Why remake a film that many consider to be perfect? In the case of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — the 1991 animated classic that was one of the most important parts of Disney’s early ‘90s renaissance both as a studio and an animation powerhouse — the idea was simply to create something new out of a movie and story that are beloved by generations of fans: the tale of how a young woman named Belle is taken prisoner by a brooding Beast in his castle, only to discover that compassion and love are all that are necessary to bring out the man inside the monster.
“You just start with that basic idea that you’re going to take it into a new medium, which is live-action,” said director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) during a press conference for the film in Los Angeles. “An animated film is a little more exaggerated, so it has to come into reality. Once you start to investigate that, then you realize that there are questions that maybe you never asked before, that you want to know about. How did Belle and Maurice wind up in this village, where they’re outsiders? That leads to new songs. And then, suddenly, you’re creating something new.”
Condon was joined at the press conference by his cast — Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Josh Gad (Le Fou), Audra McDonald (Garderobe) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) — along with composer Alan Menken, to discuss taking the timeless story that the 1991 film told so well and updating both its characters and its score. The latter was achieved by adding three new songs to help flesh out the plot, while the former was accomplished by making Belle more book-smart and intellectual, giving her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) more of a back story, and putting a new spin on Le Fou and turning him into Disney’s first unabashedly gay major character.
Menken added, “When Bill came aboard, we had meetings about what would we add, and one of the things we talked about was getting into the backstory of how Maurice and Belle came to the town, and the backstory for the Beast and how he became such a cold and callous young man. We tried to root ourselves much more in the time and place of 18th century France, and that really helped, immensely.”
In terms of making Belle a woman whom modern audiences — and especially young girls — could find more relatable, Watson said, “It’s really remarkable to play someone that I’m almost sure had an influence on the woman that I have become.” She continued, “I was so young that I didn’t even know what I was tapping into, but there was something about that spirit and energy that I just knew she was my champion. When I knew I was taking on this role, I wanted to make sure that I was championing that same spirit, those same values, and that same young woman that made me who I am today.
“I love that, in our version, Belle not only doesn’t fit in, (but) you see her reading and she’s actually an activist within her own community,” Watson added. “She’s teaching other young girls, who are part of the village, to read. I love moments like that, where you could see her expanding beyond just her own little world and trying to grow. That was amazing to get to do.”
For Dan Stevens and Luke Evans — Belle’s captor and suitor, respectively, although the roles are gradually reversed — the challenges were different ones. Stevens played a digitally enhanced character while wearing a muscle suit and walking on stilts: “Just to support that muscle suit on stilts was a challenge that I’d never really encountered before,” he explained. “I’ve definitely been taking a more physical approach to my roles, in the last few years, and just training myself in different ways.”
As for Evans, he wanted to make Gaston a more three-dimensional villain: “I played on the humanity of the character. He is larger than life. There was a lot to pull on. He was a war hero, of sorts. His murals are all over the pub that he drinks in. There is this animalistic soldier in him, when he finally fights the Beast on the rooftops. You see this man who’s out for blood, and it’s a scary moment to see the arc of somebody who was the loveable buffoon of the village becoming the monster.”
Putting a new slant on Le Fou’s sexuality was perhaps the most substantial difference with the animated film, and sadly the most controversial one: the film was slapped with a “mature” rating in Russia, Disney has pulled it from Malaysia rather than censor it, and even a theater in Alabama — here in the freedom-loving U.S.A. — has refused to show the movie.
It’s regrettable to hear about these events in 2017, but Condon — speaking just after the Alabama news had broken — was unapologetic: “It’s a translation to 2017, you know? And what is this movie about? What has this story always been about? For 300 years, it’s about looking closer, going deeper, and accepting people for who they really are. In a very Disney way, we are including everybody. I think this movie is for everybody and, on the screen, you’ll see everybody. That was important to me and, I think, to all of us.”
Watson got the last word on that subject, stressing that the central theme of Beauty and the Beast is finding the common ground and the humanity within and between all of us, a trait personified by the character of Belle: “I was just really proud to play a character that has a certain earnestness about her,” she remarked. “She’s not, in any way, ashamed of that. It’s not easy being an outsider and it’s not easy to pick battles. It’s not easy to try to move and work against the grain or the status quo. But Belle does so with this amazing fearlessness. She has the support of her father, but it’s something that she weathers on her own, really, at the end of the day. I’m very grateful that this character exists, and that I get to bring her to life. It’s fantastic.”
Beauty and the Beast opens in theaters on Friday (March 17).