To this day, Disney’s original take on Beauty and the Beast – the 1991 animated classic - easily ranks as one of the absolute best films in the studios storied history. It offers a poignant, well-told love story, both efficiently crafted and expertly paced. Running at a brisk 84 minutes long, it told its story economically, without a single wasted breath, which is understandable perhaps, given the amount of painstaking, hand-crafted detail that went in to each and every frame.
In comparison, the new, live-action adaptation expands the running time by almost a full third. For 129 minutes, we're treated to a mostly beat-for-beat recreation of the story, told in a very familiar sort of way, with several key moments left mostly unchanged. The music, costumes, and production design all intentionally harken back to the original classic, albeit remixed to fit in with Disney's winning streak of live action adaptations of their animated masterpieces. But with so much familiarity on display, how does the film justify such a substantial increase in running time? Why take over two hours to tell a story that can just as well be told in eighty minutes?
As it turns out, in addition to the comparatively slower-pace of live-action, the new film makes several additions to the original's narrative - some more readily apparent than others. And while some of these additions are better integrated and more meaningful than others, few, if any, manage to justify themselves amidst the added bloat they create.
But let's take a closer look.
Perhaps the obvious additions are to the character of LeFou, played here by Josh Gad. The attempts to round out LeFou’s character (including hints at his unrequited infatuation with Gaston) are some of the film’s most obvious additions to the original film’s narrative – essentially promoting the character from his previous position as a glorified sidekick. That sounds great on paper, but how does it work in practice?
On the one hand, LeFou’s story is tangential and takes away from the focus of the narrative. But, unlike his cartoony counterpart, he also undergoes more of an arc in this version of the story: gushing over Gaston’s manliness then slowly growing appalled by his misdeeds as the film progresses.
And admittedly, it works well within the overriding thematic framework of the film, driving home the idea that outward appearances rarely tell the whole story. It’s not exactly necessary stuff, but it adds some dimensionality to the character that justifies the baggage it places on the overall narrative.
Moving beyond LeFou, the latest take on Beauty and the Beast falls in line with what appears to be a “backstory movement” present in all of the recent live-action Disney adaptations released thus far. In an attempt to break new ground and expand beyond archetypal templates, familiar characters are given new pasts in an attempt to deeper their role in the narrative. Cinderella’s Stepmother gets a backstory, for example, as does Shere Khan, and Maleficent - revisionist though it may be. Even Mowgli got a backstory.
Likewise, when Belle returns home to her father, we’re greeted with a stunning show-don’t-tell subdued song number about the moments she spent with her father designing a model of Belle’s late mother. “Tell me one more thing about her,” she says, surrounded by portraits of her mother, immediately communicating to the audience that this is a question she asked a hundred times as a child.
As sweet as this scene is, it’s indicative of the film’s most glaringly gratuitous arc: Why does the mystery of the fate of Belle’s mother add to this love story fairy tale? It wrings emotions, to be sure, but is that enough to justify the messiness it adds to the film’s structure?
Moreover, the film tries to complement Belle’s backstory with a deeper look into the Beast’s background as well. We learn that the Beast, as a child, was abused and/or severely spoiled by his father. But even if this is designed to give sympathy for the Beast and provide more motivation for his current behavior, none of that weight is studied in a particularly meaningful way.
There is a real attempt to tie these backstories into both the love story as well as the Beast’s character development. It allows the lovers to bond over deceased mothers and lonely pasts, but it fails to really justify itself. There’s already substantial time devoted to the developing relationship – we see the pair bonding over dinner, books, and a dance. It’s a natural progression that works fine on its own, much as it did in the original animated film. Instead, what was subtextual before – hints of an unhappy past - is outright spoken here. It prolongs the narrative rather than developing it.
In addition, the screenwriters also introduce a jarring plot device in the form of a magical book that reveals the fate of Belle’s mother… And not only does it stop the film dead in its tracks, but it also ends up generating an unnecessary plothole: Why doesn’t Belle use the book to teleport herself back to the castle and her father?
Backstory is often mistaken for substance, but if utilized without care, it can be arbitrary in the long run. By making the details of a character’s past overly explicit, you risk robbing them of nuance and subtly. Despite all legitimate attempts to make the backstories thematically relevant, they lead nowhere.
Of course, a big chunk of the film’s additional 45 minutes are made up of a host of new musical numbers, all of which vary in quality – especially in comparison to the 1991 film’s iconic soundtrack. And while there’s no shortage of debate already over how much the new songs add to this new version of Beauty and the Beast (aside from minutes, obviously), some of the numbers inarguably work better than others. Take the “Days In The Sun” sequence, for example. It might be blatant Oscar-bait for Alan Menken but it’s a gorgeous song in its own right, written like a piece of simple poetry that just about manages to stand alongside the original’s tunes.
It’s a sequence where everyone, from the phantom of the Prince’s childhood, to the servants, and even Belle muse about old days and their anguish. Within three minutes, the succession of imagery along with the lyrics expertly conveys the yearning nostalgia. It’s admittedly tangential – after all, we already know what the characters want and what they mourn for – but it adds a bit of poignant breathing room all the same.
It could even be argued that it’s not long enough. The sequence may have actually benefited from being expanded, especially since each character is given mere 2-4 lines of lyrics to express their emotions. It’s so abrupt that one can almost be forgiven for dismissing the sequence as gratuitous padding.
Writers (as well as directors and editors) need to be comfortable with killing their darlings or embracing them full on. Half-measures in this department, even in the name of pacing, rarely pays off. “Days in the Sun”, for example, proves to be a worthwhile addition in its own right – but it’s not really given the space necessary to truly make a mark.
Of course, not all “darlings” are created equal. Some, like Belle and Beast’s backstories, are compelling enough in a vacuum, but ultimately jam the overall narrative. It’s in this sense that the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast proves an imperfect companion piece to the animated original. Even if a handful of additions offer added depth for fans, they leave an after-taste of indulgence that pales in comparison to the original’s screenplay’s simplicity.
Take caution, writers, and remember: sometimes less is more.