Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Disney has been known for its beautifully animated films, its entertaining characters, its lively music, and adaptations of well-known stories, and Beauty and the Beast has become one of its most famous films. During the period known as the “Disney Renaissance,” Beauty and the Beast built upon The Little Mermaid and featured a slate of well-rounded characters and a deeply interesting take on the tale which continued to breathe new life into Disney’s collection from thereon. Belle is considered by many to be their favorite Disney Princess, an intelligent, kind, at times a snarky, young woman who knows what she wants and laments being put in a position where she feels as if she cannot achieve it. While Ariel wanted to explore the world above the sea, her choice was still tied to a man she had meant once – Belle is not the same in that regard.

The prologue opens with a story of a young prince turning away a hag, who warns him not to make decisions based off of appearances – then curses him when he further refuses her entry to his palace (I’m certain France would have tried that first before a guillotine if given half a chance). Cursed to be a beast who must find somebody who can love who he is on the inside when what he is on the outside appears a monstrous beast, he is left with his servants-turned-serve ware to languish for years. After that, we are introduced to Belle and a village nearby – what we know about her is that she loves to read, does not want to be somebody’s “little wife,” and has a keen interest to see far-off places beyond her mundane daily existence. Her father, Maurice, is an inventor who is about to take a trip he makes every year to sell his wares and our villain, is the vain and arrogant Gaston who is driving up egg prices in the village by eating so many of them every morning.

Other characters who round out the cast are LeFou (Gaston’s bumbling friend and henchman), Mrs. Potts (the aptly named housekeeper), Lumiere (the maître d’), Cogsworth (the majordomo), and Chip (Mrs. Potts’ son). Together, they provide the backbone of the story as Belle and the Beast grow from bitter enemies to friends to lovers, which is a long, arduous journey with many ups and downs, and twists and turns.

One major criticism often made against the film is that Belle is suffering from Stockholm’s Syndrome, which completely disregards Belle’s own agency in her story – it isn’t until after the Beast begins to behave like a person to her, that Belle begins to feel any kind of kindness to him that wasn’t beyond societal politeness. For them, this wasn’t an easy path, even though Belle was the Beast’s last, possible chance at regaining his humanity. He didn’t think he deserved it, after all. This criticism was founded on a faulty premise, similar to the criticism laid at Cinderella’s feet for her film.

The titular song, sung when the pair have something there to hold onto, won an Oscar, cementing its place as one of the most favorite pieces of music that Disney has ever produced. But it is not the only piece of music in the film to enjoy – Be Our Guest must be mentioned for its score, performance, and the simple fact that poor Belle is trying to take them up on their offer and yet never actually gets the chance to eat anything. Gaston’s villain song serves to explore just how humble he is as a person. After all, he only needs constant praise.

Its theme of looking beyond the surface to what’s really beneath, is constantly reinforced, from the inner strength that Belle wields, to the humanity within the Beast, to the monstrousness within Gaston. A pleasing surface can hide many faults, causing one to prejudge somebody before they really know them. But, by digging into that aspect of the story, it was able to strike a dichotomy between Gaston and the Beast, one that has been illuminated time and again.

This film, like so many others was given a live action adaptation in 2017, and that will be the subject of a separate review. When it comes down to it, Beauty and the Beast was lightning in a bottle, much like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella before it. Centered on a fairy tale that everybody knows bits and pieces about, this version managed to continue Disney’s burgeoning dominance of animation – with each competitor before and after trying and failing to match the seemingly baseline success of one of Disney’s productions.

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