There’s really nothing more that I hate than the phrase “ruined my childhood” or the billions of more vulgar variants on it. I don’t believe that a new thing that capitalizes on something you liked when you were a kid is capable of “ruining” it, because your childhood already happened. Unless the creators of this lame new thing magically time-travelled back to when you were five and tormented your little mind, giving you PTSD related to your once beloved film/book/whatever, you’re just being melodramatic.
So no, Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon and based on Disney’s own 1991 animated feature (which I love deeply), did not “ruin my childhood.” But it did inspire a deep disappointment in me, a malaise with both the Disney Company and their practice of releasing what are basically photocopies of their former glory but in live action, woah, that I found myself seemingly incapable of articulating without feeling like I’m parroting either myself or one of several tired old chestnuts of film criticism that I’ve attempted to avoid.
- “Oh man, all these reboots and remakes are just a sign that Hollywood has no creativity anymore.”
- I do think that Condon’s film is a deeply unimaginative take on the earlier Disney film that’s mostly interested in capitalizing on a brand name most people are familiar with due to cultural osmosis, but using it as evidence that there’s just no creativity to go around anymore, even amongst remakes, is ridiculous. Just last year, Disney completely confounded my expectations by turning their 1977 hybrid live-action/animation feature Pete’s Dragon from a draggy, hollow musical into a surprisingly heartfelt and solidly made E.T. homage. If they can get me to care about a CGI dragon that bafflingly has fur instead of scales, there’s life in that old dog yet. Just not here, apparently.
- “Why can’t it just be like the good old days where everything Disney made was great?”
- I have quite a lot of Nostalgia Filter going on when I look back at the Disney movies that shaped my childhood, as do most people that grew up on Disney, I’d assume. That said, I haven’t abandoned my critical facilities entirely when it comes to the Disney canon. I don’t hold nearly as much affection for The Little Mermaid or The Lion King as I used to, for instance. Beauty and the Beast is a different animal altogether, though: it held and still holds a lot of personal significance to me, as a queer person, as a reader and a writer, as a film lover, as someone who wants to believe in goodness and love and all that great squishy romantic stuff. So when I complain about this new thing, it’s specifically in relation to Disney’s earlier film…
- “There’s no respect for the classics anymore.”
- …but not like this. I try not to turn pieces of art into sacred cows that have “purity” that can be retained somehow, because everyone’s going to react differently to it, and nothing is perfect if only by the simple fact that human beings are innately flawed, and the reflections we create in art are likewise flawed. Beauty and the Beast wasn’t owed any more respect than any other film simply because of my love for it. Things are going to be remade and revisited in differing fashions constantly as the years go by, and I just have to accept that.
- “I can’t believe the damn kids today are gonna see this and have it be a part of their childhood instead of the ’91 film.”
- God, I’m too young to be thinking this, or anything like it. I’m 22. I can’t already be shaking my cane at people for liking things that I don’t like. What is wrong with me? Why am I even bothering?
Of course, when I ask myself those questions, my innate anti-hating-myself response is to say “Nothing is wrong! You phony-baloneys just Don’t Get It Like I Do! Retire, Bill Condon, ya fuckin’ assmaster!” But, well, that doesn’t change anything. It’s just me being a young man yelling at a cloud. So I’ve tried and tried to take something constructive from the disappointing experience I had watching this new film, from the initial sighs of resignation upon seeing that the human Beast in the film’s prologue had been Othered and signified as depraved and bad via shiny glittery eye shadow, to the involuntary twitches my eye made with every note from that great Menken/Ashman score that was flat or cut short, to my groans of disbelief at the way Josh Gad chose to play his character as gay by affecting a prissy tone of voice and using T-Rex arms like it was an ‘80s teen sex comedy, to my throwing up my hands in surrender when the Beast segued into giving Belle the library by insulting her taste in books.
But I can’t. I really can’t bring myself to want to try and learn or grow from a film that by its very existence discourages growth. I just want to be done with it, to have it expunged from my mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style. Even as I acknowledged that this was a bad idea, as it was in Eternal Sunshine, I tried to do the next best thing and watched the ’91 film for the umpteenth time the very same evening that I saw the new film in theaters, and was happy to find that it was still as wonderful as I remembered. For a short time, I thought that could be my takeaway: the ’91 film is still here, and always will be. Yet still I sit here in front of this computer, unsatisfied. Am I just too immature to move on from my reaction to the new film? It’s a stupid movie made full of stupid things that tried to be similar to a thing I liked and didn’t succeed. I’ve seen lots of those, and usually they don’t stick with me like this.
Then, after literally days of thinking, it hit me why I took such umbrage with it. And it all came back, as it always does, to Roger Ebert:
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”
The ’91 Beauty and the Beast was made with the idea in mind that audiences could be trusted to read between the lines, to not have the film’s themes spelled out for them at every turn, to not be afraid of having subtext rather than only text. It thrived on pure emotional storytelling, because, well, it was a fable. A parable. It illustrates, without constantly telling, the spontaneity of love sparked by mutual understanding of ostracism and the terrible effects of toxic masculinity. It’s a simple film, but a fulfilling and powerful one, and one that’s never less than honest about its intentions.
Condon’s film, on the other hand, seems to be born of a deep and passionate loathing of subtext, but provides nothing to replace it. For all the head-up-ass intellectualizing from both the promotional campaign and critics about how this new film is “more feminist” or “more gay-friendly” than the previous film or that it “explains all the plot holes,” it’s all tell and no show. You can tell me that there’s an actual real no-shit gay love story here, but what’s shown to me is a shitty, mocking jokey-joke stereotype acted out by a straight man for two hours followed by a single shot of two men looking at each other at the tail end of this incredibly heterosexual film. You can tell me that Belle’s characterization is OMG MORE PROGRESSIVE, but what’s shown to me is a subplot about inventing a washing machine that goes absolutely nowhere and contributes nothing of value to her characterization that wasn’t there before. And you can tell me that now, things like where Belle’s mother and the Beast’s parents were before the events of the story and why the servants were cursed are explained away, but what’s shown to me is a tasteless aside about how Belle’s mother was killed by the black plague (which is completely period-inaccurate*, but whatever) that Belle moves on from one scene later, a complete non-illustration of how the Beast came to be the way he is, and a somehow mean-spirited characterization of the servants that makes them look purely self-motivated in getting Belle and the Beast together.
And really, that’s why I take such umbrage with this new Disney live-action remake trend: they aren’t interested in appealing to your emotions anymore. They’re interested in selling you a brand, and the brand isn’t just a thing that you recognize; the brand is making you feel smarter for thinking you saw something “more intelligent” than the wonderful emotional experience you had. “Don’t trust your heart,” they say. “We know what’s good for you.” But they don’t. Their idea of enrichment comes from a completely disingenuous place. It’s pure pageantry, and it makes me deeply sad that people can’t see past its appearances and take a look at what it is on the inside.
Wait, that reminds me of something…eh, it probably wasn’t anything important.
*CORRECTION: I done goofed. That’s actually not as period-inaccurate as I thought. Thanks, Rose!