“Beauty and the Beast” (1991) Versus “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

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So Disney comes out with a new film this weekend, an updated live-action retelling of “The Nutcracker” which surprisingly is not a live action remake of a previous Disney feature. In fact this is the first time Disney has ever truly attempted to tackle the iconic ballet. But I digress. With the new film coming to theaters this weekend I wanted to find a way to work that into my latest Versus battle and I was inspired to explore a matchup I’ve debated with myself for a long time. One of last year’s biggest hits was Disney’s live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” and there are many who have debated whether the original is better or if the more in-depth live action treatment is superior. In honor of Disney’s latest live action adaptation of a classic work I decided to look at the most successful live action remake in their lineup and see which version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s classic fairytale truly stands the tallest. This is “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) Versus “Beauty and the Beast” (2017).

For this battle I compared the first ever animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination against the 2017 billion-dollar-grossing live action remake that became the second highest grossing movie worldwide of last year. In terms of comparisons this battle had some easy themes to choose from so to decide which is best I looked at five factors: the interpretation of the Beast, the interpretation of Belle aka the Beauty, the interpretation of the main villain Gaston, the music and singing performances, and of course which film is the better presentation of the story.

So without further ado, let’s see which of these immortal adaptations is superior and get this battle started shall we?

 

ROUND ONE: THE BEAST

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Both “Beauty and the Beast” films focus on a beast who was once a prince. Cursed by a witch for his unwelcoming and selfish behavior to remain an ugly beast until he can find someone who loves him for more than his looks the Beast is the main male protagonist of the film and the character whose transformation is the basis of the entire story. Portrayed by Dan Stevens in live action and Robby Benson in the animated classic both actors do the part justice, but which performance and interpretation of the Beast is the best?

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Let’s look at the animated version first. The animated Beast established the now classic design of this man-turned-monster. Benson does a fine job mixing some cynicism with a beastly attitude but the truly threatening aspects of this Beast are in the animation where his facial features and the use of shadows allow his terrifying visage to stand out. Of the two versions I would say the animated one is the more threatening and maybe even the more memorable, but that doesn’t make him the better version. Yes, the animated adaptation is the one that set the bar and it does provide a memorable character with depth and personality but he’s also very cartoonish and lacks a lot of the more subtle human imperfections due primarily to a shorter story. That’s where I believe the live action version has the advantage.

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In the remake the Beast just feels more like a real person. Yes his design and overall character are repeated from the original movie but we get more insight into his personal struggle and the mistakes he made that led to him being cursed whereas the original version glosses over a lot of that in favor of his transformation into a better person. His bitterness feels more casual making him out to be a man in a monsters body whereas the animated version just shows him as a scary monster who eventually changes his ways. The addition of an extra song in “Evermore” also gives the viewers more insight into his anguish and pain when he has to bid farewell to Belle. My personal opinion is that with the animated version the transformation of the Beast feels more sudden and contrived considering how nasty he was at the start, but when we meet the Beast in the remake he already seems to have come to grips with the need to be a better man. He’s less volatile but more rude giving him a more human edge. He’s a flawed man who needs to change, not a true monster who needs to completely evolve.

While the animated version is absolutely great and a classic worthy of respect I feel the live action adaptation gets the edge here because it makes the Beast feel more like a real human being with real flaws and a redeemable quality the whole way through. Winner this round is the live action “Beauty and the Beast”.

 

SCORE: Animated Version – 0     Live Action Version – 1

 

 

ROUND 2: BELLE

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The other half of the titular duo, Belle is the “beauty” in this fairy tale and remains among Disney’s most popular princesses…even though in the film she’s actually not royalty until she marries the Beast. In the animated film she is portrayed by the immensely talented Paige O’Hara and in the live action version she is represented by “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson. Both characters feature similar designs and storylines with some minor alterations, but which one is the superior version of the beauty? Let’s take a look.

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The animated version presents Belle as a bibliophile, a lover of books who sees the world as they relate to her stories. Modeled after Judy Garland, the animated Belle is both beauty and brains who possesses an undying sense of wonder and amazement at the little details of the world around her. She stands out in a crowd not just due to her personality but also due to her iconic blue and white outfit which contrasts the more bland colors of her fellow villagers. It’s also a perfect contrast to the villain Gaston as she wears a pleasing blue and wears and aggressive red. When she meets the Beast Belle also proves to be an emotional human being, brave enough to take her father’s place but also scared enough to cry and feel vulnerable in her situation. This makes her feel more human despite being an animated character. She makes a tough decision that forces her to surrender her own freedom for a loved one and her willingness to do so actually carries over into the rest of the film when she leaves the Beast to save her father and is willing to defend the Beast with an entire town against her. O’Hara made Belle her own and did a fine job giving us a delicate, relatable and charismatic young woman to cheer for the whole way through.

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The same can’t be said for Emma Watson who, in my opinion, does a fine job with her performance but never makes Belle more than she needs to be. Compared to O’Hara’s original, this live action Belle is rather bland. It’s actually the opposite of the Beast scenario. Whereas the Beast feels less human and more like a cartoon in the original the live action Beast feels more relatable. In this case it’s the animated Belle that feels more relatable while Watson’s take on the beauty feels more paint-by-numbers and lacks a lot of the more human aspects of the original version. We do get some added characteristic to Belle like her being the inventor instead of her father and the added backstory of the loss of her mother, but even with these added elements the live action Belle just never really comes to life the way the animated version does. Even the design doesn’t pop the way the animated film does despite having the same color scheme. Belle just always seems to blend in and she’s easy to lose in a crowd and if you’ve seen the animated version that’s just not how she’s supposed to be. The same quirky nature and bubbly personality is there, but it’s just not the same. For this round Watson just doesn’t stand a chance against O’Hara’s classic rendition. The animated version wins this time.

 

SCORE: Animated Version – 1     Live Action Version – 1

 

 

ROUND 3:  THE VILLAIN/GASTON

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Both Disney films include a completely original character not present in the original fairy tale to act as an antagonist, Gaston. A buff, egomaniacal and self-centered man Gaston is portrayed in the animated original by Richard White and the live action film by Luke Evans. Over the years Gaston has become one of Disney’s most popular villains and a character many turn to as one of a many antagonists who are more misunderstood than outright evil. In both films he sees Belle as a trophy wife of sorts and tries to woo her with his chauvinistic ways eventually seeing the Beast as a threat. So which version of this classic Disney villain is superior? Let’s put ‘em together and see.

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Gaston was probably the hardest character for me to judge of the three in this battle. Both versions have their merits in my opinion with the animated version being more…well…animated. Gaston’s physique, expressions and abilities as a man are much more entertaining in the animated film because his personality justifies and even calls for these exaggerations. Gaston is much more of a chauvinist in the animated film looking down on Belle for reading and fully embracing his status as a heartthrob. He could have any woman he wants but he wants Belle for both her beauty and because she’s hard to get. He’s something he feels like he has to earn which makes her a literal trophy. He enjoys the thrill of the hunt, but he also has a hard time believing any woman could ever say no to him. Then when he comes face to face with the Beast his wrath feels driven by vengeance and jealousy that a Beast can get Belle but he, the pinnacle of male perfection, cannot. The animated Gaston is a complex villain with shades of ignorance, arrogance and self-importance that we all love to hate.

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In the live action version Gaston has all the same improvements as the Beast when you compare the two films. His personality feels more human and his backstory, having been a soldier at war, makes him more complex. His ego and chauvinism is defined more by his desire to settle down than his sex appeal. Belle isn’t simply a trophy to win, she’s someone he does seem to genuinely respect on a certain level and even goes so far as to try and help her father in order to win him over with hopes that he can convince Belle to marry him. None of this works for him of course and Gaston’s personality takes a turn for the worst, but it’s a slightly different take on the character that adds depth to his personality. That said there are also new elements that hurt this character. The fact that he looks and feels human actually makes Gaston’s feats of strength, like lifting people up during his self-titled musical number, look cartoonish in comparison to the rest of the film. This live action Gaston is supposed to be grounded in the real world where the animated version can get away with such things because he’s a cartoon. Add to that the fact that his character arc and transformation feels sloppier than the animated version despite us getting more of his backstory and his final battle with the Beast lacks the same underlying emotion of the animated film. Overall this was a tougher battle for me to decide than the other two character studies, but the winner is still clear. The animated version edges out the live action adaptation this time around.

 

SCORE: Animated Version – 2     Live Action Version – 1

 

 

ROUND 4: THE MUSIC

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Both versions of “Beauty and the Beast” are musical films and actually contain a lot of the same songs. The live action movie adds a few more tunes while other musical numbers were added to the animated film in subsequent special edition re-releases. Regardless of the version the songs in these movies are timeless with classics like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Belle” and of course “Beauty and the Beast” etching their places in pop culture upon the original film’s release and continuing to earn relevance in the remake. But which version of this film does the better job of bringing the music to life? Well both have their merits.

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The animated version originated many of the songs that the remake leans on the tell the story and what’s great about these numbers is that quite a few of them are more than just random singing. They’re used to develop the story, characters and even relationships. So to compare the two films I had to put more focus on the singing and the animated film’s performances are much more polished. That’s probably because they had professional singers behind the microphones belting out each tune with vigor and personality. Every song contains life and draws you in especially “Be Our Guest” which is by far the movie’s most infectious tune. The music fits the personality of the story as well, keeping it lighthearted while never overshadowing some of the more serious elements of the narrative. It’s just an all-around fun soundtrack to listen to even 27 years later with solid performances and animation that compliments the work adding color and fun to each lyric.

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That’s not to say these songs are less enjoyable in the live action movie. In fact they’re probably just as fun to listen to, but that’s more because we’re familiar with them. The voices behind the music aren’t professional singers so the likes of Emma Watson could never hold a candle to the angelic voice of Paige O’Hara. While “Be Our Guest” is just as fun in the live action movie Ewan McGregor’s vocals are not as captivating or engaging as a professional like Jerry Orbach. The song’s titular track sounds decent from Emma Thompson but is more spectacular when sung by Angela Lansbury. Where the live action movie does make up ground is with its original songs and for me as a fan this was one of the best aspects of the film when I saw it in theaters. Add-ons like “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and “Evermore” add much more of an emotional punch to the live action film and give us more insight into characters like the father and the Beast. The problem is they’re not as memorable as the original songs and to some could even be interpreted as desperate Oscar and Grammy bait tunes or even padding. I loved the original additions to the live action movie but they just don’t stand out as well as the classic tunes from the animated film which are much better performed in the original version than the live action movie. So with that the animated film earns its third point making it the de facto winner in this match up already after four rounds…however there’s still one more round to go for a little bit of pride and it’s possibly the most important prize of all.

 

SCORE: Animated Version – 3     Live Action Version – 1

 

 

FINAL ROUND: STORY ADAPTATION

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While the animated movie has already won the war, this battle is one of pride: which film is the better adaptation of the same story? The animated movie was shorter and cut some corners that left some plot holes while also fully embracing its whimsical animated style. The live action version closed some loop holes and was much darker and grittier while still being family friendly. So which film did it better? Let’s break it down one more time.

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Looking at the animated version it’s important to remember the limitations of films back in the 80s and 90s and the fact that viewers were willing to let more things slide. There are numerous plot holes in the original film including the fact that the surrounding society seems to just randomly forget that they once had a prince and that the prince was said to be young when he was originally cursed despite a painting showing otherwise in the opening. A lot of people overlook this because the rest of the film is just so damn charming. The characters and scenery are all well animated and fun and the story is considered timeless, but what really drives home the concept is the magic of it all. The animated movie leans much more heavily on a sense of wonder than the 2017 version and its quick pace and bubbly tone makes it that much easier to invest in. The character dynamics are awesome and even the romance, which in the context of the film is actually pretty rushed when you think about it, is charming and adorable. Even the central theme shines clear, that it’s not about what’s outside that counts but what’s inside, thanks to the effective acting and well written script and storyboard that sends viewers and the characters on a journey full of emotional strife and personal evolution.

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The live action version is actually just as good just from a different perspective. The darker tone gives it a more gritty and realistic vibe and the set designs are spectacular matching if not improving upon the quality of the animated version. It’s a little slower paced which allows it to fill in some of the gaps of the original film including providing answers to plot holes that fans have complained about with the original for years. I’ve already talked about how it adds elements to the story and characters as well to give everything a little more depth and make it feel more like a story happening in the real world. All of this makes the 2017 live action movie a very decent take on the same old song and dance, literally and figuratively, but the real question is does it build on the animated version’s legacy to chart its own path and give itself a unique identity?

The sad truth is that it doesn’t. The remake isn’t a complete retread. It actually does feel inspired to a degree and does have its share of tenderness and sincerity. However, a lot of this is built and dependent on the previous film’s success and story. There’s just not enough to make this film feel warranted whereas other live action Disney remakes like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Maleficent”, while not necessarily lauded by fans and critics, took a more original route and felt more inspired. In the end while the live action movie is fun and delightful in its own way the animated version told the story first, was more enjoyable and captured more of the nuances despite its flaws when compared to the live action version. So the final point goes to the original.

 

SCORE: Animated Version – 4     Live Action Version – 1

 

 

WINNER: “Beauty and the Beast” (1991)

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It was an absolute blowout when comparing these two movies, but don’t let the score fool you. These two tellings of the same classic story are much more comparable than you might think. They both portray a fun and complex love story with a great villain, a charming female lead, a sympathetic male lead and a slew of fun supporting characters as well as classic and catchy music numbers that have stood the test of time. But the honest truth is the original animated version just plain did it better. The only place I felt the live action version truly made an improvement was with the Beast but it’s still saying something that the animated take on the cursed prince remains the standard. Regardless of which version you watch you’ll have a fun time. You don’t make over a billion dollars at the box office or earn a Best Picture nomination without being a decent if not great film. But when you compare the two there’s no denying you can’t beat Disney’s original take on the tale as old as time.

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