With a live-action remake starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens about to waltz into cinemas, Jenny Shelton revisits Disney’s 1991 Oscar-nominated animation. Has this Tale As Old As Time stood the test of time?
First, a discussion point: is the Beast less attractive as a human? If so, is it OK to feel this way?
I once had a tipsy conversation with two girls I’d just met about how the Beast, when he transforms, is disappointing as a human. They fervently agreed. That flowing golden hair, those full lips, the open shirt… Bon Jovi circa 1986 was simply not the payoff any of us was expecting.
For a movie about not judging by appearances, I’m aware of the glaring irony here. The trouble is, Beauty and the Beast simply works too well in revealing the Beast’s virtues that he ends up seemingly preferable to an actual human man (Lumière is also disappointing in human form, for that matter). The only feasible explanation is that the human ‘Beast’ is a stranger – not the character we’ve come to love.
Yet the pretty-boy Beast might be the only thing this movie gets wrong. Disney’s 30th animated picture is as joyful to watch 25 years later as it ever was; the songs, the story and the characters remaining the epitome of Disney at its very, magical best.
Let’s start with our heroine. OK, Belle’s a babe (this is Disney after all), but more importantly, she’s smart, kind and adventurous, and she loves to read. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who cut scenes of Belle baking and ‘crying too much’) even based the character on Katharine Hepburn’s Jo in Little Women – better and better. Belle also dares to be different, longing to explore life beyond her small town and its goofy, egg and bread-selling peasants.
That ticket to adventure comes unexpectedly when her blundering inventor father gets lost in the forest. After wandering into the Beast’s enchanted castle, he is imprisoned by its tempestuous master, until Belle buys his freedom with her own.
So far, so gothic. Like Bluebeard, but with talking household items.
Visually, the early scenes with the Beast – the towering shadows, his heaving breath in the snow – are a world away from Disney’s sketchy 60s and 70s style (think 101 Dalmatians and Robin Hood). Beauty and the Beast was the second Disney production (after The Rescuers Down Under) to use CAPS – a digital scanning system which added depth through layering, allowed different focusing effects and moved away from that static backdrop look.
But it’s the ballroom scene, with its spectacular cinematic pans, that elevates Disney to new heights, easily standing up to anything we’d expect to see today. The artwork (it’s hard not to say videography) is beautiful, the music heart-swelling and tender. And any film that can draw a tear with a singing Cockney teapot is clearly doing something right.
Everyone loves a journey, and the Beast’s character evolution also gives what is strictly a cartoon huge emotional gravitas and depth. It happens slowly and believably, and it’s pretty charming to watch.
Add in a charismatic candlestick belting out some enduringly showstopping numbers (I always notice how Belle eats none of the food during Be Our Guest – what a waste), and it’s not hard to see how, in 1991, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Still, there are potential issues. Belle falling for her captor looks like a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome, which isn’t perhaps the kind of thing to be promoting to young kids, or anyone. (Actually, it’s more like Lima Syndrome, where the captor develops sympathetic feelings for the hostage.)
There’s hardly a fairy tale in the book that doesn’t have deep shades of darkness lurking in the corners, but since the Beast doesn’t intentionally capture Belle, and allows her to leave when she asks, the captor/victim thing quickly falls away. We know the real message: be kind, enjoy books, always use satnav when in the forest.
I myself get more of a Pride and Prejudice vibe as Belle learns, Lizzy Bennet-fashion, to see beneath the Beast’s gruff exterior, just as he learns to overcome his self-centeredness and open his heart.
And progressively, Beauty and the Beast gives us a heroine who doesn’t need rescuing but does the rescuing herself: first, saving her father then, emotionally and literally, the Beast. This smart village girl is really the hero, unlocking happiness through love and loyalty better than some passing Prince’s kiss.
Villainous Gaston, who treats otherness with scorn and suspicion, is of course the true beast of the piece. Here’s a bullying brute who values beauty over brains and is motivated by jealousy, vanity and ignorance. He may be roughly the size of a barge and have biceps to spare, but we’re with Belle on this one. No dice.
A chippy heroine, stunning visuals, daring rescues, a prince in disguise, I’m not sure there’s much the new live-action version can improve on. Just don’t let the human Beast look like Harry Styles or Justin Bieber…
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Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.