Liking the 1990s Disney Beauty & the Beast is about as controversial an opinion as liking bacon or puppies. But, well, I like the 1990s Disney Beauty & the Beast. And also bacon. And also puppies. Because I’ve kind of got to the stage in my life where movies are out on DVD/streaming services before I’ve really noticed before they’ve stopped being in the cinemas I didn’t get around to watching the new live action re-make (is it really a re-make if it’s effectively in a different medium, and to what extent is live action cinema a different medium from animation? I have the answer to none of these questions) until comparatively recently.
I wasn’t sure entirely sure what to make of it at first. The problem with the current wave of Disney re-inventions is that they sort of start with the assumption that you’re familiar with the original (I mean, I’m sure there are legitimate small children who went to see the live action Beauty & the Beast without having seen the cartoon first but I’m sure they were also surrounded by 30-somethings, and indeed 40-somethings, and 50-somethings watching the film with a keen awareness of how it stacked up against their memories of 1991). This makes it a bit hard to evaluate them as entities in their own right, which his difficult because I really don’t like using “fidelity to original” as a yardstick for any adaptation.
I think the thing that most struck me was what a difference it makes to be looking at real people instead of cartoon characters. Well, inasmuch as you are. After all, one of the defining features of the story is that most of the significant characters are under an enchantment that requires them to be rendered using various levels of motion capture and CGI. But it does mean that there are things that you can sort of gloss over in the cartoon that you can’t so much when you’re dealing with live actors. Like how utterly messed it up it is that the people worst affected by the Enchantress’s curse were the Beast’s servants and their families, despite their being in no way responsible for, or indeed able to control or challenge, his actions.
Film very much isn’t my medium. But I think it’s fairly safe to suggest that when you covert from a cartoon to traditional cinematography you need to, as it were, paint with a smaller brush. You can still lean to some extent on tropes, expectations and assumptions but you can’t rely on montages and Angela Lansbury to sell your whole relationship. And perhaps it’s the romance novelist in me but my first thought after watching the film was how strange it was that they put more effort into selling the romance between Belle and the Beast, but that it nevertheless came across as less convincing. And I should stress that this is no criticism of the writers, actors, director or, well, anyone else. It’s just that you’re faced with turning story based on fairytale archetypes, in which it’s natural to assume that the male lead and female led will fall in love just because, and in which love itself is a very abstract concept, into a proper film with an emotional arc.
But, in retrospecti, I think a big part of it is simply that the Disney Beauty & the Beast isn’t actually especially interested in its love story. And, to an extent, Disney movies never are. They’re usually about the protagonist going on some kind of journey (literally in the case of Moana) and the Prince or Prince-analogue is primarily a symbol or an unlockable bonus. Actually, check that. I think it might be better to say that there are some relatively identifiable eras in Disney.
Your really classic films (your Snow Whites and Cinderellas) are, and I’m trying to think of a way to express this without sounding disparaging, not really interested in being much more than beat-by-beat retellings of traditional fairytales. And that’s not a bad thing, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in those films—the animation is often beautiful, the stories are very well captured, well imagined and well realised, but, say, Sleeping Beauty isn’t trying to be anything except Sleeping Beauty. It is, I think, quite telling that the breakout character from that movie is Maleficent because Aurora is just a fairytale princess and Philip is just a fairytale prince, and the film doesn’t seem to have been made with any sense that those characters could be about anything except the archetypes they embody. Everything they do they do because that’s the sort of thing that sort of character does in that sort of story—up to and including falling in love with each other.
Then you get to what you’d your second golden age films. This basically starts with The Little Mermaid and, weirdly, doesn’t include that many actual princess movies. The really big names of 90s Disney canon are Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty & the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. Pretty much all of these films (and, all the other 90s Disney movies that aren’t quite as famous or as good) are about a young person who is in some way discontent with the life they are living who goes out, has an adventure, learns a moral lesson, and eventually settles down into a life that is better than the one they had, but probably not quite the one they thought they wanted. Thinking about it, The Lion King is a slight exception in that Simba starts off perfectly happy being heir to the Pridelands and gets actively chased away by his wicked Uncle.
The third era of Disney (by my own personal canon, I’m not like a proper Disney scholar or anything, I’m sure proper Disney scholars exist) roughly coincides with the rise of Pixar and can almost be characterised as post-Disney. The films get much more self-aware, not only of the social context in which they exist but also of the wider meta-text of the Disney brand. Hell, there’s a line in Moana where Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson explicitly says “If you wear a dress and have an animal side-kick you’re a princess.” They still have most of the beats that you’d associate with a 90s-era Disney film but will tend to be more interested in what they can do within that framework and will often deliberately challenge or subvert your expectations. I spent the whole of Frozen nebulously concerned that this story, which so clearly and consistently centralised a relationship between two sisters, was going to end with one or other them getting rescued by the misunderstood romantic interest. I was really pleased when it didn’t.
Anyway, post-90s Disney isn’t really my concern here because I’m talking about Beauty & the Beast, and especially about why I think it doesn’t especially work as a love story, and doesn’t especially have to. When you get right down to it most 90s Disney movies (and pretty much all post-90s Disney movies) are coming-of-age stories. Which, well, of course they are. They’re pitched at an audience for whom that is the most relevant sort of narrative. But it does mean that when romance features in a Disney film it is rightly and necessarily subservient to personal growth. So, Ariel winds up married to Prince Eric but it’s not really about him, it’s about her desire to make her own choices about who she’s going to be. Aladdin winds up with Jasmine, but only as a side-effect of his realising that he doesn’t need magic or bling to be valued as a human being. Simba gets together with Nala but only as part of a wider story about homecoming. And, in (very retro) retrospect what’s interesting about the love story in Beauty & the Beast is that it doesn’t really reflect Belle’s personal growth, it reflects the Beast’s.
I said earlier on that first era Disney movies were pretty much beat-by-beat re-tellings of the original fairytale, right down to the bits that make no sense, and occasionally shonky morals (apparently the stated moral of the original Sleeping Beauty is “lucky people are lucky even when they are asleep” and, honestly, it’s a bit harder to take any lesson apart from that away from the Disney version). Of course, Beauty & the Beast (fairystory version) has a really simple moral: you shouldn’t judge people by their appearances, because someone who looks like a hideous monster could actually turn out to be a member of the hereditary aristocratic and, therefore, innately superior to you and above reproach in all regards (seriously, when you think about it, it is fundamentally problematic that we use the phrase ‘a prince’ to mean a uniquely kind, generous and charitable person. We have real princes in my country. They’re just guys. Sometimes they cheat on their wives or go to parties dressed as Nazis). And one of the things that’s interesting about the 1991 Beauty & is that people tend to watch it assuming it has the same moral as the fairytale, even though, on a moment’s reflection, it absolutely does not.
Yes, when Belle first meets the Beast she’s frightened of him. But then she’s in a legitimately frightening situation and he’s behaving in a legitimately frightening way. Although she is quite hostile to the Beast when they first meet that’s because he behaves like a total arsehole. And at no point does she really object to anything except his behaviour. I mean, okay, there’s slightly ambiguous line when she refuses come to dinner because “he’s a monster” but, in context, it seems fairly clear that she means “because he abducted my father, forced me to exchange myself for him, and is now holding me captive against my will” not “because he has horns and a cute fuzzy beard.” Similarly, she is completely uninterested in Gaston right from the word go. He’s a dick, and she knows he’s a dick, and she hates him. And the fact that he’s the size of a barge and has a swell cleft in his chin in no way endears him to her. “Don’t judge people by their appearances” isn’t a lesson Belle learns because she never shows any sign of having to learn it. In fact, she doesn’t really learn anything. She’s basically great at the start of the movie and she’s still great at the end of it. The character who gets the arc in Beauty & the Beast is the Beast. In a very real sense, the moral of the 1991 Disney version of Beauty & the Beast isn’t “don’t judge people by their appearance” it’s “don’t be a colossal dick to everybody.”
Which, after a mere one thousand, seven hundred and ninety six words, brings me to the actual topic I wanted to talk about: the recent live action remake and its, perhaps slightly surprising, themes. Because live action cinema is an inherently more nuanced medium than, and here I’m a bit stuck for a name for a genre. I don’t want to say ‘animation’ because while classic 2D animated Disney movies tend to be slightly broad strokes I’m not sure you can say the same about all animated movies ever. What about the Ghost in the Shell? What about Belleville Rendezvous? In fact I’ll just have to stick with that. So “because live action cinema is an inherently more nuanced medium than classic 2D animated Disney movies” the film’s exploration of its central “don’t be a dick” theme is itself more interesting and nuanced than the exploration of that same theme in the 1991 original.
To put it another way, for a Disney princess movie, the film says a remarkable amount of subtle and challenging things about cultural attitudes to masculinity.
I should stress that I am in no way suggesting that my reading of the live action Beauty & the Beast is the one that the actors, screenwriters, directors or CGI animation crew intended. Or that it’s any more valid than any other interpretation. But the lens through which I think about the movie makes sense of some choices that the movie made, by which I was initially puzzled. Those choices being the weird dead mothers thing, the bit with the library, and what the heck was up with Gaston?
Belle and the Beast both get more backstory in the live action film than they did in the original. In particular, it’s made explicit in the film, where it was sort of implicit in the animation, that their mothers both died when they were young, leaving them to be raised by their fathers. This is partly, I think, presented as a point of similarity between the characters as a way of suggesting to the audience that they have things in common over which they could bond, and through which they could develop a deeper understanding of each other.
In the Beast’s case, however, it also serves to explain why he’s, well, such a dick. Not, I should stress, that it suggests that everyone whose mother dies grows up to be a dickhead. But in the sense that is very specifically stated that after the Beast’s mother died his cruel and emotionally distant father raised him within a very specific model of masculinity, in which there was no room for grief or, indeed, any particular emotion except pride or anger. When we first encounter the Beast, he’s dressed in the height of 18th century fashion, complete with powdered wig, white make-up and gold brocade frockcoat. And, again, I don’t want to read too much into what might just be an aesthetic choice for the opening shot of the movie, but I couldn’t help but notice that the way the Beast presents himself in his original human form involves nothing authentic. Every inch of his body is concealed, covered up or painted over. And he seems to be throwing this almost cartoonishly decadent party, as if he’s trying to cut himself off completely from anything that is not under his control or part of his creation.
Then, of course, the Enchantress shows up. And, let’s be clear, the Enchantress is a dick. You don’t curse a castle full of people just because the guy they work for was mean to you.
The film is a bit unclear about what the Beast actually does in the intervening, um, well the live action film doesn’t specify. But the cartoon says ten years. Of course, the cartoon also says that the curse must be broken before the Beast turns twenty-one, which means that the cartoon version of the Enchantress put the whole castle under a punishing and genuinely dangerous spell because of the actions of a nine-year-old. And, also, by the way, made a condition of that spell that this nine-year-old persuade somebody to fall in love with them. That is so messed up on so many levels.
Anyway, the film is silent on what the Beast does in the intervening time, but given the state of the castle it seems pretty clear that he spends most of it raging and smashing shit (he may also have taken some time out to commission some new gargoyles but I think we can assume they were the consequence of magical transformation, rather than the Beast’s keen eye for neo-gothic architecture). By the time Belle arrives he is seven kinds of fucked up because he has spent the past hopefully not a decade expressing the only emotions he’s ever been taught were acceptable. Those being anger and nothing else (given that pride kind of went out the window when he got turned into a buffalo monster in a cape). His relationship with Belle, then, becomes less about his learning to love in the generic Disney sense that he learns to love in the 1991 animation and more about his learning that it’s okay to feel shit and shit.
This is where the bit with the library comes in. One of the differences between live action Beauty & the Beast and animation Beauty & the Beast that most puzzled me on initial viewing was the different context in which the Beast takes Belle to the library. In the cartoon, it’s your textbook big romantic gesture. It’s the first time he makes an effort to win Belle’s affections, which is important in two ways, firstly because it shows that he has paid attention to who she is and what she wants, but also that he has started to care enough about the other characters in the castle to actually have a real go at breaking the curse for their sakes as much as for his own. Not only that but in the animation it seems quite explicit that the Beast can’t read (slightly surprising for somebody who would have access to an aristocrat’s education but, as we’ve established, cartoon Beast was already living alone and in charge of the castle when he got turned into a giant slavering monster at the age of nine) and Belle teaches him to read as part of the falling in love with each other montage that encapsulates their whole relationship.
In the film, the Beast is a highly literate man. Because of course he is. He’s a fucking aristocrat—although he apparently has little Greek. Honestly, call yourself classically educated? He takes Belle to the library because they have a conversation about Shakespeare in which it becomes apparent that her access to literature has been somewhat limited by the fact that she’s, y’know, a peasant in 18th century France. An interesting detail is that, whereas in the cartoon the village library is implausibly overstocked (although Belle has still read everything in it), the library in the live action film is a shelf in a church. In the cartoon the library is a gift that the Beast gives to Belle. But in the live action film it’s something he shares with her almost casually. And, in a strange way, that’s a lot more moving.
To put it another way, in the cartoon, the Beast gives Belle the library knowing she’ll think it’s brilliant and then feels validated because she thinks it’s brilliant. In the live action film, he takes her to the library because it’s there and then is surprised and touched by her delight in it. It’s the first time in the movie that the Beast recognises both his own privilege and his own limitation. Not only does Belle take delight in something that he has clearly always taken for granted, but she also responds to something in a way that has never himself been able to. In essence, it’s his first inkling that his worldview is damaging. It’s a nice counterpoint to Belle’s opening number. She starts the film lamenting the fact that her circumstances mean that she has to live a life that is less than what her imagination can encompass. While the Beast, it becomes apparent, has limitless resources but remains caged within the masculine role defined for him by his father and the society he lives in (and also, y’know, by the magic castle with a spell on it, but I think that’s what we call a metaphor).
Similarly, on first viewing I wasn’t sure how I felt about the fact that Belle no longer teaches the Beast to read. I initially was concerned that it took some of the reciprocality out of their relationship but, in hindsight, I’m not totally convinced that the cartoon’s setup of “you save me from wolves, I save you from illiteracy” is a particularly strong basis for a marriage. Also, there’s something quite problematically gendered about the way in which he physically rescues her from wolves by fighting, and then she emotionally or metaphorically rescues him by doing something nurturing. And so, actually, despite the fact that making the Beast the more literate of the two would seem to take power away from Belle and give it to the Beast it instead makes their relationship feel more balanced (Belle is also much less helpless against the wolf attack in the live action version).
What we get in place of the teaching the Beast to read Romeo & Juliet sequence (sidebar: I am really annoyed that movies always treat Romeo and Juliet like it’s a romance when it definitely isn’t) is a scene in which Belle’s reading a poem on a bridge and the words combine with the landscape to show the Beast the beauty of his world as he has never been capable of seeing it before. And this starts a sequence of events that lead to the Beast taking Belle to Paris (and also possibly back in time?) through a magic book (I’d say it made more sense in context, but it doesn’t entirely) which allows her to experience some closure about the death of her mother and which, in turn, allows the Beast finally accept his own grief at the death of his. Thus we arrive at a Beast who we can see as a complete human being, no longer constrained by his father’s expectations.
Of course, in the live action film, as in the animation, the Beast is contrasted against Gaston. And, in some ways, real-person Gaston is less successful than cartoon Gaston because he’s more nuanced and, therefore, less coherent. Cartoon Gaston is basically just an embodiment of the provincial attitudes that Belle seeks to leave behind. He uses antlers in all of his decorating, and envisions a future of Belle rubbing his feet in a rustic hunting lodge, surrounded by their six or seven strapping boys. He works well as a foil but he’s almost impossible to take seriously as a threat. It’s quite hard to be frightened of somebody once they’ve had a pig on their head.
Gaston, in the live action movie, is at once more sympathetic and more threatening. There’s this whole thing where he’s fairly explicitly a war veteran and it’s sort of played for laughs (Lefou will often remind Gaston of all the war and the blood and the killing as a way of making him calm down and go to his happy place) but there’s also this weird PTSD undercurrent. He veers between uncontrollable rage and deep depression. He sometimes seems to genuinely scare Lefou, who often seems to think that Gaston is not thinking rationally or is spiralling out of control. At the risk of a comparison that the text can’t quite bear, he’s almost like Coriolanus: a warrior who finds himself returning to a society that no longer quite needs warriors.
Perhaps the strangest Gaston sequence in the live action film is his interaction with Maurice. In the cartoon, this is very straight forward. Maurice comes into the inn, talking about a Beast, Gaston finds it hilarious and dismisses him, then evolves his plan to blackmail Belle into marriage by having her father committed to an asylum. Having a father is a real liability in Disney movies. In particular, though, cartoon Gaston’s plan relies on the fact that, because he is literally the embodiment of his society, he can basically say anything and people will go along with it. There’s never any indication that he might lack the power to have Maurice locked up. Or, having had him locked up, to have released.
In the live action film, things go very differently. When Maurice talks about the Beast, Gaston seems to genuinely take him seriously. You could reasonably interpret this as him attempting to humour the old man in an effort to win his favour as part of the whole woo and marry Belle extravaganza he’s got going on. But, to me, it feels more like he either believes him or wants to believe him. Again, maybe I’m over-analysing or over-reaching but the impression I got was that live action Gaston has spent his whole life fighting and jumps at the chance to turn his current problem into something he can shoot at with a gun. Almost tragically, it seems like he seriously wants to rescue Belle from the Beast because that is the narrative that he will clearly have been raised to believe in. This is his role as a man in his society. And, ironically, also kind of his role as the young attractive guy in a Disney movie.
When Maurice is unable to find his way back to the Beast’s castle and starts to sound more like he’s delusional and less like he saw a real monster (specifically the point where he starts claiming that a tree that is now perfectly fine had previously been struck by lightning), Gaston legitimately flips out and tries to kill him. And Lefou reacts to this not the way a comedy Disney sidekick would react to it but the way you might react if your best mate who you were also kind of in love with flipped out and tried to kill an old man. Or, even more interestingly, the way you might react if your best mate who you were also kind of in love with flipped out and tried to kill an old man, and you’d been lowkey suspecting for quite a while this might be the sort of thing he’d try to do. He’s not shocked. He’s clearly got a strategy for calming Gaston down. But the impression is very much that Gaston has been seriously emotionally damaged by his experiences and that Lefou is, to some extent, fighting to save the man he used to know. Again, I might be reading more into it than is actually there.
In the end, Gaston leaves Maurice tied to a tree for the wolves, which Lefou is not super happy about. When they get back to the village (because the focus is mostly on Belle and the Beast, we have quite a lot of time away from Gaston between the tree-tying and the return) it turns out that Maurice has been rescued and the villagers are genuinely upset that Gaston tried to kill him. There’s a moment when it seems that the village might actually side with Maurice and put Gaston in jail (or the nebulously historical French peasant village equivalent) for attempted murder. It’s only when Gaston persuades Lefou to lie for him (which Lefou really doesn’t want to do) that they’re able to sell the “crazy old Maurice” story, which, in the cartoon, everyone accepts without question.
In the cartoon, Gaston embodies cultural norms that, in different ways, reject both Belle and the Beast. In the live action film Gaston feels much more like—and I’m really sorry to use this language—the Beast’s dark reflection. They’re both ultimately men who come from positions of privilege who have been raised to accept a very specific and narrow definition of masculinity that expresses itself entirely through anger, violence and cruelty, and that has no mechanism for responding to defiance, disempowerment or disappointment. They both go through a crisis in which they realise that they can’t have Belle because she has other priorities and is a real person with agency. And they both articulate their reaction to this crisis through song. The Beast’s song is ‘Evermore’. Gaston’s song is ‘Kill The Beast’.
‘Evermore‘ is a really interesting song because it’s not a song that male characters usually get in musicals. It has far more in common with numbers like ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird‘, ‘On my Own‘ or ‘As Long As He Needs‘ me (songs in which women sing about how they will wait for, remain true to, or otherwise put up with men who either mistreat them, aren’t interested in them or haven’t got around to rescuing them yet) than songs like ‘Maria’, ‘Joanna’ or ‘I Won’t Send Roses‘ (songs where men sing about how they going to get with girls despite the fact that they are forbidden to, uninterested in or bad for them). Essentially the Beast is coming to terms with his own powerlessness, and committing to wait passively for Belle to choose him if she so desires.
Gaston, meanwhile, sings about burning everything the shit down. And, ultimately, he falls down a big hole to his death because, even at the final moment, he refuses to accept a narrative in which he is not the hero and violence is not the solution. He basically pulls a Javert, putting himself in a situation where he’s definitely going to die, because the alternative is to live in a world that needs mercy and kindness more than it needs an unbending servant of the law or a man who is especially good at expectorating.
And I should probably acknowledge that it is kinda problematic to have written a 4780 word essay arguing that a Disney princess movie starring a modern feminist icon is primarily about the dudes. But, well, I think it’s an interesting way of looking at the film. And I guess I do find something weirdly subversive about a Disney princess coming-of-age story in which the Disney princess is fine and in which it is the job of her society and the men around her to adapt to her standards rather than the other way around.