Page to Screen: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast
based on “Beauty and the Beast” by Jean Marie Le Prince de Beaumont

It’s time. I’ve made more than enough bitter, obscure remarks about how I don’t like Beauty and the Beast—it’s time to tell you why. To be totally fair, saying I don’t like a Disney movie is like saying I don’t like a particular flavor of frozen yogurt—I still love frozen yogurt. But it still boggles my mind that Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture back when that actually meant something. Compared to other animated films, especially the films of latter half of the Disney Renaissance like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s… lacking. And I suppose people assuming my favorite Disney princess is Belle because we’re both French bibliophiles puts a damper on things. In the interests of fairness, I watched Beauty and the Beast one more time to give it a chance to explain itself.

Beauty and the Beast takes Jean Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s adaptation of the traditional fairy tale and streamlines it—when the beautiful (and bookish) Belle’s father is imprisoned by a magical Beast, Belle offers to stay in his stead at the castle. As the two spend more time with each other, they learn from each other and form an unlikely friendship and, perhaps, more—but it’s threatened when the townspeople learn about the hideous Beast.

Le Prince de Beaumont specifically adapted Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s version of Beauty and the Beast into a piece aimed at acclimating young girls into arranged marriages; you don’t know if your husband will be a beast or not, but if you love him enough, he’ll turn into a prince. (I’m already creeped out!) Naturally, nearly every adaptation of the fairy tale gets accusations of Stockholm Syndrome lobbed at it. I have to admit, my problem with Beauty and the Beast is that it almost rises above the material, but ultimately fails. In Belle’s “I Want” number, “Belle (Reprise)”, Belle explicitly states what she wants in life—someone to understand her, which is ultimately fulfilled, and an adventure in the “great wide somewhere”, which never is. Half of her motivation suddenly vanishes and the film doesn’t appear to care, although Belle is, supposedly, our main character. (In actuality, most of the film is from Beast’s perspective.) A character’s motivation can change, of course, but you have to address it instead of ignoring it. To be fair, Belle is prepared to abandon the Beast in the snow after he’s rescued her from wolves and, in a wonderfully and subtly animated moment, decides to stay and help him. But that small moment took me years to see; it’s too small for such a big change. The stage adaptation addresses her change of motivation with the song “A Change in Me”, where Belle explicitly tells her father she no longer wants what she outlined in “Belle (Reprise)”. I was floored when I learned it was a song written to entice Toni Braxton to the part a few years into its run—it’s not even included on any English language cast recording. (Thankfully, Susan Egan, the original Broadway Belle, recorded it.)

In fact, that’s probably why I don’t like “Be Our Guest”. With a Disney animated features, you’re looking at, more or less, an hour and a half of running time. There’s no room to waste time. While “Be Our Guest” is a fun number (especially in the stage adaptation; I occasionally want Belle and Lumiere to run off together, but that’s neither here nor there), it doesn’t develop character and it doesn’t move the story along—I would vastly prefer using that time to put in a song like “A Change in Me”. (And don’t get me started on “Human Again”. I refuse to accept that as actually part of the film.) All of this isn’t to say that I don’t like the music in this film; the main motif in “Prologue” sends chills down my spine and “Gaston” is a whole lot of dastardly fun. (Who doesn’t love a pub sing?) But the sound mixing in the film can be off—“Gaston”, in particular, is sort of just dropped in. Of course, I’m comparing it to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is, I argue, Alan Menken’s greatest work to date and sound mixed to perfection. …We’ll get around to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I promise.

Beauty and the Beast can a beautifully dark film, but occasionally gets distracted with the wacky antics of the talking objects. (It took Disney a while to get a handle on the sidekicks during the ‘90s.) Belle’s first encounter with the Beast is harrowing, as is her discovery of the enchanted rose and, of course, the marvelous transformation sequence. Beast, as voiced by Robbie Benson, is a warm guy underneath his lightning and thunder, and Belle is a strong young woman who loves her father; I just wish her motivation wasn’t swept under the rug. Gaston is a wildly fun villain, going from hilarious to a legitimate threat easily. But, while I enjoy the talking objects (Lumiere above all), “Be Our Guest” and, yes, “Human Again” are too bright and cuddly to make Beauty and the Beast a completely satisfying and mildly Gothic story. While it’s enjoyable and has merit, it still has some pretty big problems. (And I’m still confused by the Best Picture nomination.)

Bottom line: Beauty and the Beast has problems—namely, pacing and never addressing Belle’s change of motivation (which, funnily enough, could both be fixed by knocking out “Be Our Guest” and putting in a song like the stage adaptation’s “A Change in Me”, but I digress). Its beautiful, moody, and lightly Gothic sensibility is often dropped for colorful, cheerful numbers with the talking objects, and the sound mixing is a little… abrupt. Definitely an animated classic, but also definitely not something worth a Best Picture nomination back when that mattered.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

13 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

  1. I like Belle for the whole bookish thing, but I have two moral problems with the movie. One being the ones you already mentioned. The other is that I don’t see why the servants should remain loyal to the Beast after he gets them trapped under his curse through no fault of their own. I mean ultimately you could blame the witch for that, but the servants could be forgiven for being pretty pissed at the Beast, too.

  2. Wait, hold up! Getting women used to the idea of arranged marriage? That’s so crazy. I totally missed that meaning of the story 0_0

    I always liked Belle in the Disney version because she seems to be one of the only Disney Princesses that makes it okay to be bookish and smart.

  3. The Beauty and the Beas is one of my favourite children movies, not because the story itself but because it’s kind of a tradition in our family to watch it in Christmas Eve.

  4. I think trying to get girls acclimatized to arranged marriage is, while undeniably a very unpleasant concept, one of those “devil and the deep sea” situations: rather than just dumping girls into a situation they have no control over with no hope that things would get better, perhaps instilling hope that someone they consider an ogre can indeed change will provide some sort of comfort. Lord knows anyone in such a situation needs all the help they could get, more than “just suck it up, woman, you don’t have any say in this.”

    That said, the relationship in the film B&tB was made rather bothersome to me by the inclusion of Gaston. If the whole point of B&tB was to show that a beast can be changed into a prince by the love and effort of a good woman, then… why couldn’t that have been done with Gaston? The Beast was a spoiled, cruel, shallow, brutish brat who only showed any interest in Belle (initially) as a way to get out of the curse, while Belle was only staying at the castle to gain her father’s freedom. Not that Gaston was necessarily deserving of saving, but then, neither was Beast up until the point Belle and the others started working on their relationship. I dunno, Beast really annoyed me in that film, especially since he turns into a prince at the end. Kind of undermined the whole “love you the way you are” message.

    Another thing: why is everyone so obsessed with Belle in the film? I spotted a good few women who were more obviously appealing to the sort of shallow, dim-witted townsfolk: they could’ve at least drawn the others to be less traditionally appealing. I just can’t understand why Gaston was so interested in Belle when he had those triplets eating out of the palm of his hand: the whole “you want what you can’t have” phenomenon can only take you so far. Bah, that film did annoy me: like you, I wish they stuck more to the gothic, serious storytelling and kept the wackiness to a minimum.

    • perhaps instilling hope that someone they consider an ogre can indeed change will provide some sort of comfort

      Or, more likely, it’ll just pressure them into remaining in abusive marriages.

  5. I wrote an essay for a Comparative Literature Course on fairy tales, once, where I argued that the usual arranged marriage interpretation of Mmme de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast comes from the didactic voice appended to the text–a governess named “Miss Affable” has a dialogue with her charges in Le Magasin des enfants, explaining the tales therein, but that the didactic voice was a way to sneak stuff under the wire in the actual fairy tales Beaumont retells.

    Beaumont’s time as a governess in England convinced her that English society was turning girls into passive, empty-headed young women. The main thing, I think, is that the story runs almost opposite to the Disney version: in the Disney film, the Beast is a jerk who has to change to win Belle’s love. In the story, the Beast is always kind and gentle to Beauty, and it’s Beauty who has to change from a colourless and docile young lady to someone who can hold power over the Beast and act on her own (her decision to marry the beast at the end of the story is actually *against* the wishes of her family). It’s Beauty’s sisters who conform to the patriarchal expectations for a young woman in England, and end up getting turned into statues at the end. Which is to say, Beaumont’s story seems more about the education of young girls and navigating societal expectations to their greatest advantage (though Beaumont didn’t actually focus on societal change). I hardly think Beaumont actually supported arranged marriage, seeing how much she hated her own and went to England to escape her libertine husband.

    Which is all rather opposite to what Jack Zypes says about it, but I’m more a Ruth B. Bottigheimer kinda guy (seriously, Fairy Godfather is a just plain awesome piece of scholarship). The reason I don’t like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, despite the lovely animation, is the “I can change him!” angle, with the Beast as a dangerous bad boy who Belle must “tame”, and the fact that she basically abandons her dreams of independence to marry the guy.

  6. I love this film beyond the bounds of reason, but I think I am hugely swayed by the library Belle gets, that library that is just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life ever. Also by how hilarious Gaston is to me — the parts of the “Belle” song that feature him are some of my favorite moments in all of Disney. I agree that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t have any of the amazing legendary songs like “A Whole New World” or “Kiss the Girl”; however, I do think that Belle’s original “I want stuff” song just slightly misses the point of what she actually wants. What she really wants is someone to read books with. I ❤ her.

  7. I’ve only seen the film once, and that a very long time ago. I have to agree with Michal that it sounds as though Disney altered the original to fit in with their ideas. Le Prince de Beaumont’s fairy tale has it so that Beauty (or Belle) sees the innate goodness of the Beast enough to fall in love with him. How on earth can the Beast expect any woman to stay and fall in love with him if he’s a jerk to her from the start?

    Interestingly, Robin McKinley’s first version of the fairy tale (‘Beauty’) has Beauty be bookish, too – though McKinley makes the sisters nice, but with their own responsibilities which mean they can’t go in their father’s stead.

  8. Pingback: Page to Screen: Frozen (2013) | The Literary Omnivore

  9. If you ask me, I favor Belle over Gaston because I can relate to her but never Gaston because I’ve been antagonized by a number of people like him before. And I’m glad that she ended up with the Prince, who she was able to reform.

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