'Beauty and the Beast' record opening: What it means for future Disney remakes

The live-action remake of 'Beauty,' which stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, had an extremely successful opening weekend. Here are the other remakes Disney has planned and what lessons the studio can learn from the film's success.

Laurie Sparham/Disney/AP
'Beauty and the Beast' stars Emma Watson (r.) and Kevin Kline (l.).

Plenty of moviegoers decided to be the guest of Belle and her prince this past weekend, with the Disney live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” setting a new record for a March opening weekend. The hit bodes well for an upcoming series of live-action remakes of some of Disney's previous animated successes.

“Beauty” was so successful with its estimated $170 million gross that it set other records, too, including the best opening for 2017 so far (though the year is still early) and has landed in the top 10 for best opening weekends ever, ranking seventh without adjusting for inflation. 

The movie is a remake of Disney’s Oscar-nominated 1991 animated movie and stars Emma Watson as a young woman who becomes the prisoner of a man who has been turned into a beast (Dan Stevens). The movie co-stars Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McKellen. 

This box office performance has likely only encouraged those at Disney in their plans for more live-action takes on their animated movies. Other upcoming projects include a live-action remake of “Mulan,” which will be released in November 2018, and new takes on “Dumbo” and “The Lion King,” among many others. 

“Beauty” will likely be the crown jewel in Disney’s venture into this live-action remake genre, as previous releases like “Alice in Wonderland” and particularly “The Jungle Book” have been successful at the box office, but "Beauty" had a better opening weekend than all of them.

How did “Beauty” bring in so many moviegoers and what lessons can Disney learn from its success as it moves forward with other live-action remakes?

Jeremy Fuster of TheWrap thinks bringing together famous properties and well-known stars is a winning formula, noting that posters for “Beauty” feature the actors who portray the Beast’s household objects rather than showing them as the objects they appear as in the movie. 

“Casting big-name stars has become a big part of the remake formula,” Mr. Fuster wrote. In addition to Ms. Watson, Mr. Stevens, Ms. Thompson, Mr. Kline, Ms. McDonald, Mr. McGregor, and Mr. McKellen, the movie also stars Josh Gad and Stanley Tucci. 

And casting the right lead actor or actress can also be key, he suggests. “While [Watson's] performance was tepidly received by some critics, her popularity among ‘[Harry] Potter’ fans and on social media has brought enormous buzz to the film, as audiences have praised her take on Belle, leading to an A from CinemaScore audience surveys,” Fuster wrote.

Meanwhile, Pamela McClintock of the Hollywood Reporter credits women going to the movie with contributing to the film's success. “Female moviegoers … just powered ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to the seventh-biggest domestic opening weekend of all time…,” she writes. “While ‘Beauty’'s opening underscores the buying power of women when offered a film that drives them to the theater, it follows in the wake of, and builds on, other female fantasy films like ‘The Twilight Saga’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ that moved the needle in proving that a female protagonist can translate into huge box office grosses.” 

Ms. McClintock also notes that heroine Belle is “presented as an independent girl who is a lot spunkier than old-fashioned Disney princesses.” 

Watson, who has previously discussed her feminist beliefs and supported causes including education for young girls, had worked behind the scenes to make changes to the character of Belle, including making her wardrobe more practical and including a sequence in which Belle creates a washing machine.

“There’s already progress from the last film,” Nancy Wang Yuen, chair of the department of sociology at Biola University, said of these changes in an interview with the Monitor

There is, of course, still debate over what the story has to say to moviegoers in 2017. But Entertainment Weekly writer Joey Nolfi also believed that love for the original story would bring out moviegoers when he predicted the box office dominance of “Beauty” last week. 

“As Disney has proven in the past, nostalgia can push live-action adaptations of animated classics to soaring new heights with a new, younger generation of moviegoers…,” Mr. Nolfi writes. “Its songs and overall presence in pop culture have arguably endured better than the legacies of its … studio brethren [like ‘Maleficent’ and ‘The Jungle Book’].”

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