C’est Belle

Disney blockbuster opens strongly in China – and avoids controversial cuts


Rising in the east: Dan Stevens with Emma Watson

In the original Beauty and the Beast, published by a French novelist in 1740, Beauty is a strong willed girl and the moral of the story is the importance of a woman’s right to choose her own husband. With its fairy tale ending, the story has repeatedly been adapted for the big screen.

But Beauty and the Beast only became a truly global hit in 1991 when Disney turned it into a song-laden film for children and played up the theme of not judging people by their looks.

The adaptation charmed audiences and critics alike. It became the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture award at the Oscars and also the first of its kind to earn more than $100 million at the box office. Moreover, the film sold millions of home videos, plus tickets to countless Broadway shows reprising the story.

Disney is intent on keeping the cash machine running. Last weekend it unveiled the ‘new’ Beauty and the Beast, a production that cost over $300 million, and featured actors rather than animation, complete with state-of-the-art computer-generated effects.

The reboot has already broken records in North America, taking over $170 million at the box office on its opening weekend. While its debut in China was more subdued, the film still surpassed Rmb300 million ($43.52 million) in the same period. Critics reckon that it could be on track to deliver Rmb1 billion by the end of its run.

Lacking the nostalgia-effect to lure audiences – the 1991 animated version was not shown in China and so very few know of it – the studio instead relies on the star power of Emma Watson, who was in China in February on a press tour. The actress – best known for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise – dazzled in a fairy tale princess gown as she posed with fans in photographs at Shanghai Disneyland.

Disney also tapped heartthrob Jing Boran and Taiwanese pop singer Hebe Tien to perform a duet of the Chinese version of Alan Menken’s title song Beauty and the Beast, hoping to woo young female filmgoers. The music video has been viewed nearly 12 million times since its release early this month on Tencent Video.

The timing was fortuitous for Disney too. In the past month, theatre operators around the country have been complaining about a drought of blockbuster material in the aftermath of the release of action films such as Logan, xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil 6 (see WiC357). The lull meant that the biggest box office hit in recent weeks was A Dog’s Purpose – a sleepy feel-good drama about a canine – that went on to collect Rmb500 million.

“Thank God for Beauty and the Beast; it really saved the film market,” one cinema operator in Haikou told Hainan Daily. “A few days ago I was still recording only Rmb20,000 in daily ticket sales. But since its premiere, our box office has gone up to Rmb100,000 a day.”

Other industry observers were surprised that the film could be shown in its entirety in China. The reason? In a groundbreaking move Disney itself had broken with its longstanding fairy tale formula. For the first time the studio included an openly gay character in the plot .

In what the film’s director Bill Condon called a “gay moment”, the film depicts manservant LeFou dancing with another man. The scene is said to have lasted for just three seconds but the moment has invited outrage from conservative groups in Asia.

A Christian primary school in Hong Kong issued a notice urging parents not to take their children to see the movie. Malaysian censors, meanwhile, initially said it would be banned unless the gay character was edited out. Disney refused to budge, signalling it would rather not show Beauty and the Beast in Malaysia than cut the scene. (One week later the censor backed down and allowed an uncut version to screen.)

Homosexuality is something of a taboo subject in China, where storylines about the topic are often censored. In fact, only last year Chinese regulators specifically barred TV shows as well as online dramas from depicting homosexuality.

So the openness this time – especially for a movie targeting kids and younger people – has been surprising.

People’s Daily highlighted the more tolerant mood in a weibo post: “Controversial gay moment kept in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Movie premiered on March 17 in China, requires no guidance for minor audience.”

Disney is certainly in a honeymoon period in China following the opening of Shanghai Disneyland last year (see WiC329). Beijing might also want to avoid controversies that embroil an iconic American firm just ahead of a planned meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump next month.

Still, Disney shouldn’t get too excited. Industry observers say the film’s current momentum could be about to slow, as competition intensifies thanks to another blockbuster. The film will soon face off against another beast: Warner Brother’s Kong: The Skull Island, a remake of the King Kong movie. It is scheduled to hit cinemas this weekend. There will be a Chinese beauty in it too. Actress Jing Tian, who also starred in Great Wall with Matt Damon, has a small part in Kong.





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