Well, I hope you all had a great Christmas holiday. I am sorry that this article is a little bit late, but you know how it is around Christmas time. On the upside, I have put a couple of my icons into this article. They are all free to grab and use if you want. Take it as my (slightly late) Christmas present to you.
Disney’s approach to fairy tales has never been to be particularly faithful to the story. This is not a knock on Disney, in fact, I think that it is exactly the approach is it what makes those movies so beloved. The mix of something familiar with really good story-telling and a strong emotional core has been a winner since the very first movie of the company.
With Beauty and the Beast it is clear that Disney was keen on removing all elements from the story which contained unfortunate implications, but weren’t strictly necessary. The vain sisters? Gone. The effort Beast goes through to get Belle to his castle? Gone. The promise that Belle has to come back to the Beast within a week? Gone.
In a lot of ways the Disney version of the story is more a reinterpretation of Cocteau’s version than of the original tale. The living objects and the notion of a rival for Belle’s affection turn up in a more realized fashion, because animation provides a lot of options regarding the character design a live action movie doesn’t have.
Which reminds me, I have no intentions to discuss the live action remake. There isn’t anything particularly objectionable about it, but – okay, I’ll digress a little bit more, but here is my point of view on remakes. If you don’t care about it, jump forward to the next picture in the article.
As a general rule, I don’t mind remakes. Stories exist to be retold, and even a failed attempt to do so might bring something new to the table. For example: I don’t mind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Is it a great movie, no, but it does a good job capturing the tone a Roal Dahl book has, instead of going all whimsy like the Willy Wonkas and the Chocolate Factory did. And it certainly updates some of the children quite nicely to address some parenting problems more typical for our generation. So while the result might not be as good as it should have been, it was worth the attempt.
Thing is that most remakes nowadays don’t really bring anything new to the table. Their angle is “Hey, people used to like this, so let’s do it again”. And honestly, I can’t even begrudge the studio this. Beauty and the Beast made Disney more money than any other movie this year so far. It is the highest grossing movie of the year, both domestic and worldwide, and while The Last Jedi will most likely catch it eventually, a Billion Dollar movie is nothing to sniff about. So in a lot of way it is our fault, that Disney doesn’t stop churning those out. So as long as they don’t do something downright insulting to the original the way they did it with Maleficent, all power to them.
But there are a few movies which are, well, not necessarily untouchable, but if you want to redo them, you should have a really good reason to do so. Those movies are usually academy award winners or nominees which have managed to in the public mind for decades. If something is so good, it isn’t exactly untouchable – for example, while I am not thrilled about another Mary Poppins, I can actually see that telling the story with another family and with other magical events could make for an engaging movie. But it is not something one should just remake. I think the most eyebrow raising example is the remake of Psycho, which is pretty much a shot-by-shot copy of the original. What is the point?
Beauty and the Beast was the first animated movie ever which got nominated for a best picture academy award. It is already as close to perfect as a movie can be, and you certainly don’t improve it by trying to replicate its artwork in a live action movie. And it is not like Disney had any new angle for it aside from adding stuff and explanations to it, which don’t necessarily elevate the story. In short it is the most pointless exercise ever – or it would be, if not for the Psycho remake I mentioned. I would always point people to the animated version over the live action take, because the animated version wrote animation history in more than one regard while the live action version just filled Disney’s pockets.
But what makes the animated version so beloved? Well, there is the easy answer: The catchy soundtrack, the ground-breaking animation, the memorable characters. But a lot of Disney movies have those without ever scoring a best picture nomination. Only a few of them are thematically that strong.
Disney clarifies from the get go that the core idea of the movie is that “beauty is found within”. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept, but it has rarely been put at screen that expertly. See, usually when there is a movie centring around the beauty of a protagonist, the casting or the animators go out of their way to ensure that no other character around comes even close in terms of what is traditionally perceived as good looks. This is not the case in Beauty and the Beast. There are a number of female characters around which are, just based on the drawing, just as good if not better looking than Belle. This is especially true about the Bimbettes. With their blond hair, full lips, a curvy figures they are much closer to what is often considered desirable about a woman than Belle with her plain brown hair and pretty straight silhouette is. So why does the audience perceive Belle as more beautiful?
Well, partly because the characters in the movie keep repeating the assessment that nobody is as beautiful at her, but also because of a pretty simple trick: The Bimbettes are exchangeable. There are three of them and none of them displays any personality treat which would distinguish her from the other two. Belle on the other hand is unique. She is the only one in the village who wears blue instead of a shade of red, brown, yellow or green. And she is walking in her own pace, not caring about what the villagers around her think. What makes Belle beautiful is that she has character. All those things the villagers bemoan about her, those are exactly the reason why she is special.
And I am not just talking about Belle reading books, though that naturally helps. No, I am talking about Belle being the only one in the village not cheering on Gaston, seeing right through his brutish personality. And his sexism.
The movie isn’t exactly subtle about why Gaston would be a nightmare of a husband. But what makes the Beast a better option in the end? Well, certainly not that he “has a temper” or that he imprisons first Belle’s father and then her. That the exchange was her idea improves the narrative in a sense that Belle is allowed way more agency than in most adaptations of the story, but it doesn’t exactly make the Beast look that much better. But then, at this point the audience isn’t supposed to side with the Beast – yet.
Remember what I said about the message of the movie being that “beauty is found within”? Well, easy to say if you start with a “baseline” of beauty. More difficult when the character does look like some sort of monster. And yet, the more the Beast acts like a decent human being, the less threatening he becomes.
This gradual transformation mirrors the one of Gaston, who starts out as a rude but not necessarily evil young man and gradually becomes a monster in his obsession over Belle.
And yet, neither of them is actually the villain of the piece. No, the actual villain here are those guys:
People like Gaston, they don’t exist in a vacuum. Gaston isn’t the way he is because he was born that way, but because he grew up in a society which encouraged his sexist and boorish behaviour. Just consider what happens when Belle confronts Gaston at her home. Just seconds earlier Gaston wanted to put Maurice into an asylum for claiming that a Beast even exists. But once he realizes that Belle has feelings for the Beast, he turns around and tells a tale about a brutal monster. The villagers are there. They know that Gaston has no first hand information about the Beast whatsoever. The only person who does is Belle, who describes the Beast as friendly. And yet the villagers not only choose to believe Gaston’s obvious lies, they readily form a mob in order to “kill the Beast”.
Beauty and the Beast has multiple layers. And I think that is the reason why the movie is still resonating with the audience, even to this day. It might even be more topical now than it was back when it was released. But even if a miracle happens and we all learn to watch carefully and think twice before putting our fears ahead of our reason, Beauty and the Beast would still have a lot to say about how Beauty is partly defined by society and partly by our own behaviour.
Even Belle offers an additional layer to the story. In a way, she is a throwback to the classic Disney Princesses. Most princesses from Ariel onwards have very defined dreams. Ariel wants to walk at land, Jasmine wants to explore the world, Pocahontas wants to find the right way, Rapunzel wants to see the lanterns, Tiana wants a restaurant, Moana wants to sail. More often then not those dreams are a stand in for something else (like standing on your own feet, escaping your ivory tower or finding yourself), but they do tend to be the reward at the end of the movie.
But what is it, what Belle wants? Well, she wants to leave the village. She wants to see the world. But truly important is her third wish, the one which is presented more as an afterthought: she wants someone who understands her. All this is more typical for a classic princess: The desire to escape a situation which makes them unhappy and to find true happiness, more often than not within a relationship.
The difference is that none of the classic princesses ever wanted to experience adventure. Belle does, or at least she does as long as it is a concept in a book. The moment she is actually thrown into one of those adventures, she would rather go home again, no matter how unpleasant the village is. Belle might be the only princess whose dream becomes a nightmare. But then, what Belle actually wants isn’t adventure, right? What she actually wants is to fit in without the need to change her personality.
This is something which makes her very relatable. Most people have been at least once in a situation in which they felt like an outsider, unable to connect with another group. Especially to those who got bullied at one point, Belle’s plight is very familiar. And if you are female, you are also familiar with men who feel immediately threatened by intelligent women. Gaston might come off as a caricature when he belittles Belle and voices the opinion that woman shouldn’t read, and Belle might be right when she calls that kind of thinking positively primeval, but the truth is that there are still way too many men who feel that way, even if they might not outright say it outside of a locker room.
In my opinion there are roughly two kinds of protagonists: The blank slate and the personality. The blank slate is great because the audience has an easy time to find themselves in them. But the truly memorable movie characters, they are the ones which have personality. Belle is a great compromise between those two extremes. What she experiences in the village as well as her desires and wishes is just general enough that it is really easy to see yourself in her. But she has also a number of distinctive character treats. She is a book worm and has a very advanced vocabulary as a result. She is curious, often to a fault. It was unreasonable risky to go into the West Wing, and yet she does it without even considering some prior planning to ensure that she won’t get caught. She is brave, but also a little bit impulsive. And she is able to think on her feet.
But the most important aspect is how her interaction with the Beast is handled. I won’t go into an overly long explanation why their romance is not a depiction of Stockholm syndrome. Lindsey Ellis already did a very detailed video on what Stockholm syndrome actually is and why it doesn’t apply here. I don’t completely agree with her point of view towards the end of the movie regarding Belle’s role in the movie, though. Above all I disagree with her assessment that Belle just gives up her dreams by the end of the movie or that she doesn’t have a character arc – it is more settled than the one of the Beast, but Belle’s arc is to realize that adventures aren’t all that great when you actually experience them, as well as realizing that she actually hasn’t travel that far to find a place where she is accepted for what she is. It is also not correct that Disney movies are character driven by default. A lot of them are, but Disney loves to use the blank slate protagonist especially in the older movies, which are more driven by emotion than characters or themes. Beauty and the Beast specifically is more theme-driven than character driven (which is why I used a large portion of this article to address those themes before I even got started on the characters.
But Lindsey’s observations regarding the Stockholm syndrome controversy are pretty much spot on. For a quick rundown: The term doesn’t apply, because Belle choses to stay in the castle (twice), she is not in a situation from which she can’t escape. It also doesn’t apply because Belle at no point follows the rules the Beast sets for her. He decides that she has to have dinner with him, she refuses to join him. He decides that in this case she won’t get anything to eat at all, she sneaks out and enjoys a whole banquet. With music. He forbids her to enter the West Wing, she does it the moment she discovers where it is. And the moment he gets violent and truly terrifies her, she runs away, promise be damned. She also don’t hesitate for a moment to leave the Beast when he allows her to go free.
The Belle in the original movie also never tries to fix the Beast. Yes, the Beast is changing in reaction to her, but she never encourages him actively to act in a specific manner. She only reacts positively to his good behaviour and pushes back whenever he acts out. If you want to see how a version of “you can fix him if you just keep being nice to him no matter what he does” looks like, you don’t need to look further than the cheapquels, which might be the worst case of character assassination Disney ever committed outside of Mulan II. THAT Belle is a doormat and a terrible example for young girls. But the Belle from the original movie isn’t. She is a wonderful role model, showing that it is alright to follow your own interest, no matter what society tells you, and that you should never ever allow any man, Beast or not, to push you around. Which, frankly, might be the most important lesson of them all.
Quote: “He’s no monster Gaston. You are!”
If you are also a reader of my second blog, Movies and Lyrics, you already know how highly I think about this movie. It is an absolute must watch for everyone. Because of its historic importance, but also because it is simply an outstanding movie. And while it is not necessarily the most faithful adaptation of the source material, I nevertheless consider it the best.
And that concludes this years fairy tale month. I hope you had fun exploring with me the various takes on this particular story. I also hope that you had a peaceful Christmas celebration and that you’ll have a great start into the new year.