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Relics and Replicas: A Retrospective Reimagining of 'Beauty and the Beast'

Ruth Li

Disney's latest rendition misses a kaleidoscope of potentialities: to revise and ruminate, to subvert and distort, to complicate and transcend.

Beauty and the Beast

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
Studio: Disney
Release date: 2017-03-17

Beauty and the Beast

Director: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Cast: Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Jesse Corti
Studio: Disney
Release date: 1991-11-22

In Disney's original Beauty and the Beast (1991), the prologue is told through a series of images painted on stained glass windows; we peer into a story that has already been immortalized in art. Yet in the opening of the new film, we witness the scene as it unfolds in time and space, as the young prince casts away the beggar woman and she transforms into an enchantress, revealing her true nature.

Nor is this a single instance: she is woven throughout the narrative, fashioning the fates of the characters with a power that transcends their, and at times our, knowledge. The veil that once shrouded this strange, mysterious character has been lifted, so to speak, and we are left to wonder at the extent of Agathe's agency.

It might be supposed that such a vision could expose new revelations into a timeless tale. However, it's difficult not to detect the multiple layers of ironies that shroud this vision: the striking juxtapositions between Belle's yearning for simplicity in the form of a rose and the ornate extravagance espoused by the scenes (which the film oddly embraces despite initially seeming to disparage the young prince's lavish vanity); the emphasis on feminist liberation and the conformist conventionalism of the crucial constructions; the notion that "true beauty is found within" and the painstaking production of superficial similitude; the impulse to bring a story to life and the retelling of an unchanged storyline that stifles the actors into lifelessness, entrapped in a embodiment of enervated expression that paradoxically perpetuates the characters' spiritual imprisonment.

As the title characters relate aloud this time around, both Belle and the Beast endure enslavement by the limitations and loneliness of their external environments, yet the actors themselves cannot escape the fabricated form and function into freedom of portrayal. In a disappointing disjunction between aesthetic agency and performative passivity, what the live-action film ironically lacks most is the animacy of the original: whereas the illustrated characters inhabit a full range of countenances and expressions, voices and attitudes, in 'real' life, the animate and inanimate alike seem mechanical and contrived rather than natural and organic.

Juxtaposed with the spellbinding songs that sing the story’s spirit, the new numbers fall flat; the opulence oppresses; the scenes stagnate. Indeed, in contrast with the suspenseful pace and riveting mood of the animated original, this film creates a composed, even complacent tone, almost as though it were the magnified, prolonged, and overblown version of a performance at Disneyland or a float at the Macy's parade, a conduit of capitalistic consumption confident in its capacity to charm all but the most cynical of connoisseurs.

In its essence, the work and its creators seem largely unaware of or unconcerned with the inherent tensions between simplicity and complexity, surface and depth, originality and derivation, innovation and tradition, life and art. It attempts to acknowledge these tensions in part through relics that gesture backward toward the past rather than forward toward the future.

Perhaps the most apt metaphor for the remake is Maurice's music box, which despite its meticulous craftsmanship as a representation of his world in miniature, cannot conjure reality and is instead left behind and forgotten as the plot propels forward. Even as Belle gazes into a mirror to see herself and anyone she can imagine in her mind's eye, and as we as viewers recall past images in an attempt to envision the future, the imitativeness inhibits the imagination.

Another addition, the magical book that transports its reader to a wished-for place, offers more revelation than concealment, but does not create narrative possibilities beyond providing a backstory. These material objects, like the film itself, remain a replica, one restrained by the boundaries of its own materiality.

This reimagining, a mere reflection of a classic from a quarter century earlier, misses a kaleidoscope of potentialities: to revise and ruminate, to subvert and distort, to complicate and transcend. Instead, the rose remains encased within the same glass through which we peered at it last, and its symbolic significance is but a semblance of what it was before. Although the film’s instructive ideals of diversity and inclusiveness invite individuals to inhabit imagined, idiosyncratic identities, and Agathe attains augmented agency, the characters and situations under her control follow fate rather than free will, progressing toward a predetermined end that moves like Cogsworth’s clockwork and hardly defies expectation. By locking spatial and temporal dimensions in ways that invite normality rather than alterity in affect and atmosphere, the film doesn't offer an original vision in shape or substance, but a derivative one, casting a long shadow of collective memory into present nostalgia.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that art imitates life, as in Plato's ancient philosophy of mimesis, yet this rendition is so consumed by the craftsmanship imposed by artifice that it forsakes the very authenticity toward which it strives and instead precludes itself from attaining its ultimate effect. It's not enough to be "human again" to bring a story to life: the narrative needs to speak to the soul with a truth and depth of emotion, to whisper its wisdom with an unfathomable urgency and inexplicable intuition, to move its audience with a raw power and elemental force that breathes life into its being and transforms art into reality. It's sweet to retell a "tale as old as time", yet this one pleads for an enchantress who can summon Ezra Pound's charge to "make it new".

Ruth Li is an English teacher and is the recipient of a Woodrow Wilson teaching fellowship. She received a B.A. from Wellesley College and an M.A.T. from Brown University. She is the author of the novel Invisible Threads, which is published on iBooks and Kindle. Her essay, “Salzburg: The Sound of Music and Silence”, published in Go World Travel Magazine. Her work has appeared in the Wellesley Review, and has won awards including the Ching Jen Lum Creative Writing Prize, the Dickens Project Scholarship Essay Contest, and the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s “Shakespeares of Tomorrow” Youth Playwriting Contest.

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