Beauty and the Beast review
Beauty and the Beast is a lush movie musical crafted in the tradition of its 1991 predecessor. ©Walt Disney Studios

A tale as old as time surely deserves to be updated every now and then. After the success of Disney’s live action remakes and re-imaginings like Cinderella, Maleficent and Jungle Book (see our review), it’s inevitable that the House of Mouse would refresh one of the studio’s most iconic and beloved animated films for this millennium.

Based on the 1740 French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast is a lush and colourful movie musical crafted in the tradition of its 1991 animated predecessor and Broadway production. Belle (Emma Watson) is an introverted, bookish young woman who has been branded both the village beauty and weirdo by those who simply don’t get her love for reading and thinking up alternative ideas.

She spends her days dreaming of bigger adventures beyond her provincial life, caring for her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), and dodging the advances of the handsome but brutish Gaston (Luke Evans).

No one… creeps like Gaston! Luke Evans (right) lands the plum role of Gaston, Belle’s brutish admirer and easily one of Disney’s best villains. ©Walt Disney Studios

While on his travels, Maurice is captured and held captive by a beast, who is really a prince (Dan Stevens) transformed by a curse. Belle sacrifices her freedom to take her father’s place and promises to stay with the beast in a dilapidated, forgotten castle. It’s filled with servants who have been turned into enchanted furniture and household objects that can move, talk and, of course, sing! These CGI characters are voiced by an ensemble of veterans including Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson who play the iconic trio Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs Potts respectively.

Rather unexpectedly, a friendship forms between the two. But the plot thickens when Gaston goes looking for Belle and hatches a diabolical plan to force her hand in marriage.

I’m a diehard fan of the original which I saw countless times as  a kid (ok fine, as an adult too) and still remember every song word for word. So is the “gay moment” in the movie “totally unnecessary”, as the National Council of Churches Singapore would have it, and signal “a marked departure from the 1991 Disney classic”?

Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, Lumiere and Plumette who are voiced by Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Gugu Mbatha-Raw respectively. ©Walt Disney Studios

I’m pleased to report that Beauty and the Beast honours the traditions and, more importantly, upholds the humanism of its predecessor. It is faithful to the source material but not slavishly so, and under the stewardship of director Bill Condon, the narrative has been tweaked to make it more complex and boost its contemporary relevance.

One of those tweaks is the “exclusively gay moment”, as Condon puts it, enjoyed by Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (a hilarious Josh Gad), who is portrayed as a gay man. In the US, this has triggered calls for a boycott of the movie by conservative Christians. In our neck of the woods, the film has been shelved in Malaysia and in Singapore, it has prompted Christian organisations to release advisories warning viewers of Disney’s “LGBTQ agenda”.

Contrary to the expectations a comment like Condon’s might stir, what “the moment” is in reality is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it few seconds of LeFou in a dreamy waltz with another man. So the knee-jerk reaction and public outcry – even before the movie has been released – in response to what I view as a little gesture of inclusiveness is rather extreme.

Beauty and the Beast review
Gaston and his sidekick LeFou (left) played to hilarious effect by Josh Gad. ©Walt Disney Studios

I must say that I’m also growing very tired of a popular counter-argument accusing conservatives of being offended by homosexual content while being perfectly fine with bestiality. This is a grossly reductive point and it really doesn’t help move the conversation forward by being this literal. Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale in which the fantastical elements are metaphors, and the beastly man symbolises a person wrestling with internal demons.

Those against Disney’s more progressive decisions here would have you believe that this is an outright flouting of the studio’s supposed reputation as a mainstream, family friendly institution. I’m contesting this on grounds that an important point made by both the original and the contemporary remake has been sadly missed here. That there are those who have ironically judged a movie, which is about looking past the surface, at face value.

With its catchy songs, cutesy characters and sparkly happy ending, it’s easy to forget that Beauty and the Beast was in fact ahead of its time. There were virtually no other mainstream animated films for children then, that dealt with humanism and navigated the grey areas as deftly as it did. This is a story where the prince’s curse is that his looks should reflect the ugliness within and it’s only broken when he learns to love another. It’s where the heroine values courage and knowledge over romantic love and the real monster is a sociopathic bully dressed as the celebrated town hero.

Beauty and the Beast review
Something there that wasn’t there before… Belle and Beast become closer. ©Walt Disney Studios

The remake boldly spends more time fleshing out these ideas, anchored by Belle and Beast’s love story and their tragic pasts. What develops is a heartfelt connection of the mind and soul between two awkward bookworms who understand one another because they are both ostracised by mainstream society. Their story advocates looking beyond superficial differences and that the freedom to be yourselves, and to be loved for it, is the most beautiful thing.

This is the reason I think it’s unfair and technically inaccurate to quickly infer that the live-action remake has wandered far from the 1991 animated film. The LGBTQ representation is in keeping with the humanistic themes of Beauty and the Beast, and a contemporary update that feels organic.

I really hope that all the unnecessary controversy doesn’t eclipse the infectious exuberance of this handsomely-made film. It is devastatingly beautiful with its intricate Baroque-inspired sets and costumes and the filmmakers have effectively recreated the splendour of the song-and-dance sequences. My spirit was immediately lifted at the start with the opening number “Belle” and by “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast”, I was in tears. The fact that the music held up after all these years is testament to the genius pairing of composer Alan Menken and late lyricist Howard Ashman.

Beauty and the Beast review
The iconic “Beauty and Beast” waltz that brought this softie of a reviewer to tears. ©Walt Disney Studios

Kudos to the impeccably cast ensemble who did an admirable job breathing new life into the characters we know and love. I admit I didn’t think Watson performed that remarkably – her book smart, plucky Belle isn’t a big leap from her Hermione. But her likeability and sweet-sounding voice make Belle compelling enough to watch.

Evans perhaps landed the most plum role of the lot with Gaston, easily one of Disney’s best villains. But the show stealer has got to be Gad’s LeFou. If Belle is the film’s courageous heart, and Beast its soul, then LeFou is the funny bone.

The only grouse I have is that the pivotal transformation scene at the end was too rushed and, as a result, it felt contrived and a little hollow. But all in all, Beauty and the Beast is an affecting update that strengthens the timelessness of this beloved classic.

Beauty and the Beast opens tomorrow. Do you plan on catching it at the cinemas?