It's been a week since the Blu-ray for the live action Beauty and the Beast movie was released, and I've watched it four times. I really loved the film, but until recently I haven't been able to decide which Belle I preferred: Paige O'Hara's 1991 classic and original take, or Emma Watson's 2017 modern and more proactive version. I watched both films with this comparison in mind, and here's what I found.
What's The Difference?
The 1991 animated Belle is a graceful, beautiful, kind, adventurous, intelligent young woman who doesn't quite fit into her small-minded village. She's nonjudgemental and headstrong; a great female lead. The 2017 live-action Belle carries all of these traits, except this Belle is much more frustrated at her situation, as well as curious about her past. She's also much quirkier, more awkward, and not nearly as self-assured as the original Belle. This is apparent in her clothing, speech patterns and demeanor.
Speaking of demeanor, that is perhaps the biggest difference between the two Belles. Unless someone is acting hostile towards her, the original Belle would never come off as aggressive or agitated. Strangely, even when the Beast is yelling at her, she rejected him as kindly as one possibly could when being berated by a monster.
The new Belle, while still kind and open, is far less gentle in how she expresses her grievances. While I wouldn't call this new Belle "cold," she's more hesitant to fully embrace someone's presence. This Belle also has a stronger sense of initiative since not only does she wish for adventure (which ultimately turns into her falling in love), she is set on discovering aspects of her past — and furthermore, her identity.
The strong bond that Belle shares with her father is also further explored in the newer film. In the animated film, Belle and Maurice's connection is well established, and we get a sense of him really being all she has. In the 2017 version, not only does Belle love and support her father, but she has been influenced by him to the point where she says "Everything I am is because of you." In the original, Belle reads but she doesn't seem to be very industrious, whereas this Belle has greatly picked up her father's tinkering talents.
Another difference is that this Belle has some character flaws. Don't get me wrong, she's still a Disney heroine, so she does exude all the perfect qualities (intelligence, beauty, kindness, etc.) that one would expect. However, she is sometimes abrasive and frustrated, and she even has to learn a lesson in the end (that people have the capability to change for the better). In the animated film, Belle doesn't really have anything to learn since she's as "perfect" as a character could get.
Emma Watson's Belle is a real person in that regard, and that honestly sums up the differences between the Belles in general — the animated is a fantasized take, whereas the live-action is much closer to reality. The original Belle is much more pleasant, but the newer Belle is much more believable. I'll discuss the connotations of this statement more later, but for now I'm not going to say one is better than another.
I'm not really going to compare the performances too much, since Watson and O'Hara best suit the versions of the character they portray. If Watson's Belle acted like O'Hara's, she'd be too passive and dainty. If O'Hara's Belle acted like Watson's, she'd be too harsh and off-putting. The only direct comparisons I can make with their performances are when they say the exact same lines in the exact same circumstances. Personally, I think O'Hara's classic, fairy-tale approach to the character is more suited to the more blatant and cheesy lines like "He's no monster, you are!" and "You won't get away with this!"
In every other instance, though, I feel that both actresses contributed to their characters' personas perfectly. They aren't without their flaws either, though. Sometimes Paige O'Hara sounded a little too fragile for me to believe that she would be the type to challenge the status quo. In the 2017 version, I felt that Emma Watson was sometimes rather unenthusiastic in moments where she should be awestruck and beaming (during the "Be Our Guest" number and a tiny bit when the Beast transforms into a human). Ultimately, both performances are great, with their own nuances and shortcomings, so I can't really say one actress did a better job than another.
For a musical, the singing performances are vital to the film. Obviously, Paige O'Hara has a much better singing voice, and it works amazingly well with her warm and earnest heroine. Hearing Paige sing just fills your heart with joy; it's truly beautiful. Watson's modest singing style (while lacking in vocal ability and abundant in, well, autotune), fits perfectly with her self-conscious and uncomfortable take on the character.
Just like with the regular acting, the vocal performances are pretty well-suited to their distinct versions of the character; and there are pros and cons to each. One example is that Paige's acting is much stronger when she's not singing. This is evident in how while she sounds great in song, she doesn't sell the emotions very well (pretty much the opposite of Emma's situation). However, for the sake of being audibly-pleasing, the obvious winner in the 1991 version.
(Sort Of) Verdict
I have friends who both loved and hated the new film, and for them it all came down to whether or not they enjoyed Emma Watson as Belle. Instead of asking why they did or didn't like this Belle, I asked them what they liked about the original Belle. My friends who loved Watson's Belle collectively said something along the lines of appreciating how Belle was an outsider who challenged the small-minded norms in her community and how she stood out from all the other princesses. My friends that had nothing but complaints about her said that she had lost all the grace, elegance and warmth of the animated Belle.
When you think of why you loved Belle, did you love the idea of this graceful, intelligent, adventurous, beautiful, kind, warm fantasy? One that exudes the very best qualities in humanity? Or, did you love and gravitate to the idea of girl who doesn't fit into her village because she's industrious and passionate about her beliefs; one who feels even more trapped and frustrated; one who's a little awkward and quirky; a woman who has character flaws?
This factors into a bigger question of whether or not you think a fairy tale should include characters that are just as extravagant, simple and idealized as the story, or that the audience should only have to suspend their disbeliefs with the elements of the story, not the characters. However, you clicked on this for the title, and (I'm assuming) you want to know who I personally thought made a better Belle. I can't say that one is distinctively better than the other, but I can say which one I prefer — and that's the 2017 version.
Opinions, Opinions, Opinions
I loved the original Belle because she was an outsider who wasn't afraid of embracing her differences, not because she was super pretty or graceful. My problem with the animated Belle was that I didn't believe that those two sides of Belle — the ideal and the reality — coincide, despite what the writers try and have you believe. They present her as an "odd" girl, but in reality, she seemed to fit in pretty well aside from her only hobbies being reading and rejecting Gaston. Apparently, years and years of being hailed as the town freak takes no toll on one's demeanor or how they carry themselves because Belle pretty much acts the same as everyone else in the town. I believe that Belle would act the way Emma Watson played her, so I buy her more.
As someone who has grown up an outcast, I naturally gravitate towards Watson's take on the character, as all she really did was take that initial aspect of Belle and run with it. Plus, I also had a pretty big issue with how, in the animated film, Belle's internal issues about her wanting more and being socially trapped is literally only relevant in the first 15 minutes of the film — before she meets her love interest. In the live-action version, while the story is no longer centered around her own problems, at least Belle TALKS ABOUT IT with the Beast.
Also, I like how this Belle isn't perfect. Personally (key term here), I feel that having a more grounded and believable lead makes for a more compelling story. That's just my opinion, which is why I can't walk around declaring one Belle to be better. I just happen to relate to the new Belle more and I also believe she works with her version of the story as a whole more.
Which version of Belle do you think is best?