I didn’t like Beauty and the Beast when I was little. I loved that movie. I was obsessed with the ballroom scene, the dancing cups and the at the time (and still mostly) fantastic animation. But I was a fickle child and that movie didn’t stay my favorite for long.
Like many of the things I put away in my childhood, I did put away many Disney movies. College brought with it cynicism and cynicism meant that I was, for a moment, too good for Disney movies. I was one of those folks on the internet with all the feminist hot-takes about Disney movies and if I could take those years back, I would. For the longest time, I was convinced that Beauty and the Beast was about Stockholm Syndrome and incredibly anti-feminist and overall, just a poor piece of media.
That was until the live-action remake made me reconsider my feelings.
Now, there are plenty of videos (like this one and this one) that far more eloquently explain the myriad of failures of this movie; so I’ll keep this portion brief. The live-action film calling out the “mistakes” of the animated movie only stand to make the live-action movie seem weaker.
Making Belle more “feminist” simply makes her a lamp of a character. Gaston having PTSD is…insulting. LeFou being gay is…also insulting. None of the changes the live-action film makes to the animated classic help the plot, character or themes of the film.
But this isn’t about the new movie. This is about me falling back in love with the animated classic.
For now, a synopsis: Beauty and the Beast (the Disney animated classic) was released in 1991 and is based off a classic French fairytale. The story surrounds Belle and her desire to find adventure in the great wide somewhere Her father goes off on a fetch quest and ends up in the claws of a Beast, The Beast, in a castle on a mountain that in no way looks scary at all. Belle decides to find her dad, because of course, and goes up to the not scary castle and sees the not at all scary Beast. The Beast bargains with Belle, saying that if she stays in the Enchanted Castle full of living enchanted dinnerware and such with him forever, he’ll let her dad go. Belle agrees, because plot, and magic castle-based bonding ensues. Eventually, Belle has to go back and rescue her dad from the villain I forgot to mention: Gaston. There is a very dramatic castle battle and then The Beast ‘dies’ turns human only after killing Gaston and then the pair can go off.
There’s plenty to love about this movie in hindsight. It has amazing graphics that are still fantastic and whimsical, a soundtrack that is still lovely and voice acting that is still well done.
But I want to talk about what made me like this movie again and it honestly may surprise you.
It was Gaston.
Gaston as far as villains go is pretty special. If you watch the movie, despite all of his scary framing, he makes a lot of sense. He’s a not-so smart hunter who is attractive and has a semi-homoerotic harem. His pursuit of Belle makes sense; she’s the only girl who won’t fall for his charm immediately.
Gaston’s songs are actually what turned me more towards liking this film again. His main song where a group of men sing his praises is hilarious but also wonderful social commentary on what makes the muscle jock oftentimes so popular in society. But the more interesting song is The Mob Song, lead by Gaston as he whips up a mob to fight against The Beast. The song explicitly encapsulates fear-mongering, paranoia and refusal to listen to reason. That message doesn’t seem so off in this current socio-political climate.
But this is a tepid apology. I do still have issues with this film. It is for sure a kid’s movie and I can admit that but jeez, the tone here is a problem. This film has some seriously dark moments and then Goofy laughs thrown in. Really, most of the 90s Disney films have a tone problem but this film has some pretty awful tone shifts like Gaston literally falling to his literal death.
Which brings us to the part of the film that I still dislike: Belle. And that surprises many people. Folks would assume that me, being a bookish know-it-all, would love Belle. But I’m not a fan. She claims to want adventure and she starts off different and unique but the romance that has to happen between her and The Beast just bores me to tears. For someone who wants more than her small provincial town, she sure does settle down quick. I’m sure for some, she’s just fine, but for me, I’ve been bored with her for over two decades.
And the themes of the film still seem really washy to me, especially now as a critical reader and writer. The themes of wanting more and not judging people by their outsides are the two biggest we’ll tackle here. The theme of being small for your town is very 90s Disney but really, Belle’s wish isn’t met in the end, she moves literally down the street from her childhood home to a castle. The second theme of not judging a book by its cover is also undercut by the fact that The Beast doesn’t remain a beast and while, yes, I cop to the fact that a Disney movie couldn’t be so progressive that it would transcend species getting together, it’s an irk I’ve had even with the original novel: if the theme is that beauty can be found in even in the heart of a beast, it’s undercut by having The Beast be secretly actually hot. Phantom of the Opera handles that a little better because we come to find Eric as inwardly beautiful despite his physical looks (we’re ignoring all the places where Eric is really problematic for now but rest assured I have not forgotten about that).
But all of that aside, the animated classic is a classic for a reason. And while the critical response to the film seems to lose sight of what actually matters, I have one thing to say.
I am sorry.
This movie is still beautiful and full of heart and whimsy that does not need to be explained. The live-action film shows us that in very stark contrast. The logic of an enchanted castle of course falls apart once you think about it but that’s the literal point. It’s an enchanted castle, it isn’t supposed to make sense. Sure, Belle isn’t as self-actualized as we remember but that’s okay. It was the 1990s, the internet hadn’t invented feminism yet. It’s okay that the tone is weird and that Gaston doesn’t feel like a villain. It’s okay that The Beast is a jerk sometimes. It’s all okay.
It won’t take away from the fun, the whimsy and the love put into this film. It won’t take away that Tale as Old as Time may be one of the best animated sequences done ever, it doesn’t take away that the movie can make an entire generation sing Be Our Guest, it won’t take any of that away.
The film is better than I ever gave it credit for, and for that, I am sincerely sorry.