Tale as Old as Time, Part II–In Which I Defend Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Dear Lily June,

Why would I attack a movie that’s been, for the almost 25 years of its existence, one of my favorite animated features of all time? Because, my dear Lily, no object of art (even cartoon art) is above reproach. No product created will be so universally accepted that it doesn’t lend itself to critique.

If that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be: Essentially it just means that, nobody being perfect, nothing people create will be perfect, either. Looking at objects of art slightly askance allows you to see the cracks in the paint, and those cracks can teach you as much about how not to live, think and be as the actual image can teach you about the opposite.

It is important to learn, whether you become an artist or just remain (as if you had a choice) a human being, to accept constructive criticism. As Winston Churchill once said,

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Beauty and the Beast may have some unhealthy approaches towards intellectualism and romance, but it has its praiseworthy aspects, too. So let’s get to those!

***

For one thing, it is a work of art.

You’ll come of age in an era where computer-generated animation may be the standard, and Pixar classics like Toy Story and Finding Nemo may look pitiful in comparison. But once upon a time, using the CAPS (Computer Animated Production System) was an innovation, and Pixar animators were pioneers exploring the frontier of a third dimension. This can be seen in Beauty and the Beast‘s famous ballroom scene, set to a theme that took the Oscar for Best Original Song in a film.

When Beast waltzes Belle around the magnificent ballroom, you get to watch a visual spectacular unfold as the “camera” seems to “dolly” around the room. From the cherubic angels on the ceiling to the exquisite marble of the floors and outwards toward the constellations illuminating the firmament, the magic of the moment comes alive. This is love, Lily, which causes the world around the lovers to both swirl into a blur and become almost intolerably beautiful all at once. It adds a dimension to lives that had otherwise felt flat as paper, impermanent as pencil scratches, irreparable as ink stains.

The “Be Our Guest” song also creates visual montages with dancing dishes, glasses and cutlery, and the cartoon choreography is immensely fun and entertaining (unless, of course, you’re Cogsworth who, between snowing salt, popping corks, and Jell-O seesaws, gets a bit beat up by the number).

***

Despite the contentious relationship between Cogsworth and Lumiere, the film is decidedly anti-bullying.

Belle and Beast connect in part because they’ve both been ostracized from their communities (Belle for her intellect, Beast for his appearance). They find in each other solace from a society that expects them to conform.

And here’s a theory that might bend your noodle, Lily: If you look at the film not in a literal sense, but as an extended  metaphor for existing within one’s imagination, then nothing after Belle is given the fantasy book (“Here’s where she meets Prince Charming…”) is real. What this shows is that your imagination can be a powerful force against bullying; when those around you don’t accept you, if you can create stories, you can belong to the larger world of literature, a “tale as old as time.”

That makes Belle not just a reader, but a writer, and a powerful one at that, able to construct whole castles in her mind and interact with the inanimate. Rejected by her townspeople, she finds a sense of belonging amongst her ideas/”friends”: a candlestick, a clock, a teapot and her son (a teacup), and a feather duster. When you can use your imagination and dream, even while awake, you’re never truly alone, Lily, and anything is possible.

BeautyBeastCharacters
If the whole thing is imagined (hinted in the background by Belle reading to Beast), then Belle is in a story within a story about a girl who loves stories.

Equally important is the film’s rejection of mob mentality.

Viewers are given two images of the townspeople as a collective group: In the opening sequence, where they criticize Belle for being interested in books, and in one of the songs toward the end where they storm the castle to hunt down the Beast (spurred on by the villain Gaston).

Dangerous troubles arise from merely following the herd. Individuality is lost, and fear is most often the dominant motivator behind mobs. It doesn’t take each towns-person bullying Belle (as they do in the opening sequence); all it takes is, in the end, no towns-person being brave enough to object to Gaston’s version of events. As the quotation often misattributed to Edmund Burke goes,

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

This becomes all the more terrifyingly necessary to consider in our current world, Lily, one that seems to be reverting back to institutionalized and individualized racism like I’ve never seen and have only heard my parents and grandparents discussing in the age of Jim Crow laws.

I hope it’s almost impossible for you to imagine a time when your country operated under a “separate but equal” assumption, and thus segregated even places like bathrooms and drinking fountains into spaces for “Whites” or “Coloreds.” This is institutionalized racism at its worst, and because it helped to reiterate the idea in the public eye that there was a difference between people whose skin color varied (and thus there should be a difference between which resources each group used), it allowed for a society where mob rule and fear was given implicit government approval.

Segregation_1938b
This is not alright, Lily. In some ways, with the recent police violence being enacted across the country, this gives a picture of how people are still seen in the eyes, not of the law, but of the law’s enforcers.

The film, like most Disney classics of a certain time period, is woefully lacking in diverse characters of complex backgrounds and origins. But the lesson that it’s not okay to treat people differently because of physical appearance–that being “different” from the majority does not mean you should be dehumanized and seen as a “Beast”–is one that can be extrapolated into the racial tensions of today.

Mob mentality is what has driven some of the most brutal and violent moments in history from the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust. Lily, whether they’re like you or not (or you’re like them) people are people. They’re not savages, demons, witches, rats, vermin or pests just because they have a different origin, culture, background, heritage, skin color, biology or physiology than you. All people deserve to be treated with dignity, as human beings.

In addition to rejecting mob rule, the film also resists rugged individualism as a primary characteristic of true manhood.

Gaston could, if he was brought to life, shipped over to America, and sent through dental or business school, easily have become Walter Palmer or Jimmy John Liataud, both men who have currently been vilified in international news outlets for killing off beloved and endangered wildlife for the sake of their own selfish recreational gain.

Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206)
Speaking of Beasts, the American dentist who shot the beloved Cecil–a lion protected by a national park in Zimbabwe–is one of the worst: a poacher, a killer, an idiot.

Gaston brags that he uses “antlers in all of [his] decorating,” and indeed, his hunter mentality even makes him see women as game to be tracked, tagged and bagged. There’s an entire song devoted to singing the praises of his masculinity, but because he is painted ultimately as the cruel, uncaring, misogynistic villain who would imprison his own love interest’s father in an insane asylum just to force her hand (into marriage), there’s a subtle anti-patriarchal undercurrent to the whole number.

All Gaston is really praised for is empty gestures–he’s “especially good at expectorating” (or spitting) and no one “…goes tromping around wearing boots like Gaston.” His accomplishments look ridiculous, in part because nothing he does serves anyone but himself. Even Belle, the town pariah, pats lonely children on the head, looks out for the safety and sanity of her aging father, and serves single-handedly as the reason the town library hasn’t been torched to the ground.

The underlying message is that there’s a perfect balance. Somewhere between mob mentality and rugged individuality lies cooperation and respectful interaction.

And that interaction better not involve vanity and superficiality.

Sure, Belle is beautiful. But she’s beautiful as an accident of birth, not as a result of any goals or actions on her part. She pulls her hair back into modest buns and ponytails, and before she’s given the mink coats and fitted ball gowns of the palace, she was perfectly content wearing peasant dresses covered with a modest cape. We don’t see her fussing and primping just to make herself an object of admiration.

Belle is more than a beauty: She’s a smart, strong, thoughtful, competent and capable woman who uses her wit and intelligence to stay true to herself.

We see her reading on multiple occasions, and her love of literature even gives her something to do with, and teach, the Beast. The two bond over a mutual respect for nature, and, as with Ariel and Eric from The Little Mermaid, both end up saving each other, defying the trite damsel in distress cliche. Beast fights off a pack of wolves to keep Belle from being torn to scraps; Belle fights off a pack of small minds to keep Beast from being figuratively tarred and feathered.

In between rescues, they even get into a fight themselves, with Belle gaining the upper hand when she scolds Beast that he must learn to “control [his] temper.” She’s unafraid, then, to stand up for what she believes in or to just keep doing what she enjoys regardless of public perception.

According to Boxoffice reviewer Todd Gilchrist,

“As Disney heroines go, Belle was an iconoclast. Her strong-willed, independent personality feels invigorating in a medium where most damsels are in distress. ”

As a dorky brunette reader who feels lonely and limited by where she came from, Belle’s identity clearly resonated with your mama who pretty much still represents all of the above. I’m hoping you’ll be a book geek, too, but that perhaps it will be hipster and retro that you avoid Kindles for the old fashioned smell of a real textual artifact in your hand (much like those who still collect vinyl for its “rich sound” are somehow seen as more authentic music lovers than the ones whose computers are riddled with mp3 files). Or maybe you’ll just say, “Mo-om, nobody likes books anymore. OMG WTF BBQ.”

And my face will become the emoji with a single tear trickling, which (I’ll tell you sad and pathetically) was, when I was young, just called a “wingding.”

I am glad, though, as your mother, that the film promotes a strong relationship between a girl and her father.

Because I know your father will relish the opportunity to discuss his poetic “inventions” with you as well as listen to you talk about your own issues and interests, I’m so glad there exists a loving and mutually supportive relationship for the two of you to model yourselves after. That being said, if your father is ever kidnapped by a furry monster and thrown into a stone tower, I will not be alright with you swapping places with him, becoming the prisoner so that your dad can cough his way home on horseback. I will go in and slap a beast, dragging the both of you home by your hair if I have to, and messing up the day of any wolf who tries to stop us from getting there.

Mrs. Potts ain’t got nothing on me, Lily, tucking her baby Chip into the cupboard. No, I love you and your father so much, I’ll let you both sleep outside of the kitchen altogether, so don’t say I never gave nothing to youse two. That being said, I think we all need to invest, as a family, into those self-cooking appliances and self-cleaning dishes. It’s going to give us all a lot more time to read, break up lynch mobs, learn choreographed waltzes, and combat chauvinism in its many iterations.

***

Lily, this doesn’t cover half of what I think makes the cartoon compelling and the film worth watching, but it’s up to you to decide if you feel that twinge of magic as the opening bars to the first song come rolling up. It’s up to you if you believe in the moral that “true beauty lies within,” and if you, too, root for the Beast to be reborn, even as you hold your breath watching the last petal fall from the enchanted, encased rose.

I’ll let you watch the film to make up your own mind long before I show you these letters, and likely, like Belle, you’ll have your own opinions and ability to express them without having had to have Mommy hash out her own review with you. I’m just so excited to share my old treasures that I can hardly wait until you can talk to blather on about them.

Beautybeastdisney
It’s awkward, but when Mrs. Potts sings, “There may be something there that wasn’t there before,” and Chip asks, “What, Mama?” and she replies, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” I always wonder, What was she going to say? Why is it an answer he has to wait to hear?

Picture Credits:

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2 thoughts on “Tale as Old as Time, Part II–In Which I Defend Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991)

  1. originaltitle says:

    So we’ll written. I love this defense as much as the critique.

    The mob mentality bit definitely struck me as a child. I couldn’t believe people were just listening to stupid Gaston, ugh! Gaston, the equivalent of modern-day Internet trolls who jump on the hate bandwagon in ignorance.

    I also hope my daughter has a love of reading, but fear that reading is somehow going to be a lost art as she grows up. Great read, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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