My obsession with Beauty and the Beast can probably be traced to a home movie filmed shortly after my Belle-themed fourth birthday party. Sitting on the floor in my Beauty-and-the-Beast jammies, I am reading a Beauty-and-the-Beast picture book and singing the chorus of Belle's song in four-line iterations: "oooo, isn't this amazing...?"
Which leads me to review one of my favorite movies of all time.
Released on this day 19 years ago, Beauty and the Beast is one of only two animated movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards (the other was Disney-Pixar’s 2009 movie “Up”) and is the third movie in the “Disney Renaissance” of 1989-1999. Its quality is demonstrated not only its number of awards (two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and three Grammys) but in the number of spin-off projects it has inspired. Not only has Belle become one of the canonical Disney princesses, but the movie inspired two small-scale “midquels” and a full-length Broadway musical.
Why this grand-scale, enduring popularity? I think there are a few reasons: a strong, sensible heroine; tender yet fearless exploration of deep topics; and a universal theme that resonates with all humanity.
Belle is, hands-down, my favorite Disney princess. She is a strong and intelligent young woman who takes care of her father and reads voraciously (unlike Gaston, who asks “how can you read this? It doesn’t have any pictures…”). Far from being one of the cliquish blonde bimbos who have nothing better to do than let Gaston bench-press them, she outwits Gaston’s unwanted advances and stands up fearlessly to the Beast’s unchecked temper. She is no Snow White, deciding it’s fun to clean little men’s houses and take apples from strangers, or Cinderella, who can do nothing but cry about the ball.
However, neither would I consider Belle a rampant feminist. Unlike sword-wielding Mulan or Jasmine’s “I am not a prize to be won” attitude, Belle wears her femininity with grace. She wears dresses and lets the Beast pull out her chair for her. She allows him to grow into the part of a gentleman, not insisting on always having the leadership. She is capable of caring for herself, but does not dominate those around her. She is smart but not arrogant, brave but not masculine, beautiful but not vain.
What I think makes Belle a true heroine, however, is her attitude of self-sacrifice. She may be a cartoon character, but I genuinely admire her (and no longer just for her gorgeous golden ball gown). While she does dream of “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” she is no selfish Ariel, resorting to disobedience and rebellion to get her own way. Belle is more concerned for her father than for herself. She faithfully supports him in his eccentric inventing and leaves her budding romance with the Beast to tend him at his bedside. She even offers herself to the Beast in her father’s place, one of the most beautiful gestures of self-sacrifice in all of Disney. In short, she is forgetful of herself, and it makes her shine.
Her character, I think, launches the whole movie’s exploration of the meaning of “beauty.” The enchantress in the Prologue insists that “beauty is found within.” Most Disney movies make a simplistic parallel between outward beauty and inward goodness, leading many of the princesses to fall in love at first sight because the handsome prince is obviously the intended love interest. But Beauty and the Beast makes a much more complex investigation through the opposition of Gaston and the Beast. Gaston has the looks of a storybook prince, while the Beast has fangs and lives in a dark and gloomy castle. But as time passes, it becomes evident that Gaston’s handsome face conceals a rotten heart, while the Beast develops a kind and sacrificial character. By the end of the movie, it is evident that the Beast is the beautiful one, in spite of his claws and hairy face, and Belle’s love for him begins long before he is outwardly transformed. This movie offers a much more challenging and multi-layered evaluation of beauty than most animated films, and indeed, most films: that true beauty is much more than seeming.
This tempered view of beauty also leads the movie to a more realistic view of love. Beauty and the Beast may be animated, but it is one of my favorite love stories of all time. There is no three-day ultimatum, no first-kiss awakening. Seasons change, circumstances change, and yet this movie is clear: love is grown, not “fallen into.” Belle’s prince starts out far from charming. The Beast's vicious temper is as ugly as his face. Both he and she start out arguing incessantly, neither one willing to back down. But the song "Beauty and the Beast," I think, is one of the most tender and true looks at love in all of Disney:
"Tale as old as time, true as it can be /
Barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly…”
Belle and the Beast first become friends, learning to sacrifice for each other and have fun together (including an epic snowball fight!). Ultimately, the Beast lays down his desires and lets Belle go to her father, and Belle returns of her own free will. Only after they’ve put themselves aside for each other and let each other go are there rainbows and kissing on the balcony. It’s a timeless masterpiece of storytelling that will have me finding new analogies forever.
In a way, this story of self-sacrifice tells the story of Christ, perhaps the reason it resonates with me so deeply. While we were still beasts, Beauty came to our world and said “take me instead” (Romans 5:8). Jesus saw the humanity behind our ugliness and bore patiently with us, even when our violence took His life. He is the one who sees the man inside the beast, and His love transforms us back to humanity. Maybe that's why I am so fascinated by this story: because it's not just a mindless animated movie or chick flick. It’s a love story of all eternity, a Tale as Old as Time, of the transformative power of knowing the Person who is Love.
All this, not to mention the Beast's beautiful blue eyes and the amazing castle library (my favorite room in all of film!) I may not be four anymore, but the rolling drums of the Prologue are still enough to plop me down on the couch and stick a smile on my face any day.