- YEAR: 1991
- DIRECTOR: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
- KEY ACTORS: Robby Benson, Paige O’Hara, Richard White, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach
- CERTIFICATE: U
- IMDB SCORE: 8.0
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 94%
SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️ As a film I’ve easily watched in advance of 40 times, it would be hypocritical of me to say it is not rewatchable.
❓ I want to fuck the cast in fantasy more than reality. Angry men in a scene, yes. Angry men in reality, no. However, Belle is an absolute babe.
✔️ It did inspire fantasies. So very many. ‘If she doesn’t eat with me, she doesn’t eat at all!’ – do I have to say any more…?
❓ In some senses it is sex positive, mostly in the way it approaches consent, but love and sexual relationships are treated as something for adults, to be understood by adults- as Chip’s questions get brushed aside.
❌ A film with few female conversations leaves little opportunity to ascertain whether it passes the Bechdel Test. Belle is the only human female ‘character’ and only named woman in the film’s dialogue except Mrs Potts. Belle, Mrs Potts and the wardrobe (unnamed) have a conversation about Belle’s bravery for switching places with a man as a result of the actions of a man. Wardrobe also converses with Belle, but this time solely about how good she’ll look for a man.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: DisneyPlus, Amazon Prime (buy £9.99), YouTube (from £9.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
I am so excited to be hosting this guest post from Confess Hannah! She is a fabulous writer and an all round fabulous person – and someone with a well known crush on Gaston from this movie! When I decided to write this Disney Princess series, I knew that I would need Hannah’s input on Beauty and the Beast, and I am so happy that she agreed to write the whole post!
If you’d like to write me a guest post too, do get in touch! I’d love to hear from you!!
Released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast has become one of the staples of the Disney Princess franchise. This romantic animated musical is based on the French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1740). In this story, a prince cared for by an evil fairy is turned into a beast after he refused the fairy’s attempts at seduction, and Belle’s (daughter of a king and good fairy) life is threatened by this evil fairy who wishes to marry her father. A story not recognisable in the Disney version, as the story of Beauty and the Beast we are most familiar with is perhaps more recognisable in the form of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s abridged version (1756), written as a ‘tale of entertainment for juvenile readers’.
The directorial debut for Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise was Disney’s 30th animated feature film, focusing on the relationship between the Beast (Robby Benson), a prince who is transformed into a beast as a punishment for his arrogant behaviour, and Belle (Paige O’Hara), the daughter of an inventor who ends up being his prisoner. Although originally planned as a non-musical, after the success of The Little Mermaid, lyricist and executive producer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken wrote the well known and loved songs of the film. Beauty and the Beast is dedicated “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.” after Ashman passed away from AIDS-related complications six months before the release of the film.
The film was record breaking in many senses. It was the first animated feature film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, and the first musical for 12 years. It also was the first animated film to win a Best Original Song Academy Award for Beauty and the Beast, of which it had three nominations in the category (Be our Guest; Belle). It was also the first animated film to win the Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Golden Globe and has been adapted into a Broadway musical.
It is also one of my most treasured Disney films of all time. I had the yellow Belle dress, the (misguided) crush on both the Beast and Gaston, and when Gaston’s Tavern opened in Disney World I made an immediate beeline for it. Therefore being honest and critical about the characters, relationships and impact on viewers does leave me a little bit terrified.
So here we have the classic story: a young prince with everything his heart desired, unkind and selfish, is transformed after denying an old woman offering a single rose in exchange for shelter from a bitter storm. As a result of having no love in his heart, he is transformed into a hideous monster and conceals himself inside his castle where his servants have also been transformed into household objects. He is warned merely moments before to not be ‘deceived by appearances as beauty as found within’ and has only until his 21st birthday to learn to love another and earn their love in return – whereby the last rose petal will fall – to break the spell.
Which brings me seamlessly to the female protagonist of the story. Belle. Beauty. A young woman who wants so much more than this provincial life. How feminist is Belle and how feminist are her choices?
It is not exactly a strong start upon first glance – she is called ‘Belle’ and her beauty is therefore assumed as her defining characteristic. She is very ‘beautiful’ – thin, big hazel eyes, young, immaculate eyebrows – and it’s likely her beauty that pulls her through. ‘Behind that fair facade, I’m afraid she’s rather odd’ translates as ‘it’s a good thing she’s hot because she definitely doesn’t fit in with our social norms and that’s the only reason she gets away with it’. Her beauty overrides her personality completely in the decision of her potential suitor, Gaston, to pursue her. However, I feel I am perhaps being a little harsh. She is going against societal norms in lots of kickass feminist ways: reading (rocking that library membership and openly reading in front of all of the people who hate it), being curious about the world beyond her immediate surroundings and chasing her ambitions.
Gaston (Richard White), a hunter, tavern owner, egg eater and absolute prick, sets his sights quite quickly on Belle as a future wife based purely on her looks. His appeal is obviously in his physical appearance – the blue eyes, jawline, thick black hair and muscles – which seem to override the misogyny and chauvinism at the heart of his character to everyone who surrounds him. His is a world not focused on the ‘within’ and merely places value in meeting almost impossible beauty standards for people and definitely not in anyone daring to be different. Belle picks up a book and is all of a sudden really odd; Belle’s father Maurice – an imaginative, eccentric, intelligent inventor – is outcast by the village. Gaston is quick to dismiss Belle’s reading- one of her most favourite things- as it will encourage her to ‘get ideas’ and ‘think’ more on the fact he might have a nice set of shoulders but is also a pig (a fact she already knows as she’s smart and kick ass). But this is hardly surprising in a village which thinks it is not right for any woman to read.
Normally a match with men like Gaston would be revered as success – he is the most high status man in the village and even Belle’s father suggests it early in the film – but Belle is forward thinking in other ways. She definitely doesn’t want to be his ‘little wife’ as that will get in the way of her adventures and constantly dismisses him, which only villainises Gaston’s persistent attempts to breach her wants and consent. Gaston may be ‘beautiful’ on the outside, but it is clear from the start and confirmed by the end – he has none within.
Gaston was also my first crush. I am aware he shouldn’t have been, and he is definitely not portrayed in a way which is conducive to this, but it was true. Disney’s Fandom refers to him as ‘ an arrogant and chauvinistic hunter who was greedily determined to have Belle’s hand in marriage, even by force if necessary. His obsession turned him into a ruthless and traitorous villain, especially upon his discovery that Belle’s love was not for him, but for the Beast’. This is definitely not a good look for a first crush. It wasn’t even superficial- based upon Gaston being given all of the attributes of which society believes we ‘should’ find attractive in a man, albeit caricatured. It was absolutely based on his problematic nature which would fit very well with a lot of the fantasies swirling around my head. Do I want an arrogant, strong man to expect me to submit to him? In my fantasies, yes. But in reality, absolutely not. I could not fuck a chauvinist who believes women’s worth are based solely on their appearance.
The Beast (Robbie Benson) is full of rage, shame and anger after living as a monster, and this leads him to locking away Maurice, for which Belle trades places. A decision she makes on her own for love and care of her family, and results in her being taken prisoner. It is only then that a plan is hatched to coerce the Beast into breaking the spell by trying to make the pair fall in love against the clock, or rose. The difficult thing here, however, is that he doesn’t have to simply find the beauty within the Beauty – the control is taken away from him and Belle is required to find the beauty within the Beast.
We should all be rooting for this guy, even though he was a dick to begin with and that is why he is under a spell. I mean, some of us do love a bad guy…. A shouty, hairy, slightly aggressive…. NO! I meant a bad guy who redeems himself. We all love a redemption arc: the Roses in Schitt’s Creek, Mr Darcy, the T-rex in Jurassic Park. However arguably he did only try to break the spell because time was running out- simply a coincidence it happened to be a beautiful, patient, intelligent woman who happened upon his castle as the last petals began to fall, and who loves a man with a big library.
The other female characters very much match the gender expectations of 18th century France in terms of division of labour as their form is dictated by their occupation. Mrs Potts, voiced by Angela Lansbury, is the housekeeper and ensures refreshment is available for everyone, Fifi the duster is a housemaid and the Wardrobe predictably provides wardrobe – although in the courts of 18th Century France this would likely have been a slightly more high status role. The Wardrobe has no name, and Fifi’s name is not mentioned in the dialogue of the film. And although the lack of female character depth is frustrating, let us celebrate Mrs Potts for raising a kind yet confident Chip who effectively saves the day (and a further cupboard containing at least 22 brothers and sisters…) on her own for so long!
What strikes me most in this film is that Belle isn’t really the typical pre-1991 Disney Princess. As is already made clear, by singing about going after her dreams and ambitions which are above and beyond anyone’s expectations, many of her actions and decisions drive her own story. Even actress O’Hara describes the portrayal of Belle as ‘revolutionary,’ stating ‘[Belle] was the first princess that was intellectual and loved books. She was quirky and kind of odd. She wasn’t looking for a prince — she wanted to experience the adventures and all the places she reads about.‘ Belle knows she doesn’t wish to marry Gaston, even though they would be a ‘good match’, and tells him so. Again, and again. Belle also goes to find her father, and makes the decision to switch places. And in yet another instance where a man tries to make her act against her wishes, she repeatedly declines the Beast’s invitation to dinner – behaviour for which she is branded ‘difficult’ even though the Beast tried to imprison her father and moments before imprisoned her forever. Hardly an overreaction, I’d say, no matter how ‘gentlemanly’ he asks. Belle also uses flattery to get a tour of the Castle from Cogsworth, which only fuels her curiosity and she discovers the West Wing. She makes the decision to run away from the castle after feeling threatened by the Beast, and yet is caring enough to return when he is injured trying to protect her – she could have fled. And my personal favourite, she holds her ground when the Beast tries to blame her running away for his injuries, which stuns him into silence.
Apart from keeping his temper at bay, the Beast’s turning point was showing Belle the library as his way of doing something ‘nice for her’. Much of the rest is again down to Belle. She shows compassion by eating from the bowl when she sees the Beast struggling to use a spoon, and she is the one who approaches him for a dance in the infamous ballroom scene. And she decides to leave the Beast to help her father, which quickly dooms the chance of the spell being broken.
This was one of the main sticking points of this rewatch. Apparently Belle could not love the Beast because she decided to help her father. I think this is a real shame, as to me it almost brings forward this idea that romantic love should override all other forms of love. In reality she has only just met the Beast, and has been brought up by her father who she cares for deeply. I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking: why shouldn’t she? I think this is one of the key factors to the success of Frozen, as discussed in a previous blog of this series. The love is between sisters, and this love doesn’t have to be romantic. In Beauty and the Beast, the type of love is not defined, it is simply assumed – perhaps by the rose as a traditional romantic gift?
In spite of this, of course I will support a film which tries to break down narcissism and encourage people to see ‘beauty’ (whatever that is is up to interpretation) within. The villagers who stigmatise anyone different (in Kill the Beast, you can hear them singing ‘we don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us’) go further than simply ostricicing Belle for reading – they stand by whilst Maurice’s behaviour almost gets him sent to an asylum with words like ‘crazy’ and ‘lunatic’ being thrown at him. And yes, Belle decides to save her father from this fate not by being forced into marriage with Gaston, but by taking control and trying to explain the situation for herself.
Although frustratingly in the grand finale, the prince transforms into a very blonde blue eyed thin prince, which was very convenient, which does seem to render the above exercise in looking within a little less impactful. Perhaps this is why Shrek is the best film ever made? (and perhaps a one for the blog!).
However, in the DVD commentary of the 2020 Diamond Edition of Beauty and The Beast, filmmakers claimed that they put very little effort into the appearance of the human form of the Beast, as they believed it would please very few due to the bond created with the beast form as a character. They were even too busy to name him! And also, as this is the Disney Princess Series, it is interesting to note that the Beast is the first male character in a Disney fairy tale to have a role that is equally significant as the female protagonist’s – and that several members of the production staff, including Howard Ashman, considered Beast the protagonist.
And although on the whole it is a shame that the story is so focused on acceptance of beauty within for the purpose of romantic love (Belle’s acceptance of the Beast and her rejection of Gaston), she does make friends with a clock, candlestick, teapot and wardrobe without really raising a single (did I mention perfect?) eyebrow. So perhaps that counts for something?
NEXT WEEK…which post-2000 Disney Princess would you like me to review next?