Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guest Post: Disney's Beauty and the Beast

 Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1989)

or “How I Learned How To Stop Worrying And Love the Disney”

(a guest post by Matt Guion)

In the world of faerie tale research and study (with which I have only a passing relationship) one recurring name is Jack Zipes. Zipes has made a career out of researching faerie tales, studying their history and purpose, writing essays, and putting together anthologies. The man is brilliant when it comes to faerie tales, but he does have one unfortunate blind spot regarding faerie tale adaptations that came out in visual media after the 1920s . . . in other words, right about when Disney broke onto the scene.

See, Zipes is a bit of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to faerie tales. (He could give my book-reviewing persona a run for his money.) He thinks that modern visual adaptations, especially those from Disney, use faerie tales for the trite purpose of promising audiences an easy happily ever after. Okay, fair enough, we have gotten to a point with the stories we tell where we prefer the easy happy ending over one we have to work (and often get hurt) for. And Disney is certainly notorious for those kinds of stories, but not, I think, to the degree Jack Zipes believes they are.

Disney has a pretty consistent formula when it comes to their faerie tale adaptations, so much so that when it was rumored that they would be making a Rapunzel adaptation (which eventually, of course, became Tangled) I made a number of predictions based on the formula, several of which did actually turn out to be right. Why am I telling you this? Well, Cassie has set me the task of reviewing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, easily the best faerie tale adaptation they’ve done (in my opinion, anyway) and my favorite full length animated feature from Disney. The problem is that most of you have probably seen the movie and know it backwards and forwards, so to do a review in the way Cassie does it would be, in many ways, redundant. So to make this a bit more interesting, I’m going to take you through the formula as I understand it, which goes as follows.

1-Humbling and lifting up the protagonist, making him or (usually) her seem much more broken, but also much more virtuous.

2-Polarization of the antagonist, making him or (again, usually) her much more sinister.

3-Making the love interest more . . . . interesting.

4-Addition or increased importance of side characters.

5-Animal friends.

6-Addition of subplots.

7-Comic relief. Lots of it.

8-Sanitization of the grosser bits.

9-Clearer (or sometimes different) message and morals.

10-An actual context for the story.

Got it? Think I’m over thinking this? Sorry, it’s what I do. Let’s dive in!

So the first thing we get, immediately, is that backstory for the prince that Cassie was looking for. All we know from the original story is that some magical brouhaha transformed him into a hideous beast for no particular reason. Okay . . . But here, there’s a reason. This isn’t just a prince. This is a spoiled, bratty little prick of a prince, who judges people solely on appearances -- pay attention to this “judging solely appearances” thing. It’s kind of important -- and having “no love in his heart.” This is some great exposition from Disney, not just in the story itself, but in the way they do it. The animation shows us a bunch of stained glass pictures of the scenes while the dulcet voice of David Ogden Stiers narrates the backstory. This actually harkens back to the classic Disney faerie tale movies, which started with pictures in a book and a
narrator providing the exposition. Makes us remember that, despite its real life context, this is still a faerie story.

So already, in the first three minutes of the film, we’re given more information on the prince/Beast than we ever got in the original story. (Formula point #3 - added interest) We get some explanations for a few other things as well, namely the importance of the rose, though they aren’t entirely clear until later. The main thing we get here is a mythology. The magic here has rules, and isn’t just arbitrary depending on what the author needs at any particular moment. (Formula point #10 - context for the story) The beast is a beast until he can learn to love and be loved in return, which of course is quite apropos for a prince who has “no love in his heart.” But there’s a time limit. He has until his twenty-first birthday, at which point the enchanted rose the enchantress gave him will have wilted. This, incidentally, strikes me as a little off, just because it kind of assumes that if you can’t learn to love by a certain time in your life, you’ll never learn to love at all. But there has to be some way to create urgency, I suppose, so let’s move on.

We are now introduced to Belle . . . yes, Belle, which is the French word for “Beauty," and it’s worth pointing out that the original story is French, so the original Beauty wasn’t actually named Beauty, but Belle . . . but moving on. This Belle is vastly different from her story counterpart. First off, she’s odd. Or at least, she appears so in the eyes of her “poor provincial town.” Why? Because she’s intelligent and thoughtful and
imaginative and finds great enjoyment in (shock and horror!) reading. (I always love the book shop owner’s reaction to her borrowing her favorite book again. “You’ve read it twice!” Um . . . only twice?) This is a huge step for Disney, as many (if not most) of their previous female protagonists were essentially the ideals for the typical passive woman. Belle’s personality--and the fact that she maintains it throughout the movie and doesn’t change for the sake of “love”--is Disney telling young women that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be smart and strong and independent, and it’s okay to read. And the fact that she does get the prince in the end (spoilers) also tells us that these two ideas -- that you can be strong and independent and fall in love and get married -- are not irreconcilable. Belle is not the passive and submissive young lady we see in many faerie tales, but neither is she a super woman. As we’ll learn later in the movie, she is also flawed. I would argue that of all the Disney “princesses,” she is the most like a real person, which is why audiences gravitated toward her, and still do.

We are also, during this opening sequence, introduced to our antagonist. Yes, this movie has an antagonist. The original story really doesn’t, at least not a strong one. The closest it comes is Belle’s spoiled siblings, since they’re the ones who try to keep her from returning to the Beast, but it’s still Belle’s stupidity that causes her to be late. So Disney gave us a solid antagonist where none existed before. (Formula point #2)
What’s great about this particular antagonist, though, is that he’s not immediately obvious as an antagonist, unlike many others from Disney movies. Gaston is obnoxious and arrogant, but he’s also good-looking and vaguely charming. He resembles, in many ways, the handsome princes that usually end up getting the girl at the end of the story. And he wants Belle. Belle, of course, being an intelligent young woman, does not want him. And it’s through Gaston’s desperation to get Belle as his wife that his true antagonistic colors start to emerge. Our first real hint of this is after Belle rejects his marriage proposal, to which he responds “I’ll have Belle as my wife. Make no mistake about that.” That’s actually a pretty frightening moment, following a really comical one.

In the following scene, we meet Belle’s father, Maurice. In this story, it’s just Belle and her dad. No siblings. And no indication that they were ever rich. Rather than being a merchant, her father is an inventor. And like Belle, he is considered odd by the rest of the community, and is something of an outcast. I love the dynamic between these two. It’s clear they’ve always been sort of on the edges of society, and have had to depend
on each other more than anything. (Formula point #1 - humbling of protagonist) We get an even stronger sense of this in the Broadway musical of this movie, which has the two of them singing of how they’ll always love and support one another “No Matter What.” It’s clear that Belle needs her father as much as her father needs her. This makes the moment when Belle takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner that much stronger, because we’ve seen the strong bond between them.

Maurice gets lost on his way to a fair where he was to show off his new invention, and ends up at the castle per the original story. The Beast, however, is not nearly as welcoming as in the original story. In fact, he doesn’t even know Maurice is there at first. Instead, he is taken care of by the household staff. In most versions of the story, the household staff is either gone completely or they exist in some sort of ethereal form, providing service, but invisibly. In the Disney version . . . they’ve been transformed into household objects. Which sounds silly, until you consider what this does for the story. First, despite the fact that we have clocks and teapots walking around and doing people things, the movie never loses sight of the fact that they are actually human, showing us that the Beast didn’t just affect his own life with his selfishness, but everyone around him. It also provides some other characters to interact with aside from Beauty and the Beast, and of course, provides many opportunities for comic relief. (Points 4, 5, 6, and 7 - important side characters, animal friends, subplots, comic relief) But that isn’t their sole purpose, and you find yourself rooting for these characters and feeling bad for them when things go wrong.

It’s these household objects that open the house to Maurice, and when the Beast finds out, he’s supremely pissed and locks Maurice away. He hasn’t changed much. And he doesn’t offer him an ultimatum, either. Where Beast in the original story seems like a good person fighting his animal nature, Beast in this story is a bad person who has pretty much succumbed to his animal nature, which makes his growth that much more dramatic and interesting.

When Belle finds out her father’s missing, she bloody well goes after him and offers herself in his place. But in the same instance where she is making this sacrifice, she is also revealing her biggest flaw. Despite the fact that Belle has spent her whole life being judged and considered an oddball and an outcast, here she is judging the Beast based on his monstrous appearance. I mean, okay, he’s kind of a jerk and doesn’t treat her well, but you can’t tell me there isn’t some prejudice on Belle’s part based on his appearance as well. There’s none of this “love at first sight” crap that we get in a lot of other Disney movies. The Beast has to earn her love, and Belle has to get over her hateful feelings for the Beast.

This all begins to occur when the Beast saves her life. (And don’t start giving me “damsel in distress” crap. She was set upon by wolves. She’s not going to fight them off all by herself, I don’t care how strong a character she is.) And it’s worth pointing out that Belle was at least partly at fault here. She knew the west wing was forbidden (insert obligatory White House joke here [We aren't allowed to give tours of the West Wing until the President has gone up to the residence -- CG]) and yet she went anyway, probably, again, because of that prejudice she felt. It was kind of an act of spite, in a way. Maybe the Beast overreacted, but she was endangering his spell. But anyway, this is where they finally have a reconciliation of sorts, though their relationship still has to develop further. And this is another thing I appreciate about the Disney adaptation: the relationship actually develops, and not just via dinner conversations and awkward proposals, but by actually spending time with each other, getting to know each other, and developing as people. Belle is learning not to judge by appearances, and the Beast is learning how to be with another human being.

Meanwhile, we have Gaston plotting to exploit Maurice’s story about the Beast and having him put into a mental institution in order to get Belle to agree to marry him, which is one of the more diabolical Disney villain plots. When her father falls ill trying to get Belle away from the Beast (sidenote, he actually tries, unlike his book counterpart, who just goes home and weeps into his newfound moneybags) the Beast allows Belle to go home to him. He doesn’t make her promise to eventually return, he just lets her go, even though he knows the spell hasn’t been broken. Though he has learned to love her, Belle does not yet love him in return. He’s sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of hers. Belle reunites with her father and learns of Gaston’s plan. And, when Gaston offers his ultimatum--marry me or watch your father be taken away--Belle takes the third option: proving her father right by showing them the Beast.

And then we get Gaston’s call to kill the beast, featuring some of the best theme-exemplifying lyrics in the movie (“We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us.”) Still through all this, Gaston has not emerged as the fire-breathing villain that we see in other stories, but still as an arrogant man who wants to kill off that which he doesn’t understand. And he is not alone in this. This is human nature in action, and Gaston represents an unquestioned allegiance to that prejudice. This also provides us with our reason for Belle not going back. She didn’t just forget, Gaston kept her away. (Though, this is kind of immaterial, as the Beast just let Belle go with no particular obligation to return.)

The rest of the story is pretty standard. Gaston tries to kill the Beast and almost succeeds, but dies in the attempt, mainly because he was so desperate to kill this thing and win Belle as his wife that he climbed out onto a high, steep roof in a rain storm to do so. Yeah, smart move, guy. Anyway, Belle declares her love for him just as the last petal falls, the Beast and the others are transformed, happily ever after, etc.

So Disney adhered pretty closely to its usual formula, but it did so in a much more inventive way. The Disneyfication process is exactly what this story needed.

1- Humbling of the protagonist: Protagonist was never rich and is considered an outcast from society for being smart.

2- Polarizing of the antagonist: Antagonist actually exists, exemplifying prejudiced human nature, which is kind of the theme of this story.

3- Love interest more interesting: Love interest gets a backstory and, actually, more development than the protagonist.

4- Added importance of side characters: Side characters, like Belle’s father and the household staff, are also affected by the events and have their own growth.

5- Animal friends: Not so much “animal friends” as “household item friends,” but close enough.

6- Subplots: Drama of the staff, plus Gaston’s plot to marry Belle serve as subplots.

7- Comic Relief: It’s funny.

8- Sanitation of original: Eh, not much from the original story to clean up, honestly.

9- Moral or message: See Cassie’s checklist, below.

10- Context for the story: Actual mythology and backstory for the plot.

But how does it stack up with Cassie’s checklist?

Stronger protagonist? Check. Belle is strong and intelligent, but also flawed and very human. She has to grow in this story, and does so. She falls in love with the Beast despite appearances, and moreover, does so without sacrificing any of her stronger personality traits. She’s my favorite Disney princess for a reason.

Backstory for the prince? Check. If anything, the Beast actually does MORE developing than the protagonist, and his development is parallel to Belle’s. We know why he was transformed into a Beast, and he easily has the best character arc in the story.

Stronger reason for Belle’s non-return? Check. For one, she technically didn’t have to, and she was never actually told about the time limit. For another, she was trapped by Gaston.

Better building of the relationship? Check, though a qualified one. Don’t get me wrong, the relationship grows between them, but we don’t see much of it. It happens over the course of a musical number. But to be fair, this is something that’s going to be easier to do in a novel and, in the world the movie created, we still get to see how the relationship develops over a period of time. Also, that library? Best freaking gift ever.

Stronger message? Check. This is supposed to be a story about not judging by appearances and seeing with more than your eyes. While the story doesn’t accomplish this terribly well, Disney gets it spot on, not just with Belle and her reaction to the Beast, but with the Beast’s backstory, Gaston’s personality, and just the innate prejudiced human nature that we all have. (Formula point #9 - Better moral or message)

Simply put, there’s a reason why people tend to remember this version of the story and not the original. What Jack Zipes fails to grasp -- aside from the fact that some faerie tales, simply put, just suck -- is that, just as faerie tales have evolved throughout history to suit their audience, Disney adaptations do much the same thing. They don’t always succeed, I’ll grant you -- I’m looking at you, Little Mermaid -- but in the case of Beauty and the Beast, I see nothing wrong with allowing Disney’s version to become the definitive
version of the tale.


Thanks, Matthew! Look for another guest post later this month!

Also, for more fairy tale fun, go watch this thing that I helped with (and that the author of this post wrote)!

See you Friday!


  1. I'd really love to read a review from Matt on Tangled. :D

    Great guest post! Excited for next week!

  2. This nails all the points as to why this is one of my favourite Disney movies, and that Belle is probably my favourite heroine of the lot!