As part of Movies Silently’s Fairytale Blogathon, in which posts from guest bloggers are contributed daily on a particular theme, in this case fairytales, I am contributing a post on my all time favourite film Beauty and the Beast (1991).
“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand to have someone understand, I want so much more than they’ve got planned” – Belle
Beauty and the Beast, based on the original French fairytale La Belle et la Bête by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont has been adapted numerous times into films, TV shows various book adaptations (Angela Carter’s sexualised version of the tale The Bloody Chamber for instance) and stage plays since the book’s first publication in 1757 as part of a fairytale anthology. The most notable adaptations are arguably Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and it is the latter that I am writing about for the blogathon.
An old tale that stands the test of time
All fairytales deal with universal themes and human attributes that make these stories important in educating the young. As Einstein said – “if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales”. Fairytales, much like myths (stories of the ancient/religious Gods), legends (stories about mortal people like Robin Hood or religious mortal figures like Moses or Jesus), and fables (a story that has a specific moral – The Tortoise and the Hare for instance), act in providing a particular culture with a moral context by which they live their lives. These stories are passed on through generations, and may alter as they do so, but they are used to educate children on how to behave in a socially accepted way. Whether the stories are based on any truth is irrelevant; it is the moral value of the stories themselves that make them essential in understanding cultures and education. In this way, the fairytales/religious stories/myths of a particular culture can be examined to understand that culture’s code of moral conduct.
Beauty and the Beast is a fairytale, but rather than in the traditional sense of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Hansel and Gretel, which are littered with evil witches that are defeated by the good child, it focuses more on magical realism to add fairytale charm to its narrative. And rather than having the enemy appear in the form of an evil wizard or witch, it is a mortal human (Gaston) that becomes the evil threat of the story for the good to overthrow. So what makes this story a fairytale? Well, it contains many of the traditional fairytale elements – a beautiful young girl, a handsome prince (although his beastly disguise is only removed toward the end of the film when he has redeemed himself), and a whole host of magical, talking objects that help the young girl along her way much like the seven dwarves, or the friendly mice and birds in Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast certainly serves its purpose as a fairytale. It offers a magical story with bold and lovable characters, and a film that the spectator can really invest themselves in. It essentially offers a form of escapism where for about 84 minutes of the spectator’s time, they can escape into the fairytalistic world of the film.
The importance of escapism into fantasy, as highlighted by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories (1947) is that it allows the spectator to escape into the world and identify with the primary characters, who in fantasy stories and fairytales are typically the heroes. The spectator, immersed in this fantasy world and projecting themselves onto the heroic protagonist, fights the battles along with the characters, and when they inevitably win the battle and the story ends, this provides the spectator with the same feelings of triumph felt by the characters. It is then that the protagonist can leave the fantasy world with a refreshing look on life, having fought their demons and feeling able to conquer more.
In terms of Beauty and the Beast, the spectator may identify with the young girl who craves adventure beyond her claustrophobic, provincial life, or with the beast who is forever trapped by his past. No matter who the spectator relates to, both characters fight their battles throughout the film and finally achieve their happy ending – et voilà! The spectator has similarly achieved theirs. I believe it is a film’s ability to allow the spectator to project themselves so fully onto characters within films that creates such an emotional impact on the spectator. Whether there be anger, sadness or tears of joy, the spectator, for the duration of the film, is living out the experiences of the character. In this sense, film is therapeutic. It provides us with an outlet for our emotions as well as encouraging us to experience new ones, which allows us to learn as human beings. Fantasy and fairytales are particularly important in this way as they openly provide a new world and a sense of heroic triumph that we can project ourselves into. Beauty and the Beast provides a similar outlet, making it an important fairytale adaptation in the history of cinema and Disney itself.
Beauty and the Beast begins with a narrator telling the story of a young prince who rejected an old crone from his castle when she came knocking on his door one day, pleading for shelter, offering him a single rose in return. The crone warns him to look past her haggard appearance and appeals to his better nature, but as the narrator states “the prince was cruel, selfish and unkind”. When he again turns her away, the crone transforms into a beautiful enchantress, and she places a curse on him, changing him into a hideous monster as punishment and to reflect the ugliness within him. The castle likewise is cursed, with all the servants within it turning into enchanted objects such as a clock, candlabra, wardrobe, and teapot, amongst others. It is not until the prince can learn to love another, and earn their love in return by the time the last petal of the rose given by the enchantress falls, that he and his servants will return to their usual form.
Cut to Belle, suggesting that she will become our heroine of the story and return the prince to his human form. The song that follows conveys to the audience that Belle is considered a bit of an oddball amongst the other villagers due to her diehard love of reading. Belle, much like her inventor father, is an outcast in this small, monotonous French village. As the song explains, Belle craves the adventure that for her only exists in her story books. Meanwhile, local heartthrob Gaston proves himself conceited and arrogant and desperate to marry Belle so that he may add her to the ongoing display of trophies in his house. Belle rejects his advances in humorous style, embarrassing him in front of the whole village.
Due to circumstances involving Belle’s father, she is now provided with the opportunity to star in her very own adventure story, proving herself a worthy and selfless hero along the way by sacrificing herself in order to save her father. Here begins the typical turning point of the fairy story in which the hero’s journey to a happy ending becomes difficult. Belle is forevermore trapped within the castle with only a monstrous beast and talking furniture for company – it does not seem much of a life of adventure.
What follows is an array of musical sequences which all serve their purpose in adding depth to each character, providing the spectator with an understanding of that character’s motives and thoughts. Both Belle and the Beast, particularly the latter, become more lovable throughout the film, encouraging the spectator to relish in their growing friendship. The sequence offers moments of comedy, placing the supposed angry, monstrous beast in silly situations in which the spectator can laugh at him but grow to like him. Whereas many Disney adaptations of fairy tales provide barely any indication of a growing relationship between its primary couple, with Beauty and the Beast it becomes the primary story running throughout the film. In Cinderella for instance, Cinderella only met the prince briefly at his ball one night before he had decided he wanted to wed her, shortly after rescuing her from her wicked stepmother. Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) only meet their Princes when they are singing prettily outdoors, and that appears to be enough for the princes to fall in love with them and rescue them with ‘true love’s kiss’ when they have both fallen into a death-like sleep at the end.
Beauty and the Beast then is arguable more appealing and universal simply because it is more realistic. It might be far-fetched in terms of talking, magical objects, and a young man turned back into a beast that can only be saved by the love of another, but fairytales act as a fable, as a moralistic lesson through metaphor. The story is universal by having relatable protagonists and a love story that happens over time, where the spectator is treated to an ongoing development in their relationship which adds depth and therefore becomes more believable.
What makes Beauty and the Beast stand out?
Previous Disney adaptations have been criticised for their inherent sexism by creating female role models who are passive, thin, beautiful, dainty, a whiz at housework, and exist solely to become the trophy wife of a handsome prince. Personally I find that there is much more value, strength and importance in the Disney females than many believe, but there is no denying that Belle was an important change in direction for Disney. What Belle stands for is ultimately an independent female who places her own ambitions over anything else, including marriage. Whilst the story begins by explaining the tale of the prince and how he needs the love of a girl to transform, Beauty and the Beast is first and foremost the story of Belle finally finding the adventure she so desires in life, with the love of the beast just acting as a side story. Although toward the middle of the film the love story becomes more dominant, it only really exists to lead up to the conclusion of the film and fit in with the Disney happy ever after. It is also important to note that Belle is the heroine of the story. It isn’t the Beast who is the hero. He may provide Belle with the setting for her life of adventure, but she chose that life of her own accord. It is Belle that saved the Beast by teaching him to love, and in turn falling in love with him, and it is that ability that she taught him that transformed him back into human form and ultimately saved him from a very near miss of a life cursed as a beast. Essentially, the Beast became the ‘damsel in distress’ of this film, and not only does Belle teach him to love, she also teaches him to read, follow etiquette and become well-mannered, and encourages compassion, kindness, and a sense of humanity in him. This ultimately teaches him to love, and earn the love of another, bringing an end to the curse and transforming him back into human form. It is Belle that became our film’s hero.
Beauty and the Beast: my favourite fairytale film.
Although the tale itself is not my favourite fairytale (that honour goes to Han’s Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen and the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel which have always shared top spot since my childhood), it is my favourite film adaptation of a fairytale, and very likely my favourite film (it is certainly high up in my top 10 favourite films). It is a feel good film that brings to life a ‘tale as old as time’ of a fairytalistic ‘true love’ that stems from friendship.
The film features its own version of ‘true love’s kiss’ without actually featuring a kiss until both our protagonists are human, but instead features a sequence that is just as powerful. Many of the other Disney fairytales incorporate a ‘true love’s kiss’ to act in breaking a
curse, but in Beauty and the Beast it is made more believable as the moment that the spell is broken, that shot is intercut with shots of the rose as the last petal falls. As the spectator is already aware, the Beast can only be saved by learning to love another, and he has already stated that he loves Belle and put himself through the pain of letting her go because of that, suggesting that he really does care for her. He must also, as the spectator is aware, earn their love in return, and Belle tells his dying self that she loves him. It is the exchange of a feeling of love itself that acts as the film’s ‘true love’s kiss’ and breaks the curse. All of this happens whilst being musically illustrated by Menken’s enchanting score, which fulfils its purpose wonderfully in creating all of the emotion necessary to make the audience weep a tear or two. The musical numbers likewise are in the style of a Disney West End show, and are comically accompanied by choreographed household furniture, anthropomorphising the cursed servants, making them likeable, and all with their own distinct personalities.
Belle arguably was the precursor to other Disney female heroines that place their own ambitions over the love of another. Whether or not they do end up with a relationship is irrelevant; it is the values the female stands for that are important. For instance, Princess Tiana of The Princess and the Frog states to her mother who is eager for grandchildren, that “that’s gonna have to wait a while. I ain’t got time for messing around”, followed by a song and dance number of Tiana singing about her ambitions to work really hard to achieve her goal of owning her own restaurant. Rapunzel from Tangled is similarly ambitious. When we first meet her, she sings about her monotonous life of painting, reading, pottery, baking, ballet, and chess etc, but how she is desperate to escape the tower in which she is imprisoned so that she can watch the floating lanterns that fly from the castle each year. It is important to note that not once during the song does she mention her desire to be saved by, or marry, a handsome prince. When she does finally meet the man that she is to fall in love with, she hits him over the head with a frying pan and ties him up until he agrees to help her achieve her goal. Whilst Tiana is more active in openly rejecting the expectation on her to marry and have children, it is clear that both she and Rapunzel follow in the footsteps of Belle, establishing Belle as an influential feminist role model in contemporary Disney films.
Whilst primarily acting as a strong moralistic tale about remaining loyal, kind, and true to others and seeing past the exterior to love the person within, Beauty and the Beast remains light-hearted and enjoyable, with lovable characters and an atmospheric, original soundtrack. The story itself is universal, with characters that respond to each other to add depth and credibility to the tale, exploring themes of love, friendship and courage. Whilst it strays from fairytales in some respect, for instance the only traditional, magical fairytale character within the film is the old crone at the beginning, it fits well within the fantasy genre, and more fittingly as a fairytale than as a fantasy adventure for instance. All of the other characters within the film, even the enchanted objects, bring an element of escapist fantasy to the story, even the other worldly setting of the castle that exists far from the ‘realistic’ world of the French village. Yet despite their fantastic nature, the characters are believable in terms of personality and motive, and help in lowering the obvious fantasy tone of the story, making it more relatable. It is not surprising that Beauty and the Beast has become a monumental classic within the Disney animated feature classics, being excellently received by critics, and deservedly so as it has earned its place as a new take on the traditional fairytale film.