I do hope that in the unlikeliest event where Emma Watson happened to read this review of the film, she would appreciate my reference in the title to one of the OWLS grades in the Harry Potter films series, which catapulted the 26-year-old star to fame and stardom more than a decade ago. Because it is exactly this kind of cross-text reference that’s abound in this year’s remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). This is a film that has leveraged so heavily on intertextuality few moments have passed during its screen time without other films popping into the mind of a reasonably experienced member of the audience. Before Belle gets rescued by Beast, I almost expected Belle to try imitating a wolf’s howling like Hermione so wittily did in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Intertextuality is nothing new to the Disney’s production of this story. Belle, in the 1991 version, I realised upon some looking up, once said to her father, “I will not leave you.” comically echoing Luke Skywalker’s monumental line in Star Wars. As living objects around Belle and Beast awkwardly but well-meaningly conspire for them to fall in love, the comical elements of the film could also be reminiscent of that in Pride and Prejudice, in which the male and female protagonist fall in love gradually amid some tension and considerable pressure clumsily applied by people around them. And of course the ever-green motif of beauty paired with a beast is there, as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The adorable interactions between Lumière and Cogsworth call to mind fond memories of R2-D2 and C-3PO; and the mysterious enchantress, who disguises herself as Agatha the beggar evokes images of Cate Blanchett in The Lord of the Rings. This sense of intertextuality heightens even further when you compare the sense of shame and inferiority Beast feels to the pangs of self-loathe that Ron Weasley suffers when he starts to harbour special feelings for Hermione Granger.
All of which, is not necessarily a bad thing. And as many have noted, Belle, the heroine in Beauty and the Beast, shares many characteristics that have been associated with Hermione Granger, Emma Watson’s most well recognised role up to date. Both of these characters are intelligent, beautiful and, above all, brave. The resemblance, of course, has not rendered Emma Watson’s Belle any less persuasive, but mere resemblance would not have made Belle lovable enough a character to dazzle if the quality of the production as a whole does not stand up to scrutiny.
It would be a pity if this film were taken to be intending to get across the message that inner beauty outweighs its outward counterpart. Something clichéd like that would have not taken this much meticulousness evidenced in its script, characterisation and plot development. The narrative actually sinks into much more depth and has the intelligence to concern itself with more intricate and loftier issues. It does not stop at portraying love as a mere high-inducing, heart-throbbing and blood-pumping amourous feeling, but as a course that involves, at times, moral struggles and difficult decisions. Like most other Disney films, it concerns itself with all kinds of love — the romance, the friendship and the parent-child relationship. But not like every Disney film, it also dares to ask serious questions — to what extent are we willing to sacrifice ourselves, including our own freedom and happiness, for someone we love? It asks us to reflect on whether we’re like Belle, who is willing to sacrifce herself for her old-aged father or Beast, who could bear to remain ugly for ever so as to let Belle go to the rescue of her troubled and beloved father. This daringness to be deep, like that of Belle, “the only bookworm in her village”, makes it more than a mere ride of thrill.
Dramatically juxtaposing the Beast (the hero who is gentle inside but ugly outside) and its chief villain, Gaston (the diametrical foil who is handsome and strong outside but bestial inside), it effectively and affective plays out a truth — to love selfishly and fakely is to make a trophy of the fairest person among all to satisfy one’s vanity and narcissism like Gaston; while to love nobly is to place the happiness of the one you love above your own like Beast. To love oneself is to be jealous, controlling and possessive; to get the girl by your side with all ruthlessness, even if this were to be done by duress and to love another is to let go and set free. Quite comically roaring at Belle for not having dinner with him, Beast did not start out to be much more skilful or selfless a suiter than Gaston, but he has quite intriguingly evolved, into something more properly humane than possibly anyone else in the film. Even when Beast was faced with the “competition” from Belle’s father, who is, of course, a very real rival on a Freudian level, he was able to let go of her, even when he had the absolute power to keep her his prisoner. Gaston’s shallowness and ignorance, on the other hand, is highlighted through ingenious lines such as “Belle is the most beautiful girl in the village / That makes her the best!” and his very telltale suggestion of cruelly putting up Beast’s head as his household decor after he kills him. And the contrast between Beast and Gaston is, of course, paralleled by that between the cheap and tacky looking girls in the village and the classy and dignified heroine — Belle herself.
“But hey, wait, you’re saying that this remake is creative because it copies a few clever lines from the original?” I heard you say. Of course the allure of this film has also to lie in many other places, where much of the available room for innovation has been joyfully occupied. Classic fairy tales could give the impression that their characters are simplistic and either black (bad) or white (good). But a simplistic solution is not something that we find the characterisation of LeFou, Gaston’s gay servant who has a slightly awkward crush on his macho master did not end up submitting to Gaston like he did at first. Instead, we get to see him grow up out his blind idolatry when his romantic sentiments comes in conflict with his conscience. We can also find some nice dimension in the moving portrayal of Belle’s loving relationship with her father. While Belle seems to know her father better than he himself does, the papa echoes the daughter’s declaration that she will never consent to marrying Gaston. And this motif of loving father and daughter seems to be engagingly reminiscent of the relationship between Cosette and Jean Valjean in Les Mis to me.
Attributes of characters are often carved out in a literal manner with an abundance of symbolisms. The size and “provincialism” of the village which Belle detests symbolise its bigotry and small mindedness, which of course the fearless Belle would refuse to conform to. As far as figurative speech is concerned, symbolisms are, of course, inseparable from allegories and analogies, which are also blissfully plenteous. When Beast has shown how foolish he is to the enchantress, his appearance literally becomes as ugly as his inner self. In a symmetrical manner, his repentance in the end, which he dramatically asserts by touching declaring “I am no beast” in his cut-throat duel with Gaston, has the redemptive effect of recovering his handsome appearance.
And upon the ending, mature members of the audience like me would probably rejoice and cheer at the triumphant appearance of Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson and Sir Ian McKellen.
If anything, this story is saying that inner and outer beauty aren’t that different after all. Beauty cannot die while virtue survives. Like the Jungle Book, which was remade magnificently last year, Beauty and the Beast explores what it means to love and to be human (recall how animalistic and brutish Gaston, who lustfully and covetously stares at Belle and, ironically, how noble Beast is). Only that Beauty and the Beast adds on what the Jungle Book did not have the chance to explore. If what the Jungle Book told us was that to be human means to be intelligent, Beauty and the Beast has told us that to be intelligent means to make no assumptions, look past the surface without succumbing to fear of the unknown. This message could not have been more apparent than when Gaston successfully incite sheep-like villagers to follow his lead into the forest to the Beast’s castle, in a very Les Mis and French-Revolutionary-mob-like manner, to take down the “barricade”.
Of course all these are not to say that Beauty and the Beast is a flawless work. Although Belle and Beast share the traumatic childhood memory of prematurely losing their mothers as well as a taste for Shakespeare, sympathy and common interest alone perhaps do not provide enough sparks for romance to be fermented within such a short space. As you could expect, the way these characters fall in love is all quite Shakespearean — there could hardly be any valid trigger apart from a magically sharp sense of intuition. Nor does the overall brilliance of the narrative and the visuals provide a logical explanation to the apparent agility of the Beast (who, by the way, has survived two arrow shots) when he jumps from one roof to another in a scene that is reminiscent of numerous of those similar in Harry Potter films or why Philip the horse was brave enough to return to the shudder inducing mansion of Beast. And there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to rebut accusations of white-washing (You will know what I mean when you see it). But all flaws can be gladly forgiven and put aside; we’ve had a feast of a night being guests at this Gothic castle.
(Thumbnail credit: giphy)