“There may be something there that wasn’t there before”
The fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is so perfectly suited for the Disney princess treatment that it’s shocking they didn’t do one until 1991. Crafted to provide young girls a metaphor for the arranged marriages many of them would inevitably be a part of in 18th century France (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve wrote the first version with Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont soon streamlining it into what we know today), its trajectory became one of the idyllic fantasy of raising one’s station towards royalty for those in the 20th century that didn’t have to worry. Add a message of finding the inner beauty within us all as well as the idea that we can be ourselves no matter what others think and the themes will continue resonating forever.
Think of it as a mirrored Cinderella wherein the potential princess had to overcome the “beastliness” of her current, unfair station as servant to her stepmother. And if you go to Villeneuve’s original vision, it even contains similarities to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White by making the heroine royalty hidden in plain sight. To me, though, this Disney version works so well because it does away with all that superfluous exposition—something I’m going to praise Linda Woolverton for considering she took a story credited to ten people beyond the French authors and fashioned it into an 84-minute gem of animated cinema. All we need to know is how the Beast (Robby Benson) became enchanted and that Belle (Paige O’Hara) is smart enough to know looks aren’t everything.
So we get a beautiful looking, brief prologue of stained glass windows describing the morality experiment conducted upon a young Prince too selfish and egotistical to possess a capacity for charitable kindness. The Enchantress leading this test would ultimately curse him to look on the outside like he was on the inside—scary and unforgiving. Sadly his staff and home would fall under the spell’s umbrella too, the former transforming into the inanimate objects they used to fulfill their duties while the latter is shrouded in darkness to ward off unsuspecting visitors. She wasn’t going to make it easy for the Beast to break his curse. If no one came calling, he’d never find that someone to love him by his twenty-first birthday to prove he’d changed.
As fate would have it, however, just such an unlikely visitor would find his way to the castle. It’s the over-bearing and somewhat kooky inventor Maurice (Rex Everhart) who stumbles in to find the servants (Jerry Orbach‘s French candlestick Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers‘ exacting clock Cogsworth, and Angela Lansbury‘s pleasant yet no-nonsense tea pot Mrs. Potts amongst others) hospitable if oddly fantastical. The Beast in his infinite wisdom—his anger and drive for control exacerbated by years of solitude—throws him in the dungeon for trespassing to appease his appetite for authority on a world of which he is no longer a part. Unbeknownst to them all, Maurice is Belle’s father. She eventually comes looking, sacrificing her own freedom for that of the only family she has left.
For villainous intent we get the lecherously simple brute Gaston (Richard White), a man’s man swooned over by every woman (and his lackey Lefou as played by Jesse Corti) except Belle. She being his true desire, he hatches a plan to entrap her before finally discovering he must destroy the Beast to avenge her rebuff. Beast therefore becomes wrapped with the same elements inflicted upon Frankenstein, Quasimodo, and Edward Scissorhands. Treated as a monster, he becomes an object of vile hatred that only Belle can protect by standing up to a town populated by citizens who have called her odd and out-of-place her entire life too. The marginalized become pitted against the status quo and they decide to fight for their individuality rather than fall in line.
But none of this is labored upon. These plot turns aren’t prolonged for run-time or embellished to add more colorful fun than already provided. Woolverton has pared everything down to be palatable for children in a minimalistic way. There’s a firm progression from sequence A to B and so on, each impacting the next with confidence. Maurice is trapped, so Belle looks for him. Belle is trapped, so Maurice returns to town spouting tales of monsters. Gaston tries to force himself on Belle, so she seeks more than vanity and servitude masked as marriage. The Beast sees the petals of his magical rose falling (the curse becomes permanent once they’re all gone), so he must transform himself into someone worthy of friendship, trust, and maybe love too.
And it’s all set to the type of music only Alan Menken can provide. His partnership with Disney throughout the 90s spawned their most well known soundtracks with songs that continue to stick in the heads of everyone watching. The title song might be the most famous—its dance sequence a product of Pixar’s Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) merging computer graphic-based backgrounds with hand-drawn characters—but it’s “Belle”, “Be Our Guest”, and the hilarious “Gaston” that drive the plot and deliver dynamic melodies. The lyrics take control of the story and Woolverton ensures that she never repeats what’s sung with her dialogue. Everything is spelled out efficiently to avoid this type of redundancy with Beauty and the Beast proving nothing if not a well-oiled machine of content.
The idea that the whole normalizes Stockholm syndrome isn’t a concept to be disregarded, but I think the themes of discovering purity and love beneath rough exteriors overcome it. To children this is the story of an ideal finding an ideal in an unlikely place—opening eyes and hearts to believe we will all find happiness no matter the struggles we face today. As kids grow older they’ll see that the psychology may be a little less benign, but by that point nostalgia will retain the magic they remembered in their youth. It was written to give young girls hope that the horrors of marrying a stranger would get better, their “beasts” softening into worthwhile companions. The transition to modern times is therefore clunky, but no less hopeful.