Tasha Robinson/Pahichan – There’s been a fair bit of controversy over Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Disney’s animated 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast, mostly centered over Condon’s proclamation that he’s given Disney its first canonically, openly gay character.
In an interview with Attitude, Condon described that character, the villain’s sycophantic sidekick LeFou, as if his sexuality was a significant, foregrounded part of the plot, and as if it ultimately arrived at some major moment of truth:
“He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realising that he has these feelings. And [actor Josh Gad] makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”
But when it arrives, that “nice, exclusively gay” moment is a one-second shot of LeFou in a fancy ballroom-dance finale, accidentally shoved into the arms of a nameless man who’s wearing drag because of an earlier sight gag. It isn’t an “exclusively gay moment,” it’s about a dozen vaguely campy frames. Much like Finding Dory’s controversial, much-ballyhooed “lesbian couple” — two women who appeared in a extremely brief, silent reaction shot in the film — LeFou is all PR blitz and no actual payoff. But the tepidness of this built-up moment hasn’t stopped the predictable backlash, from online complaints to an Alabama theater noisily pulling the film from its lineup (proving the bigoted old chestnut “why are they pushing their views on us” is still alive and well in the world) to Malaysia banning the film. To Disney’s credit, the company has refused to recut the film to appease Malaysian censors, which is an admirably principled stand to take over a single second of footage.
The LeFou imbroglio is an immense wasted opportunity. Promoting Beauty and the Beast by touting its daring inclusivity (or, grotesquely, its “tribute” to lyricist Howard Ashman), makes for a lot of attention-grabbing articles. But the actual execution is dull — or mildly offensive, given that Disney’s first “official” gay character (ignoring its coded ones and fan-canon ones) is a catty, clingy, regressive, “confused” stereotype. Beauty and the Beast isn’t necessarily the right forum to explore the nuances of the gay experience. But given how much virtual ink the character has gotten, it’s baffling how little there is to him, not just as a gay man, but as a developed figure of any kind.
And he isn’t the only wasted opportunity in Condon’s remake. It’s largely a frustrating clone of the original movie — same songs, same script, often even the exact same shot choices — but it replaces every moment of authentic or moving emotion with bombast and hyperbolic overemphasis. It slows down the flow of the familiar music by jamming in extra phrases, and builds up the energy by jamming nonstop, busy action onto the screen. It’s a garish, strident film, as well as a profoundly unnecessary one. And wherever its creators come up with fresh subplots or new character details, they tend to be poorly integrated, slapped erratically over the existing narrative like a half-assed coat of paint. Among the other things the film throws out and instantly discards:
BELLE AS INVENTOR AND OUTCAST
The prerelease hype around LeFou was mirrored by the prerelease hype around Belle, with Emma Watson, who plays her in the film, telling EW that Belle is now the talented inventor, rather than her father Maurice. The idea was to give Belle more of a background, and more of a purpose in life than wandering around singing about how her community disappoints her. In practice, though, her big background development consists entirely of a scene where she uses a barrel and a donkey to do her laundry so she has more time to read. She doesn’t actually use her newfound inventing skills to any meaningful narrative purpose. When she needs to escape a cage, Beast’s servants help her; when she needs to pick a lock, Maurice handles it. Any ambitions she has as an inventor are never verbalized, and her theoretical skills never become useful. Past the brief laundry sequence, inventing never comes up again. It’s not part of the story, it’s a random, unattached moment.
In the same way, there’s a quick shot of Belle teaching a young girl to read, and angering the local peasants, who quickly stop her. Apparently female literacy is anathema in a fantasy villa where only the boys are seen going to school. This is meant to explain why the entire town is so obsessed with Belle being, as the opening song says, “very different from the rest of us” and “a beauty but a funny girl.” The idea of Belle trying to overcome institutionalized sexism in a provincial town is a pretty heady one. But again, the film does nothing with it, apart from a single line from Belle, late in the film, complaining about how she doesn’t fit in with the locals.
GASTON AS A TROUBLED WAR VETERAN
Less hyped, but still strangely underlined in the new movie, is the idea that the villainous blowhard Gaston (Luke Evans) is such a jerk because he’s a professional soldier with no battles left to fight, and he longs to return to a simpler, more purposeful time in his life. He and LeFou know each other from “the war,” where they were comrades in arms. It’s a potentially meaningful relationship that explains why Gaston blankly tolerates LeFou’s creepy handsiness, and why LeFou sticks with a loudmouthed bully. It’s mildly implied that Gaston’s temper and inability to control his rage comes from his past, and that LeFou is an actual friend who shares Gaston’s history and honestly respects and understands him. That’s another potentially powerful development, but it mostly surfaces via a couple of throwaway lines, and one joke about LeFou’s Gaston-whispering talents.
The heel-face turn is a great tradition in stories about villains, and it’s given American pop culture some of its most memorable story endings — in Return of the Jedi, in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, even most recently in Moana. So the idea that LeFou might not play out entirely as a villain is potentially intriguing — and certainly in keeping with Condon’s larger intentions for the character. Bad enough for Disney’s first supposed openly gay character to be swishy, obsessive, and annoying without him also being an irredeemable villain. If only the character’s development had any meaningful roots in the earlier parts of the story. There are tiny hints at him having a personality past “sidekick” in his emotional support of Gaston, but as character development goes, it’s a thin soup. At most, he gets a couple of lines to support the idea that he has his own morals and goals — the best one is a new addition in “The Mob Song,” as Gaston whips the villagers into a fury against the Beast. His “Meh, I’ve decided to switch sides!” line is particularly offhanded and silly.
BEAST’S BACKSTORY AND THE SERVANTS’ MOTIVES
One of the minor problems viewers grumbled over in the original Beauty and the Beast was the question of why Beast’s servants — Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, et al — stand by him and seem to care so much about him, when he brought a magical curse down on them by being a selfish brat, and has subsequently turned into a temperamental, dangerous tyrant. That isn’t actually much of a plot hole. Of course they stand by him and serve him — he’s their only chance at getting the curse lifted. Their “affection” for him is largely crisis management and mollification. And where can an anthropomorphic candlestick, clock, and teapot expect to go if they leave the enchanted castle?
But Condon’s version of the film does expressly take up the question. Mrs. Potts has a little monologue explaining how Beast’s mother died early and his father was a vain tyrant who turned him into a vain tyrant in return. The servants did nothing to stop any of this, so they feel responsible. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos try hard to bring an old-world servant-and-master relationship into a 2017 setting, where loyalty and service are expressly about emotional responsibility and the idea that all awful behavior has its roots in childhood trauma. But this quickie application of plot-spackle raises more questions than it answers. Where is Beast’s father? Why did the servants think they had any responsibility, or ability, to fix a prince following in a king’s footsteps? Why is Disney so obsessed with dead mothers? If the servants are only hanging around because they feel they owe Beast for not interfering in his upbringing, why aren’t they making any efforts at all to help him improve his awful personality and terrible behavior?
AND IN GENERAL
Disney has struggled to define exactly what it wants to do with its seemingly endless (and depressingly profitable) run of live-action remakes of animated classics. Are they meant as homages, updates, “brand deposit” reminders of existing franchises, or just high-profile cash grabs? The answer varies slightly from film to film. Alice in Wonderland didn’t feel like a remake so much as a new version of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, strained through Tim Burton’s house brand of morbid whimsy and the cultural landscape’s contemporaneous obsession with young-adult-novel-worthy teen action heroines. Maleficent tried to give Sleeping Beauty’s villain a tragic backstory, and wound up as a pretty but uncomfortably imitative merging of Disney’s film and the Broadway hit musical Wicked. Cinderella made the title character more bland and passive, ramping up the villain’s personality at everyone else’s expense. So far, only The Jungle Book has made it to the screen with a strong point of view and additions to the story — mostly from Rudyard Kipling’s original Jungle Book stories, but in part original creations — that deepen the characters and make their conflicts more meaningful.
In Beauty and the Beast’s case, virtually all of the new additions to the story are aimed vaguely in the same direction. As the marketing suggests, the updates are all about backstory, about trying to make the characters more three-dimensional, to make their choices more meaningful, their origins clearer, and their traumas more involving. But few of the new ideas have any sort of depth or dedication to that cause. They’re shallow, surface additions that don’t add to the story, or change its direction, or reveal anything new.
The updates in Condon’s Beauty and the Beast aren’t exclusively superficial. Beast finally gets a song to himself, and it’s a powerful musical moment, even when it improbably transforms him from what Belle describes as “sweet, and almost kind… and so unsure” to a bellowing operatic hero, as ostentatious and over-the-top as the evil Gaston. Lumière’s feather-duster girlfriend Plumette (voiced by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the living wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) get slightly larger roles, giving the story a place for actors of color, even if they’re mostly offscreen voices matched to animated objects.
And most significantly, Belle’s dad Maurice has been upgraded from a wacky cartoon eccentric to a more nuanced character, a grieving widower doing his best to support a headstrong daughter. His embellishments include a sweet (and too short) song of his own, and a history that explains the decisions he faced when Belle’s mother died. (Of course she did; this is still a Disney movie.) Kevin Kline plays him as sentimental and struggling, and gives him a backbone in the moments where it counts. But more significantly, his backstory is more than an idle joke or a tweaked line. It’s an integral part of the story. It affects Belle’s character, and alters her actions, and leads to a strong new scene that deepens Belle’s relationship with Beast. It hints at how much better and more committed the other character changes could have been as well.
In an interview with USA Today, actor Josh Gad boasts that the film improves LeFou, a character originally “defined by cartoon conceits,” by “expanding on that, giving him dimension, making him human.” That’s a worthy goal that might have made Beauty and the Beast feel less like an empty experiment in visual hyperbole, or at best, a timid toe testing the waters of diversity. But for the most part, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast doesn’t follow through on Condon’s promises about LeFou, or on Gad’s enthusiastic claims. It doesn’t follow through on many of its gambits. It’s much more dedicated to copycatting a classic, while making it bigger, louder, and broader. For a $160 million movie, endlessly hyped and trumpeted as a ground-breaking act of creativity and imagination, that’s a remarkably small and unworthy goal.
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