Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast is one of my four favorite Disney animated films. I love the wistfulness and bookishness of Belle, the over-the-top bluster and brawn of Gaston, and the romance that’s anything but love at first sight. The talking objects, frankly, I could do without, but the ballroom scene with its unbelievably realistic computer-generated architecture and magical blue and gold colors will never cease to be utterly breathtaking.

I don’t remember whether I saw the movie in a theater in 1991, but I know I had the VHS tape because I still do. I also have the soundtrack. I watched the relaunch with the superfluous song scene (“Human Again”) in 2002 in the IMAX Theater at Navy Pier in Chicago with my then boyfriend, now husband. I am looking forward to the 2017 live-action version with Emma Watson; I enjoyed Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), so I assume they won’t mess up this remake either.

See below for some things I noticed on this rewatch, including SPOILERS, as well as what I learned from an entire DVD’s worth of Bonus Features.

Another Disney Orphan
According to the prologue, the spell cast on the unnamed prince (whom fans have named Adam) was to last until his 21st birthday; so during the events of the movie he’s 20. In the dinner-and-dance song, “Be Our Guest”, Lumiere says that the spell has lasted 10 years so far: “Ten years we’ve been rusting, needing so much more than dusting.” So that means the prince was 10 years old when he was punished by the enchantress. But if the prince is only 10, where are his parents?

Nagging Questions
Found some others interested in the logistics of the backstory. A brilliant question, and one I didn’t think of myself, is: If Chip the teacup is like five years old, then… was he born as a teacup? He wouldn’t have been alive at the time of the curse. Another very reasonable question is why the enchantress, an embodiment of poetic justice, would unjustly punish the innocent staff of the castle. Okay, wait, I got it. The beast is the only one who’s aging and everybody else just waits around without getting older. And maybe they all turn human when the last rose petal falls… even though they act as if their fate is tied to the beast’s. I dunno. Maybe historical France is just so classist that the fate of all the staff just didn’t matter. Another theory is that nobody ages, including the prince. But then it’s not obvious why the curse is ten years, or why if the prince was already 20 he would be turning 21 after ten years. You know what? Never mind.

Whose movie is it, anyway?
Computing the prince’s age at the time of the curse did give me one important insight. I used to think of the beast as a man: an irritable, powerful, unreasonable man, but a man nevertheless. I mean, he looks and sounds like a big, strong man, right? But in truth he acts like a spoiled child. That’s the whole point. After Belle takes her father’s place as his prisoner, he does ten years of growing up within the space of a few days. Belle, who doesn’t change, isn’t really the protagonist. The beast is.

It was almost not a musical!
The special features included 20 minutes of story and animation that were created in London in a totally different style. That version is closer to the source material. It starts with Belle’s father being a wealthy merchant. He has a big house, two daughters (Belle has a youger sister), a cat, and a snobby, greedy sister. When he loses his ships, the family becomes poor and the aunt pressures Belle to marry Gaston, who’s vain but in a frou-frou way and not a manly-man way, because the whole setting is 18th-century urban France, not a quiet village, and everybody’s got tall white wigs. For her seventeenth birthday, Belle asks her father for a rose so that he can sell her mother’s expensive musical box to pay his taxes. The movie is not a musical, and the objects are enchanted but don’t talk. Six months of animation were thrown out and the film was restarted. Thank goodness for that.

Who’s the guest?
A holdover from the London version was that the song “Be Our Guest” was part of the welcome Belle’s father receives at the castle. I guess the writers originally assumed the song, an introduction to the objects and their abilities, should take place when we first meet the objects. Someone pointed out that it would make more sense for the objects to sing to Belle because she was the one they believed might be able to break the curse, and the rest is history.

In the opening song about Belle, there’s a bit of dialogue in which Le Fou says “No beast alive stands a chance against you. Ha ha ha! And
no girl, for that matter.” He’s talking about animals, not about the cursed prince, but both statements turn out to be false. I think my favorite line in Gaston’s own song is “I’m especially good at expectorating.” Perhaps there’s a ten-dollar word in every Disney musical; the one in Frozen (2013) was “fractal”.

Mob Song
I love how songs can insert information directly into stories when it wouldn’t otherwise make sense for the characters to be so direct. The townspeople can tell us that Belle doesn’t fit in. And the mob can acknowledge that “we don’t like what we don’t understand; in fact it scares us.” That might be a more profound lesson—and a more consistently demonstrated one—than the lesson the movie sets out to teach, that inner beauty matters more than looks.

Inner Beauty
Although I think of Mulan (1998) as the obvious “let’s make a feminist story” movie, the themes in Beauty and the Beast are an amazing challenge to fairytale stereotypes. At the start of the movie, the prince is warned “not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.” Although Belle is beautiful on the outside, Belle’s curious mind and loving, forgiving heart make her beautiful on the inside, too. Meanwhile, the villain is a handsome guy whom everyone seems to like! When he offers Belle the chance to have his children and wait on him hand and (stinky, dirty) foot, she refuses. When the beast saves her from the wolves, she decides that actions speak louder than words and forgives him for both his appearance and his rude behavior. I’m surprised the writers passed up the chance to tell people not to judge a book by its cover, since books were already a salient motif.

Belle’s Novel
It really pained me to see Belle’s favorite book damaged. A sheep eats the corner of one of the pages when she’s reading at the fountain, then Gaston throws it in the mud in the street, and as if that weren’t enough, he puts his muddy boots on it when he sits down at the table at her house. Arghhhh! If someone came into my house and did that to one of my books, I’d be a lot less polite than Belle was.

Belle’s Dream
You could argue that from the standpoint of “someday my prince will come,” Beauty and the Beast is still pretty bad. Unlike the gruff-looking thugs in Tangled, Belle doesn’t have a specific dream. She just wants “more” than life in a quiet village where every day is the same. Luckily for her, exciting stuff subsequently happens. What if her father had listened to Philippe the horse and gone down the right road and reached the fair safely? Would she ever have achieved anything or loved anyone?

Other Thoughts

  • There were a lot of cartoony visual jokes. I’m over the target age for those, I guess, so I thought they were too silly.
  • Cogsworth is an annoying fussbudget. Sebastian (in The Little Mermaid) has some of the same well-meaning fussiness, but it comes off better somehow.
  • The forest zoom-in on the castle at the beginning of the prologue reminded me of the really old Disney movie beginnings.
  • The bonus features said they auditioned 500 women for the role of Belle!