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The Princess’ New Clothes: Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

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Beauty and the Beast represents the third film in the so-called Disney Renaissance, but the first one where it’s apparent that the House of Mouse got its groove back. It marks a quantum leap in quality from 1989’s The Little Mermaid by nearly every conceivable metric, from the story to the songs to the animation, and the less said about 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under — a bomb sequel 13 years removed from the original and three years behind the weird Australia craze of the 80s it was trying to cash in on- — the better. But more than anything, Beauty and the Beast feels like Disney engaging with its own past, a back-to-basics move where the pillars of their early (and deserved) reputation as the kings of long-form animation were given a shiny new coat of paint to go along with the musical theatre accents it brought into the fold a few years prior.

The subtle callbacks come fast and furious: the introductory slow pan into through the brush of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the spire-like castle of Disney’s titanic run in the 1950s, stained-glass tableux that inevitably ties the film back to a generalized European Middle Age that once was Disney’s uncontested stomping grounds. To further drive the point home, when Belle (Paige O’Hara) sits by a fountain during the film’s opening musical number, she momentarily becomes a Snow White-esque animal magnet. But something different is clearly afoot. The character of Belle represents an important pivot point: she was the first of the Disney princesses who wasn’t a royal, and the first one whose endgame wasn’t simply a prince. Beauty and Beast is where Disney made the small but important discovery that if you give your female lead an intellectual and emotional compass, the character then becomes infinitely more compelling. She sees town hunk Gaston (Richard White) for the knuckle-dragging heel he is, and loves her dad Maurice (Rex Everhart) to the point where she takes his spot as the prisoner of the Beast (Robby Benson). The story is tightly put together and sprinkled liberally with great songs and solid jokes, but there’s a big abuse-shaped smudge right in the middle of it all.

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The central relationship between Belle and the Beast has the unfortunate stench of Stockholm syndrome all over it. In retrospect, it’s hard to see Belle’s gradual warming up to this foul-tempered, belligerent, snaggle-toothed so-and-so as anything but a coping mechanism. But as it goes on, the Beast goes from being a quasi-demonic figure to a loutish nice-guy figure who can’t conceptualize his predicament further than his own snout. To paraphrase Rooney Mara in The Social Network, the Beast goes through his cursed life thinking that girls don’t like him because he’s a grotesque chimera-like hellspawn, and Belle and all his servants progressively make him figure out it’s actually because he’s an asshole. Which, incidentally, is how he got into this whole mess in the first place. Which I suppose is the point? After all, the movie telegraphs this througline early on in a cutesy bit of foreshadowing: in the first stained glass panel in the intro, there is a crest with the motto vincit qui se vincit written underneath (“he conquers who conquers himself”). Overall, the emotional mechanics of this central relationship and the Beast’s redemptive arc get get muddy and clunky. But O’Hara, Benson and the rest of this truly stacked cast are so good at playing off of each other and, for lack of a better term, humanizing the characters that, for better or worse, the Beast’s dangerous temper becomes secondary to his searing emotional anguish.

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Speaking of which, a note to casting directors: it shows when you’ve cast people who can both voice-act and sing. The illusion of diegetic unity is preserved (none of this “let’s get one person to speak and one person to sing” crap, and yes, people can tell), and it gives characters more colour. This would happen less and less as the decade wore on, making this the Platonic ideal Disney musical cast, stacked with Broadway performers (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, O’Hara), opera singers (White), and actors with otherwise limber and capable voices who can also carry a tune (David Ogden Stiers, Benson). It helps that the songs are good: “Belle” is about as good an introductory number there is, while showstopper “Be Our Guest,” aside from inspiring the best parody song The Simpsons has ever done, is just a great showcase piece for both Orbach as the suave sentient candlestick Lumière, and for the animation team as a whole. Then there’s the title song, performed here by Lansbury, beautiful and understated, scoring the film’s iconic ballroom sequence. It pays homage in a clear way to Disney’s princess canon of yesteryear, in the film’s clearest articulation that it was simultaneously revisiting and revising its own playbook, notably by recycling footage from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty and giving it some CGI sheen. In doing so, Beauty and the Beast initiated a sea change, however tiny, in how this strain of heroine could exist and behave, and in how this kind of movie could be put together and performed.

Derek Godin (@derek_g) is a freelance writer from Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Dim the House Lights, a graduate of Concordia University’s MA Film Studies program and a two-time WWE Intercontinental Champion (only two of these are true).

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