BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Of Curses, Castles, and A Tale as Old as Time

Beauty and the Beast (1991; Special Edition, 2002) – Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise – Starring Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Frank Welker.

And here it is, the most perfect animated movie the Walt Disney Company has ever produced.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a beautiful blend of story, song, and animation. As much as any movie ever made, BEAUTY leaves me humming and singing its songs for days and creates such an intoxicating joy that for years the soundtrack was my go-to album whenever I was happy and wanted to extend the emotion as long as possible. Full of fantastic characters and songs, the world of Belle and the Beast is gorgeously rendered by a combination of hand-drawn and CGI animation, a process made easier by technology developed for Disney by Pixar.

Like every Disney Princess movie, it seems we always have to start the discussion with the negative reaction to the movie. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has been attacked for crafting a love story out of a violent, abusive relationship. Belle (Page O’Hara) is the prisoner of the Beast (Robby Benson), after all, and he orders her to be locked in her room, to go without dinner (because she won’t dine with him), and spends a fair amount of time yelling, growling, and roaring at her, both through the door and in person.

I offer no absolution for the Beast’s behavior – he’s an embittered jerk, suffering through a long curse that is about to become permanent if he cannot remember how to love and find someone to love him in return. While he doesn’t hit Belle, he still uses rage to intimidate her. While he confines her to a gorgeous bedroom, he still makes her his prisoner. These are not the actions of a good person.

Which is exactly the point.

While the Beast is a jerk, he is decidedly more bark than bite. (This does not excuse the bark – abuse does not come only in physical form.) When Belle’s father wandered into the Beast’s castle to escape a storm, Beast locked him away in a cell, yet when Belle comes and offers to exchange her place for her father’s, Beast imprisons her in a bedroom. Pretty clearly, he’s already regretting his behavior, and we don’t have to absolve him of his actions to understand that this is a man who has shut himself off from the world. It takes a minute to reintegrate into society, Beast is already showing signs of regaining his humanity, and if we can’t at least be willing to entertain the idea that there is a path to redemption, what’s the point in trying to become a better person after you have committed a wrong?

And that spiffy bedroom he locks her in? It’s not locked, as we see when Belle frees herself later to go look for food.

It’s Belle’s attitude that further proves while Beast might be yelling and hollering and ordering her around, he’s not exactly scary enough to get her to do what she wants. At the earliest opportunity she ignores him and instead of running for the door, she heads for the kitchen, where the anthropomorphised household items prepare her a sumptuous feast and sign her a song, inviting her to, “Be our guest.” Belle further ignores Beast’s order to stay out of the west wing, and discovers the cursed rose Beast keeps inside a glass container. When Beast discovers her in his room, he wigs out again, and now Belle’s response is to finally run away from the castle.

What bothers me most about the argument that this film somehow approves of or rewards abusive relationships is that it completely ignores the quality of Belle’s character; in seeing Belle only as the victim and not as an active participant in her own fate, she is completely robbed of her agency. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is not a movie where the captor changes the captive but where the captive changes the captor, and while Belle is the captive, aside from being locked in a bedroom for a few hours, her captivity is entirely of her making and of her design. It’s Belle, after all, who volunteers to become Beast’s captive, Belle who immediately decides to ignore all of his threats (she won’t go to dinner, she goes wherever she wants, both inside and outside the castle), Belle who tends to Beast’s wounds (after he saves her life from a pack of wolves), Belle who teaches Beast how to read, and Belle who helps Beast not only rediscover his humanity, but makes him a better person than he was before he was cursed.

He was cursed because he was a selfish dick who was obsessed with outward appearances, after all, and not because he was too nice to old people.

Even beyond the events with Beast, Belle is shown to be a singularly forward-looking person in the small village nearby where she lives. I would argue that those who cast Belle only as the captor are doing far more damage to her character than she endures from the Beast, as they see her no differently than the townspeople inside the movie. The film’s opening musical number, “Belle (Bonjour),” focuses on how weird she is in the town’s eyes because she likes to read books. In her part of the song, Belle sings about wanting “more than this provincial life,” and it’s not just about getting away because she hates small towns, but an escape from the attitude that demands she fill a certain role: the uneducated, doting wife of Gaston (Richard White).

It is critical, too, that Belle and Beast do not consummate their relationship (which, in the context of a Disney film, means they exchange I-love-yous and a kiss, until after Beast has granted Belle her freedom – a freedom it rarely felt like he was keeping her from having – to go and help her father. Belle is gone from the castle and only goes back when Gaston and the townsfolk have gone to the castle to kill him.

I think it’s critical to remember this is a fairy tale, and Belle’s physical captivity at Beast’s hands (such as it is) serves as a counterpart to her cultural captivity at the hands of the townsfolk. Belle is a wonderful character who, by her mere presence, starts to bring Beast back from the wild. She’s a good, intelligent young woman and I find it all sorts of offensive that some people try to denigrate her actions and emotions because a jerk growls and yells at her a bit. This is a film that is most obviously about the transformative power of love, but even before that, it’s about the transformative power of being a decent person. What makes Gaston the bad guy and Beast the good guy is that the latter is transformed by Belle’s “peculiarities” while the former consistently mocks them.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST also succeeds because of the fine assemblage of supporting characters and some of the best musical numbers in Disney’s entire library. The opening “Belle (Bonjou)” number is a clever, uptempo number that sets a perfect tone for the film, and the Special Edition-only rendition of “Human Again” is a rousing spectacle over the castle grounds, but it’s the two castle numbers, “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” that stand out as legendary, signature moments that no one does as well as Disney.

“Be Our Guest” is the aforementioned dinner scene during Belle’s first night in the castle. After leaving her room, she enters the kitchen to find Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury) and some other anthropomorphic items. Unlike Beast, the transformed servants (they used to be human, too), are all rather nice folk. Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) puts up a bit of a protest, but he’s acting out of loyalty to Beast, not out of hate and so easily relents. In terms of visual spectacle, “Be Our Guest” may be equaled by other Disney numbers but it’s not surpassed. Sung primarily by Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), “Be Our Guest” is animated musical magic.

Not as rousing, but even more moving is the Mrs. Potts’ sung “Beauty and the Beast.” The credits contain the Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson pop version of the song, but the filmmakers wisely had Lansbury sing the song inside the movie as Beast and Belle dance for the first time. The dance sequence is simply gorgeous, taking full advantage of the Pixar tech to deliver a sweeping, deeply romantic dance number.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST represents the best of Walt Disney animation. Both rooted in the deep history of the fairy tale and focused by the forward-looking protagonist, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a beautiful, moving, romantic masterpiece.