I had a bad day last Saturday. It happens. I had initially planned to watch Crumb for the first time (that review’s forthcoming), but decided I really needed something familiar and lighthearted to relax. My favorite Disney movie, my first Broadway play, and one of my favorite fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast tells the age-old tale of Belle, a beautiful bookworm who in an effort to save her bumbling father offers herself as a prisoner to a gruff beast who lives in an isolated castle deep in the woods. As time passes she and the beast become friends, and he and his enchanted servants hope her love can break the spell they’ve been under for many years. Meanwhile, Gaston, the village’s resident conceited asshole, plots to have Belle for himself by committing her father to a mental institution and murdering the beast. What a dick.
When I was a kid, I was sort of a tomboy version of Belle- I read voraciously, didn’t really “get” most of my peers, wanted to be independent and do exciting things, and enjoyed spinning around in fields while singing to no one in particular. That last one may or may not be true, but I can say that I did have hazel eyes and brown hair like her, so we were basically the same person minus the dresses and rural France setting, and I really looked up to her. She continues to be my favorite “Disney princess,” and I believe she sets an excellent example for young girls, offering an intelligent, quick-thinking, capable young woman who above all respects herself. Yeah, she fell in love with the guy who imprisoned her, but it was pretty clear to me that she could have left the castle if she really wanted, and stayed out of curiosity.
The climax also promotes teamwork, with all the servants working together to save the castle, as opposed to one manly fellow rushing in to save the lowly plebians and helpless ladies from danger. In fact, the handsome macho guy is a sociopathic jerk in this movie, so it’s pretty progressive for a Disney fairy tale.
It’s funny to watch this as a sort-of-adult (not ready to go all the way quite yet). It still gives me infinite joy, partially out of nostalgia and comfort and partially because it’s just a great movie. I was contentedly smiling from ear to ear like a geek for most of the running time. However, now I pick up on certain things a lot more. Like, if the beast is approaching his 21st birthday, he was just a snotty pre-teen when the witch cursed him. It seems a little extreme. Also where are his parents? And what happened to the witch? And all that mental institution stuff used to go over my head, but seeing it now it’s pretty dark, Sweeney Todd-esque stuff!
And how the hell does that bookshop owner stay in business- and do well enough to give Belle free books- in a town so anti-reading it shuns the one person who seems to do it and makes up songs about it every morning? (I like to think the opening “Bonjour” scene happens every morning, but maybe with different lyrics or something.) Finally, I find myself appreciating the stuffy character of Cogsworth a lot more as I grow older, while as a kid I of course loved Lumiere the best and thought Cogsworth was boring.
This movie collects together various familiar tropes: arbitrary witch’s curse, true love needed to break the spell, pretty but put-upon girl, friendly talking things that usually don’t talk in real life, a lot of people bursting into song, royalty of questionable lineage who don’t seem to do any actual ruling, missing/dead parents, etc. But through clever scripting, excellent characterization, gorgeous animation and painterly backgrounds, and skillful songwriting, Beauty and the Beast is elevated beyond its deceptively simple components and transformed into a near-perfect film. The dialogue is often hilarious, and features one of my favorite art jokes along with one of my favorite song lyrics ever. The music is catchy as hell and wonderfully romantic, some of Menken’s best work thanks to the brilliant and tragically deceased Howard Ashman.
Most importantly it has this, my goal in life forever.
Pair This Movie With: Well Disney movies usually just put me in the mood for more Disney, like Aladdin or Mulan, but I’ll also suggest the absorbing documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which has a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff for Beauty and the Beast. I haven’t seen the 1946 Cocteau version but I’ve heard it’s really beautiful, and I imagine it’d be a nice pairing.
I really loved Jake’s review, which also has a lot of the behind the scenes stuff found in the doc.