From The Jungle Book to Alice in Wonderland, and now Beauty and the Beast, Disney has entered a new era of production, focusing on excavating from its vaults the animated masterpieces of the past, and transforming them into modernized and socially relevant live action spectacles. With the aid of new computer animation technology and more in depth screen writing, they seek to capitalize on their past successes and introduce new generations to long beloved stories. They also don’t plan to slow down the remake train any time in the near future as they have recently announced Mulan and Aladdin coming soon. This leads me to wonder, is Disney remaking their classic films in attempts to bleed their already built in audience of every penny or do they have other reasons behind this business move, such as keeping their brand relevant for the upcoming Generation Z?
These new versions of our old favorites feature beautiful sets, detailed costumes, and lush cinematography, making them a pleasure to watch. Then again, it’s easier to build a beautiful façade on an old house with strong foundations than to construct a new house from the ground up. However, these films are more than just visually appealing. It seems Disney has started a crusade to improve upon the story flaws of their animated classics, modernizing them to better reflect evolved audiences. In the new scripts, classic heroes and villains present complex thoughts and motivations; the writers expand upon their backstories and fill plot holes from the originals. Disney also seems to realize that of all the films in their cannon, the classic princess stories are due for an upgrade.
The remake-mania all began with Maleficent. It may not have been the first remake, but it certainly was the most groundbreaking. The moderately successful retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective made the Disney remake strategy seem viable. Maleficent starred Angelina Jolie as the titular character in the coming of age story of a hero turned villain, forced to turn to evil by a world fraught with injustice. It was a creative idea and it changed the way modern audiences interact with the story of Sleeping Beauty. With Maleficent, Disney also began to address the problem of female agency in their early films. Notably, the original Sleeping Beauty often receives criticism for the fact that its protagonist only has about eighteen lines of dialogue in the entire film.
In the same vein, Cinderella was also overdue for an upgrade. I can’t imagine that Generation Z girls, being so far removed from the 1950’s context from which the film originated, identify well with the original plot. A story of an orphaned girl who hangs around to do housework for her terrible step mother (singing contentedly while she goes) and whose sole consolation is speaking to mice, has likely resonated less and less with each subsequent generation since its creation. In the 2015 live action version, Lily James portrays a Cinderella with a real personality. The new Cinderella is feminine and sweet, but also strong and opinionated. She is kind in the face of cruelty, not because she is unaffected by the abuse she receives, but because she has a strong moral compass. With Cinderella, Disney transforms a lack luster character into a role model for young girls. They also give her character a strong motivation for remaining as a servant in her own home after her father dies: to protect her cherished family home from ruination at the hands of her stepmother, Lady Tremaine.
Lady Tremaine, expertly played by Cate Blanchett, also benefits from deeper exploration in the new script. The story expands upon her feelings of rejection by a husband grieving the memory of his first wife and her jealousy over the attention he gives to his beloved daughter. The exploration of Lady Tremaine’s twisted thoughts and feelings allows the audience to better understand the motivation behind her abusive behavior. The audience feels the wrongdoing more keenly, allowing us to identify with Cinderella, and making her ultimate escape from servitude all the more satisfying.
This new take on the classic also undoes the tried and true fairytale staple of love at first sight. Cinderella meets the prince prior to the ball, while he is out hunting in the woods, at which point she challenges him over the injustice of hunting for sport. Prince Charming, played by Richard Madden, now has a real name (Kit) and a personality. He falls in love not with her beauty, but with Cinderella’s empathetic nature which inspires him in his influential role as prince and future king.
Cinderella clearly needed a refresh, but then the question remains, why remake a more recent Disney classic? Disney’s newest remake of Beauty and the Beast seems unnecessary. The original was only released in 1991 and was the first ever animated film to be nominated for best picture, making it a less obvious contender for a makeover. The live action version was also much closer to the original than Maleficent or Cinderella, most notably because it kept the Oscar winning music from the original. For this reason, I went into the theater skeptical, but will admit that I left having thoroughly enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast. Disney made a wise casting choice in Emma Watson who breathes personality into the somewhat eccentric role of Belle, adding new dimension to the familiar songs through her nuanced delivery.
Like the other princess film remakes, the new Beauty and the Beast fills some plot holes. For example, the introduction reveals that the enchantress who cursed the prince also erased the existence of the castle from the memory of the townspeople, helping explain why there is a random castle near the town that no one seems to know about. It also develops a believable love storyline for Belle and the Beast (played by Dan Stevens), distancing it from the Stockholm syndrome taint of the earlier film. Belle and the Beast share the same experience of having lost their mothers at an early age; they both love reading and can quote Shakespeare; and most importantly, they understand each other because they both feel like outsiders. The film reveals these similarities by providing both characters with real backstories that surface as Belle and the Beast spend time together. We learn that the reason Belle has always felt out of place in her provincial town is that she doesn’t actually belong there; she and her father are transplants who escaped from the plague-ridden Paris. No one in the town has a point of reference for this educated girl who makes crazy inventions and borrows books from the local priest. She also notably defies social conventions by teaching a young girl in the illiterate town to read, thus cementing her place as the village pariah.
Surprisingly, the stand out role in the film is Gaston played by Luke Evans (aka Bard in The Hobbit). Apart from Evans having the best signing voice of the lead characters, his character also benefits from the greatest level of development. The new Gaston is a war hero and is used to gaining accolades for violent acts. He is a hunter who likes the thrill of the chase, leading him to continually seeks Belle’s hand in marriage despite her resistance. As one of the few members of the town who has spent time outside of its boundaries he also appreciates her uniqueness. He is a narcissist who is used to getting his way in the town, and the rebellious Belle would be his greatest trophy. The new movie elevates the song “Gaston,” transforming it from a quotable to bar song to a comedic exploration of the vanity and narcissism of the film’s villain and the pack mentality of the town who enables him. It paves the way for the town’s murderous turn in “The Mob Song”, establishing the control Gaston has over the townspeople to channel their provincial ignorance towards violent riot when he is later outraged at being rejected by Belle for the Beast. These ugly themes of jealousy and hatred of difference were always present in the original songs, but by building out complexity in the characters singing them, the original themes gain profundity.
Overall Disney did manage to improve on the classic with the new Beauty and the Beast, but they could have pushed it farther. The film ends with Belle and the Beast throwing a ball at the castle, a moment which visually mirrors an earlier scene where the prince is cursed by the enchantress and turned into a beast for his vanity and extravagant selfishness. Why then does Disney decide to end the film with another lavish display of wealth? I know it’s fun to end on a celebration, but it would have been a much better marker of both Belle and the Beast’s growth to show them opening the castle’s library to the children of the town or showing Belle incorporating her inventions into the daily running of the castle. Cinderella may end on a wedding scene, but at least it gives a clear indication that Cinderella and Kit plan serve the people of their kingdom and foster social justice.
Ultimately, I think Disney is afraid to alienate their fan base by being too progressive. The new live action remakes have a high production value and greater character depth. They also have subtly begun to push for greater diversity in their casting (though not in starring roles) and in the interpretations of some of the original cast roles. Most notably, Beauty and the Beast hints that the character LeFou may be gay, which led to some boycotting of the film around the world. However, these objections seem to be the exception, not the norm, as was proven when it hit the billion-dollar mark at the box office. The remake machine has proven to be a valuable enterprise for the entertainment giant, especially in a market saturated with franchises and comic book movies (most of which are also made by Disney), but I would challenge Disney not to rely on safe investments. Eventually, they will run out of original content to retell (not that they invented the original fairytales in the first place). We have seen that the magic of Disney is still alive in their recent animated films like Frozen and Moana. It’s time for them to take a risk and inject some of this magic into a new and original, live action master work.