After a string of flops in the ’80s, Disney had started to turn things around with the massive success of “The Little Mermaid.” Although between “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” “The Rescuers Down Under” happened, but overall, Disney was starting to rebound after a fairly dismal ’80s. This movie has ended up being maybe one of the most iconic Disney films ever made, which brings the question of why is it best known?
“Beauty and the Beast” tells the timeless story of a woman who falls in love with a man who imprisons her. At the start of the film, we learn that the Prince (Robby Benson) has been transformed into a beast after turning away an enchantress who was disguised as a beggar woman seeking shelter. Meanwhile, Belle (Paige O’Hara) lives in a “poor provincial town” with her father, Maurice (Rex Everhart). Belle is viewed as odd for her book reading habits, but town hunk and overall manly man Gaston (Richard White) vows that he will marry her. One day, Maurice is lost in the forest and ends up at the Beast’s now-enchanted castle. The Beast, not pleased with his presence, makes Maurice his prisoner. The family horse returns how and informs belle, who trades herself in to grant her father’s freedom. Although she is now the prisoner of the Beast, talking candelabra Lumiere (Jerry Orbach, hamming it up) and teapot Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury) make her feel at home, much to the dismay of talking clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers). While Gaston plots to get Belle to be his wife, Belle and the Beast begin to fall in love with each other.
The strongest and most memorable aspect of this film is the magnificent score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. It is impossible to name a weak number in this film. There’s “Belle,” which manages to tell a lot of exposition in one number; “Gaston,” which manages to have numerous interesting rhymes; the famed “Beauty and the Beast,” which is a sweet song from someone observing love; and the brilliant “Mob Song,” which is kind of copied for “Pocahontas.” In a list of the top five scores for an animated Disney film, “Beauty and the Beast” easily makes the list, possibly topping the list. (In my opinion, it is the best, but opinions differ.)
The film also features excellent animation. Although it might help that more than thirty years had passed between the release of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast,” we see backgrounds that are even more details. The film also opens with a fantastic sequence that shows a camera zooming in on the castle from the forest surrounding the castle before telling the story of the curse through stained glass images. The stained glass also serves as a bookend to the film, opening with that telling the prologue and then closing with the happy ending. Although, if I remember correctly, “The Little Mermaid” does not have a “bookend” opening and closing, so the filmmakers of “Beauty and the Beast” borrow something seen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” and use it to a great effect.
The film also features great, varied, developed main characters who want something. The only character that falls short in developing is oddly Gaston because while he wants Belle to be his wife, we never really find out why he wants Belle to be his wife. She’s the girl in town that everything thinks is odd, so why would the man that could have any woman he wants want her? Other than to maybe prove that he really can fulfill the idea that everyone has, that he can have any woman he wants because he’s Gaston.
“Beauty and the Beast” is one of the finest films Disney has ever made as both storytellers and animators. There is a reason why this film is considered a classic. It is not only a must-watch Disney film, but a must-watch film. However…
But is Belle a Good Role Model for Children? Umm
See, we do get the impression that Belle is a very independent woman. She enjoys reading books, even though such an interest is considered perverse in the town where she lives. While some women would accept Gaston because he’s handsome and incredibly masculine, Belle rejects him because she knows she can do better.
But then she falls in love with the Beast.
Now I realize that falling in love is kind of an obligatory plot point for Disney Princess films, but the problem with this is not that she falls in love, but whom she falls in love with. The Beast has massive rage issues. He only moves Belle from the dungeon to a room because his servants suggest he do so, and once she’s there he tells her that she must go to dinner. When Belle doesn’t comply, he first threatens to break down the door of her room then tells her that since she won’t eat with him, she’ll starve. The only reason why Belle eats is because Lumiere and Mrs. Potts ensure that she does. (Mrs. Potts, Lumiere and the Wardrobe are the sweetest characters in the film, by the way.)
Granted, the Beast does save her from being attacked from wolves after she runs away because he kicked her out of a wing she was forbidden from visiting. And as discussed in “Something There,” the Beast starts to show a kinder side, presumably because of Belle.
Additionally, the moment when Beast releases Belle occurs after “Beauty and the Beast” when she sees the danger Maurice is in and he says “I release you.” After this, Belle is in the village and shows the citizens, led by Gaston, the beast via mirror and they’re horrified. Belle fights this by saying, “He’d never harm anyone” forgetting him threatening to break down her door, telling her to starve and getting incredibly angry at her for being somewhere he told her to not go.
Although this movie doesn’t give the impression that you’re not complete without a prince, the message that a man can change if you give him time is a bit troublesome. Granted, Belle really doesn’t have an opportunity to leave since she’s being held prisoner, but it still feels like it can be very problematic. Then again, it is very possible that the gentle side of Beast is finally brought out by her, which was the point of the Enchantress’ spell.
I will point out, however, that this is the first film with a Disney Princess where there isn’t instantaneous love. Belle slowly falls in love with the Beast and actually seems to be afraid him in the beginning of the film. So I will give the relationship between Belle and Beast credit for that.
So here’s a compromise: Since “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the best movies Disney ever made, I highly recommend that you watch it if you haven’t. However, it might be good to have a chat with children that you can’t change a man and if you are in a relationship where a man has in the past threatened you and denied you things like food, you should get out immediately. Sound good?