As live-action Disney-canon cash-grabs go, “Beauty and the Beast”—starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, and Luke Evans, and directed by Bill Condon—is a relatively solid movie. From the outset, it’s clear the House of Mouse spared no expense, crafting lavish sets and parading lush CGI in front of the camera at every opportunity. The film’s coloring is thick and robust, full of intricate shading and expressive contrasts. The performances, too, feel humongous, tossing subtlety aside in favor of fittingly broad and fantastically operatic strokes. Moments when actors seem ill-fitted to their roles are few and far between, and even when such instances crop up, the mismatch comes across as almost charming, shouldering a playful artificiality.
There are few reasons to actively avoid “Beauty & the Beast.” As its box-office take shows, it’s a certified crowd pleaser, and, for the most part, it understands how to hit its emotional beats with just the correct amount of reverence and nostalgia to coax a stubborn tear from those who counted the 1991 original among the pillars of their childhood. Add to this a terrific voice cast—boasting the likes of Stanley Tucci (a piano), Audra McDonald (a dresser), Sir Ian McKellan (Cogsworth, the officious but good-hearted prick of a clock), and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the feather duster, which is now styled as a white-winged bird instead of a sexpot French maid)—and the result is an overall charming affair.
This is not to say that the movie is flawless. In fact, strictly speaking, it may not actually be all that good. It’s certainly far too long (for comparison’s sake, the original was under 90 minutes, while this remake clocks in at 130). There are a number of digressions and subplots, including a detour to Paris via the sorcery of a TARDIS-esque magical atlas, during which Belle discovers how her mother died (it was a cocktail of Black Plague and Disney’s historical inability to keep a family intact). Compounding this is the addition of a number of extra songs, including a Beast solo number that begs the question: Why not just include the infinitely more affecting “If I Can’t Love Her” from the stage adaptation? We get some inconsequential information about how the Beast’s dad was kind of a dick, and how the servants/appliances feel guilty for not balancing out that influence on the young prince in the wake of (wait for it) his mother’s death. On the whole, these additions act predominantly as stumbling blocks, building the story out in odd and unsatisfying directions. That the picture doesn’t ultimately topple over is more a testament to the charisma of its two leads (and the Beast’s beautiful expressive eyes, which are only further proof that audiences are supposed to, at least slightly, kinda want to plow the Beast), than the acumen of the screenplay or direction. For all these miscalculations, something in the design or the performances is always there to act as a counterbalance, rushing in to remind you that you can tune out the ham-handed attempts at world-building with a healthy dose of Dan Stevens or Emma Thompson.
Or, almost always. Because there is one failure in Condon’s “Beauty & the Beast” remake that I was simply unable to ignore, that, whenever on display, is so absurdly frustrating as to puncture the luscious, extravagant fun of everything the film does correctly.
This movie royally fucks up Gaston.
If you’re asking how exactly one could do that, then you are asking the correct question. Gaston is not a complicated character. He is not a nuanced or subtle character. He’s a golem comprised of primary colors, absurd muscles, and the best argument against the wrong kind of male ponytail. When we first meet him in his original appearance, he reads a book sideways. Dumb, misogynistic, retrograde brute that he is, Gaston wants to make sure we get him from the very beginning.
This is not to say that Gaston is poorly written. On the contrary, he has one of the clearest arcs (more on this later) of any Disney character. He consistently acts in ways that are in line with what the audience knows about him. He has the best song in both the animated film (“Gaston”) and the stage musical (“Me”). Furthermore, while his behavior is clearly repellant to young audiences, it becomes increasingly sinister as you get older and realize that Gaston may be a cartoon, but, given the social experiences of many women in the world, his behavior and motivations are anything but cartoonish.
In their attempt to complicate (I assume Condon would substitute something like “deepen” or “mature” here) everything about the original, however, the filmmakers decided to tamper with the picture’s primary antagonist, and his relationship with his crony Le Fou. When we meet Gaston midway through Emma Watson’s first rendition of “Belle,” he’s clearly an imbecile, but not in the aggressive and crude way of the 1991 film. We also learn that he’s a war veteran who feels purposeless in peacetime, a revelation that feels odd, unearned, and is later muddied in a wholly unsatisfying manner. While Belle remains in the village, Gaston does approach her, both in the market and at home. He pretends to be well-read at first, then suggests that if she doesn’t marry him, she’ll be doomed to a life of spinsterhood. When she firmly rejects him the second time, he clearly isn’t happy, but it’s not nearly the humiliating experience of the animated movie in which Gaston finds himself in a pool of mud, wearing a pig for a hat, while a pre-arranged band plays celebratory music.
The proposal scene itself is also markedly different. Gaston doesn’t force his way into the house. He doesn’t kick off his shoes and throw his feet onto Belle’s table, while describing how, when married, she will be expected to massage them. He doesn’t pin her up against the door, so the audience can see whatever shallow facade of charm he has left curdle into predatory menace. And, when he marches off, he seems mildly embarrassed but nowhere near the Gaston of the 1991 classic, who throttles Le Fou while announcing that Belle will marry him and no one should doubt it.
Gone too is the exceptional vanity, with a few minor exceptions. Certainly, he’s happy to consume five dozen eggs and tell the town about it when a song demands it (side note: Gaston can eat sixty eggs but that poor woman juggling babies during “Belle” who needs one tenth that many is getting shooed off? Bullshit!), but other than a short scene where France’s resident beefcake admires his own reflection, we’re robbed of that little note as well.
On the surface these might seem like minor quibbles, but their sum ultimately hinders the remake’s portrayal of Gaston, undoing what makes him so ugly and depressingly relevant. He is toxic masculinity in physical form, a pig pile of entitlement and fragility that finally results in outright violence when he enlists the whole town to help him storm the Beast’s castle. A cursory look at his aforementioned arc from the 1991 Best Picture nominee demonstrates this quite well.
When we first meet our animated Gaston, we learn he is boorish, egotistical, and exceptionally misogynistic, going beyond the conventions of the time. He views Belle as, at best, a prize or trophy: the most beautiful girl in town for the most beautiful man in town. He pursues Belle with little tact, violating boundaries at every turn. When he is rejected and humiliated, he vows a sort of revenge, before settling for a party thrown solely to remind him of how wonderful and deserving of his prize he is. At this point, when he’s most convinced of his own power, he goes from misogynistic bully to schemer, planning to lock Belle’s father Maurice—who has just burst into the tavern, screaming about the Beast—in the asylum to attain some leverage over Belle. In order to seem like less of a manipulative ass, he’s able to convince the townspeople that this is for Maurice’s own good. But, then what happens?
Belle comes back, and she has proof that Maurice isn’t mentally ill. She humiliates Gaston once again, and he snaps. He’s finally willing to be outright violent, attacking both the Beast (who stole Belle from him) and Belle (whom he knows cares about the Beast) in one fell swoop. That will show them not to mess with Gaston, he reasons.
And how does he die? In the midst of his fight with the Beast, the Beast becomes feral and almost throws Gaston from the castle ramparts. Even though the hunter is begging for his life, this should at least show Belle that her lover is indeed a monster. But the Beast spares him. The Beast proves Belle right, that he’s loving, compassionate, and merciful, that there’s something there that wasn’t there before. The Beast proves, of the two of them, Gaston is the savage, and so, in a fit of raging cowardice, Gaston stabs the Beast in the back. The Beast lurches in pain and Gaston falls to his death.
If not quite Shakespearean, that is a clear and measurable progression, an organized union of Gaston’s character with the needs of the narrative.
The remake more or less abandons all of that. At best, it repeats the beats of the story because they’re supposed to happen that way. However, since Condon’s film doesn’t understand Gaston, even the correct narrative moments feel like square pegs squeezed into round holes. Why is Gaston a war hero? Does he have trauma from the war? Are we supposed to sympathize with him? If his position as a veteran makes him sympathetic, even partially, then why does the film have Le Fou reveal that the violence and the chance to seduce grieving widows were Gaston’s favorite aspects of war? So, he was always a sadist? Why even attempt to make him sympathetic?
If Gaston is going to ultimately have Maurice committed, why do we have a scene where he ties him up and leaves him to be eaten by wolves beforehand? That’s such a rapid escalation of which nothing comes, since Maurice returns to accuse Gaston of attempted murder, only to have coconspirator Le Fou exonerate the hunter. Why, then, does he have his cronies simply commit Maurice? We now know he is willing to kill. Why doesn’t he just finish Maurice off (other than plot reasons)? Does Condon understand that if we already know Gaston is willing to kill in cold blood, his final escalation is relatively meaningless? Even if we weren’t surprised in the original that Gaston would decide to kill the Beast, it still represented a clear intensification, the logical conclusion to the arc of an entitled man whose ego has taken one too many blows.
It’s unclear what Condon wants Gaston to be. While the original character is a chilling portrayal of misogyny radicalizing in the face of resistance, this Gaston is just kind of a generic asshole. Without a clear understanding of how manipulative and cruel Gaston can be, the moments where he tries to gaslight Belle and her father have less impact.
Even minor changes can have a major effect on our sense of Gaston’s character development. Take, for instance, the mob scene, following Belle’s revelation that the Beast is real. In the remake, Gaston seems horrified that such a thing could exist, blaming it on black magic. He stirs up the town’s fear of the unknown, but he also seems in the sway of that himself. In the original, Gaston’s rhetoric against the Beast is really just a propaganda tool to get the mob on his side, to convince them that they have a dog in this fight, despite the fact that the Beast has never shown interest in attacking their town. Gaston’s quarrel with the Beast, however, is personal. He couldn’t care less about the town’s well-being. Killing the Beast allows him to eliminate a romantic rival and reassert his dominance among his neighbors following his final humiliation. (The film briefly alludes to this motivation when, during the siege of the castle, Gaston abandons Le Fou beneath a piano, asserting that it’s “hero time.”) When he recoils from the hideousness of the Beast, he’s just as shocked by the fact that Belle would choose an animalistic monster over his perceived perfection as he is that such a monster could exist. This is hardly concealed subtext. Upon hearing Belle defend the Beast, Gaston sneers, “If I didn’t know better I’d say you had feelings for this monster.” When Belle retorts that Gaston is the monster, not the Beast, that’s when Gaston accuses her of being “as crazy as the old man,” and begins the process of whipping the town into a frenzy. Because how could a sane woman choose a Beast over a perfect specimen of manhood? She must be insane. She must be delusional. It’s egotistical damage control and a spiteful battle plan deployed all at once.
The final confrontation then becomes a build-up and diffusion of toxic masculinity. One of Gaston’s best lines in the original version—which was, of course, cut from the live action one—is most certainly “Take whatever booty you can find, but remember the Beast is mine!” Why? Because Gaston needs to prove that he’s more of a man, and thus more worthy of Belle’s affection. And, for a while, the two are indeed fighting over Belle (though the choice to have the Beast hopscotch between castle towers to avoid his opponent rather than lashing out at Gaston undercuts this and lessens the impact of his upcoming mercy). As Gaston hunts the Beast amongst gargoyles, he asks how the Beast could ever hope to own Belle’s love when Gaston was an option. Hell, it’s when Gaston announces “Belle is mine,” that the Beast hands out the asskicking that leaves Gaston pleading for his life.
But when the Beast decides to spare Gaston, it represents a severance of the cord between violence and masculinity that defines Gaston. It’s a reminder to Gaston and the audience that Belle not only has no physical interest in the hunter, nor does she have an interest in what he represents. Previously, the Beast exercised his rage because of his humiliation about his curse, which Belle taught him was unacceptable. Gaston is still acting in line with that pattern, and it proves to be his downfall when he resolves himself to kill the Beast at any cost. While I won’t go into too much detail, the remake’s reenactment of that final confrontation is pretty lackluster, and the manner in which Gaston dooms himself is a less powerful expression of the absolute bile he has been reduced to.
The final component of this “Gaston problem” lies with Le Fou, whom Condon suggested would be gay, and have that celebrated onscreen. It was an empty promise and the “exclusively gay moment” is stupid nonsense. But even this is still not the biggest miscalibration in terms of Le Fou. Queer or not, Le Fou should not be Gaston’s crony because he is in love with the man. He is Gaston’s crony because, gay or not, he’s a small man who craves the contact high that comes with Gaston’s power. If Gaston embodies some ridiculous idea of “alpha” masculinity, Le Fou is the spurned and mocked nerd who chases that ideal even as it torments and rejects him, doing its bidding and furthering its harm because of the delusion that it will one day elevate him. Completely ignoring this idea, Condon gives Le Fou a half-assed redemption plot, which is honestly not worth discussing.
There is much to recommend “Beauty & the Beast.” It’s, on the whole, a healthy dose of ornate nostalgic fluff, sporting a strong cast, beautiful scenery, and a still-lovely soundtrack. It’s also a stellar object lesson for remakes, especially those that plan on staying extremely close to their source. A filmmaker cannot simply build a copy of a film without understanding how each of its parts work, and a filmmaker can certainly not expand on the original architecture without ensuring the sturdiness of the foundations. Certainly, if they do, the results may not be disastrous, but sooner or later parts will begin to loosen and creak. Things will feel, perhaps indescribably, off.
Can “Beauty & the Beast” be built upon? Certainly! Can it be updated and deepened? Most definitely! But there’s no point in adding to a work you do not fully understand. When it comes down to it, those expansions must actually add something of value, rather than make everything just a little bit more tangled. There’s a difference between nuance and clutter, and “Beauty & the Beast”—for all its joys—often confuses the two.
I’m also confused as to why one would make all these big changes and still deny that poor woman her six eggs. That’s just lazy screenwriting.