Back in the heyday of the mega-musical, when Disney decided to join the party with a live Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, I was a young theatre critic mainly bored by the notion of reviewing a staged cartoon. So I honed in on the themes one might discern behind the classic fairy tale, pointing out there is an element of rape fantasy to the story: In any retelling, the beast who imprisons the beauty is always more sexy than the handsome prince he finally becomes. At best, I figured the message could be read as highly traditional marriage advice for young couples: She must learn to love the beast in him but he must also learn to be gentle.
Many readers objected and, in particular, I was told repeatedly that Beauty and the Beast is just a children's story. Perhaps it is. But, as Disney turns to CGI to revive its franchise yet again and produce a live-action movie version, never has it been clearer that B&B is also a reflection of a society's thoughts on gender relations and sex roles.
In the years since 1991, when Disney first produced the animated Beauty and the Beast, the entertainment conglomerate has heard the anti-princess message loud and clear. Seriously, Disney is doing some intelligent stuff with traditionally sexist fairy tales; I am an admirer, in particular, of Maleficent, its revisionist Sleeping Beauty.
But for starters, the 1990s animated Belle was never merely a simpering Disney beauty; she was also a bookworm, an intellectual outsider in a provincial village who found a kindred spirit in the Beast. By the time she hit the musical stage, she was increasingly spunky, but now there's also a good dash of know-it-all Hermione Granger in the new live-action Belle, as Emma Watson brings yet more backbone and a firm English accent to the role. In previous versions, the Beast saved her from marauding wolves and she then nursed his injuries; this time around, she fights off the wolves herself until she is cornered and, when he intervenes, she saves him, too. In 2017, Belle herself is bigger and better.
Similarly, the character of the braggart Gaston, the villager determined to wed Belle, is expanded with each iteration: This time around, with an actor – an excellent Luke Evans – finally given the opportunity to create something resembling a flesh-and-blood man, it becomes yet clearer that Gaston, in marked contrast to the rapidly reforming Beast, is everything a prospective husband should not be: egocentric, authoritarian and controlling.
And so that brings us to his sidekick, LeFou, the most obviously 21st-century addition to the live-action movie. In 1995, I said that Beauty and the Beast prepared boys and girls for heterosexual life. Heterosexual was probably the word that most offended readers, not because it wasn't true but because it implied there were different lives to be led. Two decades later, Disney has caught up with the times, inserting what has been labelled an openly gay character into a movie mainly intended for children.
Openly gay? Well, adults will quickly understand the quality of LeFou's slavish affection for the bullying Gaston, particularly as portrayed by the sympathetic Josh Gad. However, it is only in the film's final moments, in the midst of a joyous dance with Belle and her newly released prince at its centre, that for one split-second we catch sight of LeFou turning to another man for his partner. Too little? Too much? Depends on your point of view, but there's no doubt this is a watershed moment for the culture. Now, as Disney prepares boys and girls for heterosexual life, it quietly acknowledges there are alternatives.
But wait, that's not all. This Beauty and the Beast, with a new script by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos and direction by Bill Condon, also does interesting things with the sorceress who casts the spell on the Beast. Seemingly capable of the same kind of metamorphosis to which she subjects the castle's servants, she is a wizened crone vindictively punishing the arrogant prince for his selfishness, a younger and gentler wise woman helping Belle's father Maurice when he is abandoned by Gaston in the woods, and also an awe-inspiring and timeless spirit laying claim to her beauty and her power. It's 2017; witches are complex and evil fairies are simply passé.
So, all this might sound as though Beauty and the Beast is now a fairy tale that young feminists can embrace, but I'm not sure. I am still concerned about the lopsided audience for B&B – it's mainly young girls, so women are getting the message the Beast will be tamed by love while young men are off playing Assassin's Creed and missing their part of the bargain. Get too caught up in the B&B fantasy, and a girl dreaming of romance, a big house and pretty dresses may find herself shackled to a violent creature in need of reform. You know exactly what that sounds like. Pretty though it is, and politically current though it may be, there really is no fixing Beauty and the Beast.