. The message in Beauty and the Beast is that there is much to gain from listening to women's wisdom.

As well as promoting strong female role models, the film also has fun with ideas of masculinity. The film's opening sequence spends time establishing the lavish primping and preening that the Prince (prior to his Beast transformation) undergoes in preparation for the ball. As well as having his vain side, the Beast's character has also been reinterpreted to show audiences more of the human trapped within the animal, rather than showing a total monstrous transformation. His appreciation for literature, showcased in the iconic library that's recreated from the animated film, becomes an opportunity for he and Belle to share something as equals, as they bounce ideas and opinions off one another. As the Beast, actor Dan Stevens had to wear special bodysuits and walk on stilts, and his facial expressions were captured separately, with his face painted in phosphorescent make-up and lit with UV light for accurate tracking by multiple cameras. While Dan went through an ordeal to portray his character, by contrast Emma Watson's costumes for Belle were liberating, with design changes incorporated in the signature look of the character to allow a full range of movement for activities such as horse-riding and exploring her new environment.

As charming as the original and adapted to inspire a new generation, while still acknowledging what made the animated version so compelling, 2017s Beauty and the Beast is set to inspire young audiences everywhere to be curious, brave, and to challenge prejudice whenever they encounter it.

What makes Belle such an inspiring Disney Princess

Luke Evans and Josh Gad discuss the film's message

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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