There’s a separate grammar to movie musicals than there is to stage musicals—at least, there is to the type of movie musical that Disney makes. Classic stage musicals are pervaded with song. Many of them are almost/entirely sung-through—Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.—and even those that aren’t will have musical numbers peppered liberally throughout their runtime. In this type of musical, songs are the default mode of expression—not every song will be as important as every other, simply because there are so many of them present. They’re not events in and of themselves, though some of them will contain events.
The musical format of the Disney Renaissance film, by contrast, weighs its songs carefully. Of the three animated musicals that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaborated on prior to Ashman’s death—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin—none has more than half a dozen songs, reprises included. This scarcity in and of itself would amplify the impact that each song has, but it’s not the only thing that does. Every single song in Menken and Ashman’s animated collaborations is designed to crystallize a specific emotion or theme that’s crucial to its film’s narrative. In Les Miserables, when a character sings it is because music is their default mode of expression; in a Disney Renaissance musical, when a character sings we had better pay attention, because something important is happening.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll confine examples to the 1991 Beauty and the Beast:
- “Belle”—the opening number. It establishes perfectly not only its titular character’s nature and desires but the circumstances that render her unable (as of yet) to attain her desires and that will later enable Gaston to stir up a mob against the Beast.
- “Gaston”—what the former track does for its titular character this one does for its own, and then some. Its initial appearance firmly cements our impressions of Gaston and shows us just how enamored of him the town is; its reprise, following shortly thereafter, sets off his transformation from boor to outright villain.
- “Be Our Guest”—an explosion of color and kinetic motion that transforms the castle from solely foreboding to a place that has the potential to be wondrous and cause happiness.
- “Something There”—basically the crucial song of the entire movie, as it ultimately has to convince the audience that Belle and the Beast are organically moving from adversaries to friends.
- “Beauty and the Beast”—is almost equally crucial in that it has to give the final push from friendship to something more.
- “The Mob Song”—brings the themes of bigotry and, well, mob rule firmly to the fore and completes Gaston’s transformation into a villain.
Sure, it’s pedantic of me to lay out what anyone who’s seen the film already knows, but my point is this: every single emotional and thematic beat that builds to the climax of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is embedded in a song. It’s possible to remove any number of songs from a sung-through musical and still have its narrative as a whole stay upright. If you remove any single song from Beauty and the Beast, IT CANNOT BE A SUCCESSFUL NARRATIVE.
Why am I hammering so heavily on this point? Because the fact that those half-dozen songs are the emotional and thematic skeleton of Beauty and the Beast means that there’s only a very certain way in which that film can proceed. Events have to unfold in a certain order across a certain timespan in order to match the emotional/thematic journey; if they don’t, the film’s narrative body doesn’t match its skeleton, which is a painful place to be in.
Fortunately for all involved, the narrative totality of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast hangs on its musical skeleton pretty damn near perfectly. It’s compact and it’s balanced, progressing events just enough in between musical beats that we feel we’ve undergone a complete emotional journey without having had our time wasted. However, that’s a really tough tightrope to walk successfully, and any deviations, no matter how slight, risk sending the film tumbling from on high.
So when I heard that the live-action Beauty and the Beast would be using the Menken-Ashman songs, I got nervous. Because there are really only two possible outcomes once you’ve committed to that creative decision. Either you follow basically to the letter the path of the 1991 film—in which case, why are you making a new movie at all? or you start to drift further and further away from your skeleton—which doesn’t feel good and can leave you falling limply all over the ground.
I kept shaking my head the deeper into the movie I got, because the 2017 Beauty and the Beast has absolutely no idea what to do with its story beats. It already has a very narrowly defined path to walk in order to keep the beats that the songs encapsulate maximally effective, but it can’t walk that path because it’s trying to simultaneously ape its source material in order to trigger audience nostalgia AND to be its own thing. And rather than take a look at how important, how fucking crucial, the narrative structure of its source material is, and realize it has to either confine itself solely to that structure or drastically rethink how it’s going to approach this remake, the film makes the worst possible compromise and tries to be “its own thing” by stretching its namesake’s 84 minutes to 129 and trying to shove additional material into that extra space.
Now, even just shoving simple filler in between song-beats would be enough to collapse the movie. Those songs depend on a very precise rhythm in order to be effective, and interrupting that rhythm with longer lengths of time dilutes its power just as much as if you were to take your favorite pop song and insert random blank spaces between every few drumbeats. But what Beauty and the Beast does is even more disruptive than that. Rather than simply injecting blank spaces into a pre-existing drum track, it starts running its own track on the off-beat, to fully complete this strained metaphor. It starts duplicating beats that have already been covered in the original narrative structure, or it starts throwing in new beats without encoding them in songs. And it’s just. Disastrous.
We’ve already seen (well, we’re supposed to have seen—more often than not the remake is shockingly incompetent when it comes to eliciting the same feelings as its source material) everything we need to know about the relationship between Belle and the townspeople in “Belle” the song—that emotional beat has been hit, and it’s time to move on. Instead, the 2017 film inserts an additional scene of her teaching a little girl to read, only to have her laundry upset by angry neighbors. This is immediately followed by another duplicate beat in which Gaston is in general a boor about this matter of uppity women’s book-larnin’, which already occurred immediately following “Belle.” Indeed, Gaston is the source of subsequent redundant beats throughout the film—where the animated movie establishes his slide into scheming villain with the end of the “Gaston” reprise, this one makes the frankly baffling decision to have him delay this moment to follow Maurice into the woods to look for Belle, then again repeat his being a boor about Belle, only this time with Maurice. We then, finally, get the moment of his slide from buffoonery to villainy when he ties Maurice to a tree and leaves him for dead, but wait! Maurice escapes and returns to the village, so his rejection by the townspeople for being crazy can happen again and Gaston’s turn to wickedness can also happen again when he turns his reluctant father-in-law over to the madhouse.
There is so little purpose to these repeated beats that it’s frankly baffling that they made it into the screenplay—until we remember that the film needs something to cut to in the midst of new Belle/Beast material. The problem is, not only can the film not come up with anything better to do to fill this space than to repeat itself over and over, the new Belle/Beast material is equally as disastrous because it can’t inject itself properly into the original narrative skeleton established by the 1991 musical’s songs. The biggest addition to the B/B story is a long scene in which the two of them travel to Paris via enchanted book so they can come to the realization that each has suffered the childhood loss of a mother. This is intended to further strengthen their relationship, but it’s a jarringly false note for a number of reasons.
First is that the enchanted book itself, which appeared nowhere in the animated film, is also nowhere in this film except the one scene in which it’s featured, and it’s so clearly a clumsy bit of handwaving by a screenwriter who couldn’t find an organic way to work the information about Our Couple’s mothers into the script that it’s frankly insulting. More important, however, the emotional payoff of that information is nonexistent. “Belle” the song features no information about the loss of Belle’s mother being an important part of her character; she is defined by her love of learning and adventure and by the opposition to her surroundings that this causes. The film doesn’t alter the song to include her absent mother as something that’s been important to her, and it doesn’t add a new song to cover that information either. Not that the latter would have been all that great either, because then we’d have yet another instance of a redundant beat—we’ve already defined Belle’s character, why are we doing so again?
Indeed, inserting a new song to cover an emotional beat is something that the film does later on, when the Beast has a long and angsty soliloquy after he lets Belle leave the castle. The instinct here on the filmmakers’ part is closer to correct, because they’ve at least recognized that the connection between emotion/theme and music is important. But it still falls flat, because it’s interrupting the carefully established rhythm set by the 1991 movie. As the animated film rushes to its climax, its rhythm increases pace, with the “Mob Song” following close on the heels of “Beauty and the Beast” to ratchet up tension in the viewer. The Beast’s anguish is communicated through a single roar because there’s no time for anything more—not only would his launching into a song be a more overblown way of saying what can be communicated through a wordless scream, it would stop the film’s escalating pace dead in the water. The 2017 film chooses to have the overblown monologue for drama’s sake, and in the process achieves completely the opposite of what it wants to.
The same thing happens in a slighter, non-musical manner at the film’s emotional climax, when the Beast lies dying, the rose loses its last petal, and the castle’s servants transform fully into inanimate objects. There’s a fine balance to be maintained here—if you’re going to show the servants losing themselves, you have to do so quickly before cutting back to the dying Beast in order to maintain urgency. Instead, in a microcosm of the problem that cripples its entire narrative structure, the film chooses to give each of the key servants a dying monologue of sorts as he or she slowly becomes inanimate. It’s an artificial way of increasing “drama” and adding “difference” from the source material that serves to completely undermine the emotion it’s trying to convey. The same kind of microcosm can be found in numerous instances within the modified Menken-Ashman songs, which are subjected to added dance breaks and dramatic tempo changes for no real reason other than creating more spectacle. All these modifications end up doing is, Simmons-like, beating a cowbell out of time in order to disrupt a carefully established sequence of building events.
There are many other things wrong with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast. Its singing is pitch-shifted to hell and back; its aesthetic is a pretty unbearably ugly attempt to combine the gorgeous Gothic animation of the 1991 film with a modern, “realistic” look; it exchanges Howard Ashman’s lyrics for inferior replacements for no discernible reason; its screenplay is on a line-to-line basis a godawful travesty that’s maybe 1% subtext; the way it chooses to kill off Gaston transforms the moment from a death rooted in the character’s nature to a needless deus ex machina. And of course there’s the remarkably and frankly appallingly cynical decision on Disney’s part to take a character who is coded with negative gay stereotypes, claim they’re making him their FIRST OPENLY GAY CHARACTER in order to gather clicks, and then reduce the only instant of his actually being openly gay to a literally blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the midst of the film’s conclusion, thus simultaneously rendering that character a case of shitty representation and for all intents and purposes not really representation at all.
But for me the single biggest problem for the film, the one that completely undoes its ability to function as a successful narrative, is its inability to understand successful rhythm. On a moment-to-moment basis, it robs scenes of their dramatic potential and drags songs down to no real purpose; when viewed as a totality, it takes what was a perfectly structured movie musical and turns it to boneless sludge.