Film

Disney modernizes a tale as old as time with live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a common complaint: “Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas,” and it’s evident in the reimaginings of everything from “Annie” to “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

It’s not a new concept, though. Take “Beauty and the Beast,” a “tale as old as time” (or in this case, 1740 — the year Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “La Belle et la Bete” was published, the first known version of the story), which has been redone by director Bill Condon and with British actors Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in the title roles. It has brought in more than $480 million at the box office so far, and Stevens credits the story’s lineage for part of this success.

“It’s familiar. It’s as if the animated version set the stage for this one,” the 34-year-old actor says, referring to the 1991 Disney cartoon of the same name. “And going back a bit before that, there was an American TV series (starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman) that I recall was quite popular. It sort of resurrected the story for contemporary audiences and paved the way for the Disney version.”

Stevens’ own screen debut came in a remake of a different sort, a “Frankenstein” mini-series in 2004. But he shot to stardom for his role in the popular period program “Downton Abbey” as the debonair Matthew Crawley. An all-too-soon departure from that show gave Stevens a shot at film, though he has been winning praise for his role in another TV show as of late, “Legion.”

By contrast, 27-year-old Emma Watson has been in blockbusters since she was old enough to wave a wand. At 11 she appeared in the first of eight “Harry Potter” movies as Hermione Granger. She continues to land hit roles, but has also become well-known as a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador and staunch advocate for gender equality.

Watson points out that even though “Beauty and the Beast” was written in a time when women had very few rights, audiences can still take away a positive message.

“Fairy tales are a sexist genre,” she says. “The female’s goal is nearly always marriage and nothing else. The youngest daughter or son is always, without exception, the most attractive (in the family) and the nicest. I don’t know why!

“But ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is also about a young woman of principle who learns to stand up to a frightening creature or individual. Hopefully, I’ve infused her with some backbone and gumption. She has gumption and I have gumption!”

Along these lines, Watson says Condon’s version is a more realistic version of the story that will appeal to a more sophisticated younger audience. It’s a “fantasy, but a grown-up fantasy,” she says, “and not just because it isn’t cartoon characters.”

Playing the roles of Belle’s coterie of home furnishings are such A-listers as Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts the teapot), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere the candelabra) and Sir Ian McKellen (Cogsworth the clock).

“It was a big part of the animated movie and the way it’s done here is technically very clever, but it still has that traditional movie magic,” Watson says. “It’s whimsical but not childish. It can charm children and adults who are willing to be charmed.”

Both Watson and Stevens credit director Condon’s artistic vision and creativity for helping shape the film. One thing that he decided to do in his “Beauty and the Beast” was make one of the characters gay, a first for a Disney film. This caused the governments of Kuwait, Malaysia and Russia — and one drive-in cinema in Alabama — to threaten to censor the scene or ban the film entirely (Malaysia and Russia ended up screening the film; in Russia it came with a warning).

The controversy wound up being much ado about very little, though: A scene involving one male character, LeFou (Josh Gadd), dancing with the film’s macho antagonist, Gaston (Luke Evans), in which a romantic spark ignites. It occurs during the film’s final ball sequence and is very brief. Some say it’s progress, “which it is for Disney,” adds Watson, while others say it didn’t go nearly far enough.

McKellen, 77, is an openly gay actor who starred in Condon’s 1998 film “Gods and Monsters,” which was based on the final days of gay director James Whale. McKellen earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal.

“The so-called gay moment here is important in terms of realism and inclusiveness,” McKellen says. “This picture includes actors of color in what would once have been unlikely roles. There is less effort to include gay characters, but I commend Bill for including this special moment which has won far more praise than put-downs, outside of countries which put down so many of their own citizens.

“The smashing box-office returns of this ‘Beauty and the Beast’ prove that reality is part and parcel of today’s films — of any genre — and that people aren’t only more accepting but can be positively influenced to embrace kindness and tolerance. Which, in a way, is what this fairy tale is all about.”

While the original fairy tales often served as warnings to children on how to behave, it’s nice to know that today’s narrators are keener on how they can positively influence the youth. Watson believes this retelling is playing a part.

“There is a ‘moral’ — about people who are initially enemies, or seem to be, becoming familiar with each other and then affection develops,” she says. “The key is patience and overcoming one’s own fears, trying to see the good that may be hidden by some difference — as with Belle not taking the Beast strictly at face value.”

“Beauty and the Beast” (Japan title: Bijo to Yaju) is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.disney.co.jp/movie/beautyandbeast.html.