Written for Acculturated
April 14th, 2017
I’m not a huge Disney guy. Not that I have anything against the film company, but I don’t feel compelled to go see every last movie they put in theaters. Nevertheless, I found myself dragged to the movies last weekend by my friend (and clinically diagnosable Disney-phile) Jessica to go see the new Beauty and the Beast.
The story struck me as familiar. In my case, it wasn’t because I recognized the film as essentially a shot-for-shot remake of the animated original—I’ve never actually seen the 1991 version. But throughout the film I had the vague sense I’d seen the story play out before. It didn’t hit me until after the film was over, as I listened to Jessica belt out the lyrics to “Evermore” in a voice that didn’t quite match the deep baritone of Dan Stevens (who played the Beast): Beauty and the Beast is basically a less good version of Sabrina.
I should probably clarify before I lose too many Disney-loving readers: I didn’t dislike the new Beauty and the Beast and I don’t think it’s a bad movie. It just isn’t as good as the 1954 classic. Sabrina is light, it’s charming, and it stars Audrey Hepburn. How can you top that? The two movies have the same message—don’t judge people based on appearances—and even slight similarities in plot—stunningly beautiful social outcast picks intimidating and unattractive man she learns to love over his more charming and more handsome rival for her affections—but Sabrina handles the subject with more complexity. After all, it’s not a children’s movie like Beauty and the Beast, and so it isn’t hampered by the fact that its target audience requires a simplistic message.
As such, the characters in Sabrina are much more realistic and multi-dimensional. The Gaston equivalent, David Larrabee, isn’t a villain, he’s just a playboy who wants to have fun. And the Beast equivalent, (who is also David’s brother) Linus Larrabee, doesn’t have to be taught to be good, just to come out of his shell, appreciate life, and stop being so serious all the time. That there’s no real villain or hero makes the message of the film that more impactful. While Belle’s romantic options are literally between a villain and a guy with a heart of gold, neither of Sabrina’s suitors are really all that bad. Her choice, then, is not as clear cut, so that when she makes it, the movie offers a more powerful critique of those who place a higher value on superficial qualities than character in choosing a romantic partner.
David is the leading man archetype. Charming, winsome, and adventurous, he has a lot in common with the men in Titanic, The Notebook, La La Land, and scores of other films, and until about three-quarters of the way through Sabrina, it seems as if he’ll get the girl. But as the film progresses, David is shown to be a cad, even if he does ooze charm from every pore. He may be fun to be around, but he’s also flighty, self-centered, and has a new love interest every month. To wit, when David is wooing Sabrina, he’s also engaged to marry another woman. The true hero of the story is Linus, who, while David is off having fun, dutifully goes in to the office every day. He’s introduced to us as a formal, hardworking businessman who can be charming when he wants to be, but is, to be perfectly frank, a bit of a square.
Linus is a far cry from what a leading man should be, but the qualities he displays are far more important for forging a healthy and lasting relationship. He’s trustworthy, caring, honest, and respectful. And yet, because we’re so unaccustomed to seeing these virtues in on-screen romances, for a while you almost want Sabrina to end up with David. In the end, though, it’s clear that Linus will be a far more supportive and loving spouse than his brother could ever be to Sabrina.
So, if you’re a 90’s kid who loved Beauty and the Beast growing up, instead of going to see the new Emma Watson-led remake, I’d advise you to watch Sabrina. While it might be enjoyable, you won’t get anything new from watching a tale as old as time being rehashed in what amounts to a shot-for-shot remake. Sabrina, on the other hand, will provide a story just as entertaining, while far more thought provoking.