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Beauty and the Beast

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SISTER HELENA BURNS, FSP

The live-action "Beauty and the Beast" is a lovely and faithful rendition of the animated version – faithful to the point of an almost frame-by-frame facsimile. Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as The Beast play their roles with precision. The stunning Audra McDonald – that voice! – plays the operatic chifferobe.

Beauty is within

A distinctively delicious, seasoned British female narrator gets us right into the story, overemphasizing every precious syllable of every familiar, winsome word. We hear and see The Beast's back story, the curse, the harsh punishment and high stakes he is engaged in. We can see immediately that – although a pretty exact replica of the animated version – this is not going to be a lazy re-telling. No effort will be spared to spin a lavish yarn. There's lots of CGI, but the virtuality is well-blended with actuality. (CGI is well-justified, what with the walking, talking clocks, candelabra, chifferobe, footstool, tea cups, etc.) The wonderful dictum/premise/"karmic statement" is pronounced by the rebuffed enchantress to the selfish prince-turned-animal: "Beauty is within." The prince-turned-Beast must get someone to fall in love with him or he and his whole household will remain frozen as they are: he, a beast, and they, inanimate objects.

The opening scene is a big musical number in the little French village, which is our setting; and we sit back and relax, and go along for the ride. The pace/exposition is pretty exquisite: clever and never lagging. Belle, while externally beautiful, is also "different," like The Beast himself. She's a bookworm (an unusual pursuit for young ladies of the time). Therefore, in a sense, her beauty is also "within." Her deceased mother – from Paris – was also different, "until people started imitating her." Belle's father, a kindly Geppetto-like man, is a watchmaker. Kevin Kline plays this rather minor character with nuance, warmth and relish.

Taming the beast

Belle's father heads into town, and Belle asks for only one item – as is her tradition: a rose. The father's horse gets lost, and they wind up at the Beast's castle for the night; but they don't encounter The Beast until, on his way home, Belle's father innocently picks a rose from The Beast's garden. The Beast imprisons him in the castle. The horse gallops back to Belle who has him take her back to the castle where she tricks both her father and the Beast into letting her take her father's place. This act of kindness begins to melt the Beast's icy heart ever so slowly – especially when he realizes that she might be a savior if he can get her to fall in love with him.

Meanwhile, Belle's father returns to the village and tries to recruit help, but his story sounds fantastical. Gaston – enraged with jealousy that Belle may be falling in love with The Beast – has her father locked up as insane, stirs up the townspeople through fearmongering, and they all set out chanting "kill the beast!"

Disney Belles

I think I would like to have seen a longer character arc for The Beast – where he doesn't get so easily "tamed." I would rather have seen more of Belle and Beast working it out, fits and starts, victories and setbacks – all because of his character flaws (and maybe a few on Belle's part!) Belle is near-perfect with no character development necessary. I guess that's becoming true of all Disney heroines: just be "feisty" and "strong" and buck all "feminine gender roles" – as if that's the only kind of girl-woman we should want to emulate. The Beast could have been even more scary and merciless at the beginning, even though he cruelly imprisons Belle's father: "a life sentence for a rose" – as he was given.

‘Tale as old as time’

The particularly charming title song: "...tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme: beauty and the beast," remind me of John Paul II's phrase in regard to male-female love: "the perennial gift," and also the fact that while men civilize the world for the benefit of all humanity (transcendence), women "civilize" men – for the benefit of all humanity (immanence). Men are experts at the impersonal/objective, while women are experts at the personal/subjective. Both types of truth must always work together, hand in hand.