Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, March 20, 2017

A look back at Disney's Beauty and the Beast

The live action remake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast opened up this past weekend to record breaking box office numbers and mostly positive reviews.

Since I'm still recovering from the surprise snow storm that hit us on the East Coast just before spring decided to show up, I thought it would be best to relax at home and have a re-watch of the animated 1991 original film instead.

Yes, I was a full fledged adult when I first saw this movie in theaters and actually got to see it for free as part of a promotion for a remake of Father of the Bride starring Steve Martin(which was fine but doesn't hold a candle to the Spencer Tracy comedy classic). Waiting until after the main feature to see the animated movie was a little awkward but in truth, that was the film I really came to see.

My patience was rewarded in abundance as  B&TB  captivated me with it's breath taking visuals, well written songs and old fashioned romance. It was nominated for Best Picture the following year at the Academy Awards and lead to the creation of Best Animated Film as an official Oscar category, not to mention winning Best Score and Best Song. It's also the first Disney animated feature to be adapted as a Broadway musical and considered by most film folk to be a modern day classic.

Upon seeing it again, a few new things pop into mind. For one, the motif of the outsider is established early on in the story and I don't just mean the backstory behind the Beast.

Belle and her father are both perceived as oddballs in their small town, with his eccentric manners being easily overlooked for the most part as "harmless". Belle, on the other hand, really doesn't have any friends,except for the local bookseller at best, and the big reason for that is her habit of reading.

Just listen to the opening song, which is the whole town singing about how "strange yet special" she is for enjoying books and how "she's nothing like the rest of us", not a typical introduction for the heroine of a Disney cartoon back then. The only one seemingly willing to look past that is Gaston yet that's due to his short sighted view of Belle as suitable arm candy:

Speaking of Gaston, it's a rather sad commentary on our times that he's as relevant a villain now as well as then. While they may not be muscle bound he-man types(except in their own minds), brutish fellas like him are still with us,with their boorish bullying and sexist attitudes and eager embrace of ignorance.

Plenty of Gaston like guys are on the internet these days, with a good number of happy to help henchmen backing them up using tweets and comments to attack those who make them feel intellectually inadequate or force others to bend to their will. Belle uses her wits and politeness to fend him off at first but then has no choice but to resort to outright confrontation when Gaston goes as far as gaslighting her father(a rather dark element for such a story back then).

In the original fairy tale, there is no Gaston. A pair of jealous sisters are the ones who get between the heroine and her love interest but I can see why Disney did some recasting there. The sisters would have been a bit too much like Cinderella, not to mention that making the standard "handsome man" as the clownishly masculine bad guy here really does add nuance to the overall point of the story:

Still, plenty of people argue over whether or not Belle is a proper role model for young women and I say this version is. Yes, she does wind up falling in love with the guy who literally forces his company on her but on her own terms.

For example, Belle stands up to Beast on more than one occasion and refuses to put up with his temper tantrums. In addition, she does make an escape attempt and only goes back when Beast is injured after saving her life from a wolf pack(which she made a valiant effort to defend herself from).

 Not to mention the most romantic moment in the movie is not the big ballroom dance but the gift of a library, which really makes Belle's heart flutter there. Don't get me wrong, the ballroom scene is lovely but the real passion in Belle's eyes was seen when Beast offered her all of those gorgeous books.

Also,unlike a number of Disney leading ladies before her, Belle gets to know her man and become his friend way before developing romantic feelings for him instead of that "love at first sight" tired trope. Believe it or not, Belle made some serious steps forward for future Disney heroines with her inner beauty and brains to match and that shouldn't be taken for granted:

 All in all, the 1991 B&TB still holds up and leaves any retelling, live action or otherwise, with much to live up to. No, it's not perfect but the themes of learning to love yourself and that true love means caring enough about the other person's needs before your own self interest to make the right choices are good ones to pass on.

I'm sure that the new version has much to offer and will probably get people to either re-watch or see for the first time the original animated movie. Whether or not it will be as valued or memorable as that first film remains to be seen.

 At the very least, we have an excuse to listen to those wonderful songs again and for my money, Angela Lansbury's rendition of the theme song is the best. One thing that won't change with the times is the grandness of the music that the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken framed this classic tale as old as time with and for that, we are all the emotionally richer for:

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