Thoughts On: Beauty And The Beast (1991)
A young prince, turned into a beast, has to find love and be loved as to break his curse.
I know I always try to write about a wide range of films, constantly jumping genres and periods, and that I’ve been focusing on Disney quite a bit recently, but this is a film I’ve got to write about. We’ll find and look into something disgusting, violent or stupid next, I promise. That said, Beauty And The Beast is a film that is, in large part, about child abuse. Ludicrous, I know, but we’ll get into it soon. Before we start, it must be said that this is one of the greatest Disney films ever made. I’m so close to saying it’s the best, but I’ll save those thoughts for a later date. What makes this film great is obvious. The plot is simple, yet effective with the music splashed throughout with astounding dexterity and pace. Moreover, the sound design. This film is so stunning because of how intricately each and every piece of audio has been weaved into the narrative. We see this in voice acting, in the way speech will be distorted in accordance to rooms, but also the use of sound as a means of really selling the weight of this story. With the guttural undertones belying The Beast’s dialogue, we’re always made to feel his presence, the gravity of his personage. Also, the Foley merges so well with score – a great example of this being the action sequences. And this is a truly revolutionary aspect of this film. With sound design Beauty And The Beast achieves what no other Disney feature has before. The sonic sound-scape not only emphasises the emotion, tone, atmosphere and feeling of the film, but locks you into the world, bringing you from song to song with such fluid expertise. For the sound, both musical and otherwise, this film is masterful and so has a definite foot up on every single Disney film in this respect. But, make no mistake, this film doesn’t just have a great audio track. The story is, of course, brilliant. In fact, I have nothing negative to say about this movie; it’s perfect. Whilst I don’t need to outline the plot and throw more adjectives at you, what I do want is to delve deeper into this narrative. This is a rare film, one imbued with so much subtext. And, yes, this is what brings us back to the theme of child abuse, but don’t worry, things brighten up.
Ok, the crux of this theory is outlined in its entirety by the film’s opening…
The Beast’s backstory, whilst easily over looked, is something that can entirely change your perspective of this film. We initially find out that the young prince is arrogant and vapid. This is before The Enchantress shows up – we’ll get to her in a minute. One thing you always find yourself asking with Disney films though is… where the hell are the parents? I don’t think there’s more than a handful of Disney films where parents either don’t die or aren’t a complete mystery. Beauty And The Beast certainly doesn’t fit into that handful. Not only do we have no idea who Belle’s mother is, but, we know nothing of The Beast’s parents. We’re simply left to assume that he was raised by his servants. Whilst this is no excuse for growing up to be arrogant, it does explain why The Beast, pre-transformation, isn’t a great guy. That said, one late night, an old woman turns up at his door and offers him a flower. The prince turns her away. She warns him not to do so, but, he sends her away nonetheless. For this he’s turned into a Beast. Now, please, say it with me: WHAT THE FUCK!? How is this in any way justifiable? He didn’t take a flower from an ugly old woman who’s shown up in the middle of the night, and so he deserves to have his life ruined? That’s bullshit. However, things go deeper. This lady is called The Enchantress and she offers a young prince a flower. When you realise that this exchange is really all about love, beauty and the old lady essentially cock-blocking the prince in the most evil-genius kind of way, you see a sexual element added to things. With this theme at hand, and despite it being hidden below layers of subtext, this flower seems to be symbolic of something a little more sinister that just a rose. Though this cannot be confirmed, only inferred, it seems that, at the least, some kind of nasty and malicious trick with sexual undertones was put upon the beast. At worst, something much more destructive and damaging may have occurred at this point. It is here that some level of child abuse is hinted at in the narrative. And because The Beast tried to disengage or stop this, he was punished.
Whilst that seems to be the pinnacle of the messed up nature of this film, it gets worst. When we’re told ‘young prince’ and then shown this ambiguously aged young man’s portrait…
… we’re being fed a fabrication. Though it is understandable, the makers of this film have buried the true age of this young prince. However, it is easily figured out. We’re told that the flower will wilt and the curse be made eternal when The Beast turns 21. This means he’s 20 throughout the film up until the very end where the final petal falls. Knowing this and that The Beast was left in the castle for ‘years’ it becomes clear that the young prince was at the least a teenager when The Enchantress showed up. It’s now that the opening becomes more creepier, right? Hold on though. How long exactly has the curse been upon The Beast, his servants and castle? As Lumiere says: 10 years. This means that the boy answering the door to the old woman who tricked him then unfairly punished him was 10 going on 11. Firstly, for a 10-year-old to open a door at night and turn away the stranger that wants to come in, well, that’s a responsible kid, right? Secondly, a kid called an old woman ugly? What a travesty. I remember hating girls near this young age because ‘ew… girls’. To try and put oneself in the princes’ shoes with the implication of something very sinister happening and, again, this Enchantress becomes all the more evil. Consider this as further evidence though:
Belle and The Beast obviously understand one another’s plight. In the same respect that she is pursued for her beauty by Gaston, would it not make sense that the orphaned young prince may be pursued by someone equally deplorable, maybe someone tantamount to an Ursula or Queen from Snow White? This means, as a young boy, The Beast was probably pursued and harassed by the archetypal imposer who means to steal everything from an unsuspecting and young prince/princess.
This all, whilst very reliant on inference, seems to be transparent. Something dark went awry in The Beast’s past to make him who he is. We will find greater evidence for this that deepens his character as we push into the film.
After the rather chilling opening, we’re introduced to Belle and her provincial little town. It’s here where the film lays down it’s other major themes: isolation and community. Belle’s core internal conflict is that she wants to escape, and like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, wants more from life. It’s here where a quick comparison must be made to show how great this film is. Essentially, Belle is everything…
… Ariel wasn’t. We discussed her character in the previous posts, and whilst she serves her story and narrative’s message well, there isn’t much depth to her. The crux of this is that Ariel faced no real conflict. Belle is very much like Ariel in almost all aspects of her character–her will to escape, to find love and adventure beyond her small town–but, Belle is so much more mature. She suppresses everything that Ariel acts on when she knows it’s what’s best for those she loves. Because of this, we see a move away from a film focused on a mindless yearning for a sense of freedom (as seen in The Little Mermaid) to one focused on personal responsibility and integrity. This allows Belle to be our archetypal Disney princess, but arguably the one with the best design. We understand her actions, we see no hubris in her. And this helps the narrative along so well. It doesn’t need a ditsy blond, horror movie archetype, it needs a concentrated and rational person. For this, Belle is certainly one of the greatest characters produced by Disney.
However, coming back to themes of isolation and community, what drives this narrative forward is both a metaphorical and literal mob mentality present in this little town. It obviously intensifies to fruition over the course of the narrative, but with the introduction we see the seeds of conflict that this town represents. They want Belle to fit into a paradigm and they don’t understand why she isn’t ‘normal’. In such, they are obsessed with facade…
… Gaston being the face of this ugly mob. We’ll come back to the town later on, but this idea of facade makes a call back to The Enchantress. Her issue with The Beast was essentially that he didn’t accept her as an ugly person. Whilst this doesn’t feel good, to be rejected for things you can’t change, this is the stark reality of life. For The Enchantress to mean to reverse this aspect of human nature in the young prince, in a literally Pavlovian sense, must imbue the 10-year-old boy with an overwhelming dissonance. This seems to be why the curse is so hard to break. He can’t just learn to love people, look beyond facade, but, must be loved back. This part of the curse is the most evil as it forces The Beast to assume that no one will ever love him, and can never do such a thing. Whist this may almost sound vapid, I think that, with a little empathy, it’s not. Moreover, for the Enchantress to try and teach The Beast to become a better person through acceptance, why would she approach this in a such a base and impersonal way? Whereas The Beast must become a better person to earn Belle’s trust and acceptance, The Enchantress does nothing like this. She just punishes him. Nonetheless, this imposition of ideals put upon The Beast are also put on Belle. Instead of being told that she must accept people less attractive that herself, she is told she must accept personalities worse than her, people who aren’t worthy of her. (Such seems to have been the case with The Enchantress too, but, this can only be mere speculation).
What the town do to Belle is trap her in a rigid ideology of accepting the norm, of taking another’s word and structure as rule – this is why provincial is an adjective repeated so much in her opening song. This dogmatism and rigidity is exactly what she fights to escape – a formalised sense of community. This is where isolation seeps its way into the narrative. Belle and The Beast are forced out of community, forced to recede away from people, because they won’t oblige their standards. This is what the film thematically sets up, and allows us to transition away from the great opening song to meeting Belle’s Father…
… again, not the most normal person. However, it’s with Belle’s father that we must pick up on Disney and parent’s again. We can assume that Maurice’s wife/girlfriend, Belle’s mother, is out of the picture. This leaves him entirely responsible for Belle. It also leaves him with a troubled past concerning women. This thematically links him to The Beast. But, whilst The Beast’s troubles with women are much more serious, Maurice’s must have left him, at the least, rattled. This is something we have to hold onto after we learn that he’s an inventor (further link to responsibility; caring for his daughter) and is going to present his wood chipper at a fair. This is all in the hope of changing his and Belle’s life. The subtextual implication is that the invention will get them out of the town. This is crucial as this event leads onto…
… the first wolf attack. Whilst the wolves could be dismissed as mere conflict meant to energise the narrative, they can, when looked at in an alternative light, fill a huge plot hole of this narrative. This has been pointed out by many, but, The Beast is prince of what and where? If the king, queen and royal family suddenly just receded into darkness, wouldn’t the town be aware of this? Would they not have knowledge of The Beast; knowledge at least tantamount to the Whovillian’s idea of The Grinch?
I don’t know what to think when faced with this question. Is it just a huge oversight? Maybe. But, I’m not sure. This film certainly seems to be much more metaphorical and symbolic than it presents itself as. In such, I don’t think that The Beast is really this:
I think this facade is a projection of his character; and that it to say that it’s an impressionist representation of the broken prince within – which explains an awful lot about Belle’s attraction to him; she sees him as an ugly personality, maybe not directly a wolf/bear thing. This will become all the more clearer as we move into the narrative though. But, I think the town itself is also somewhat metaphorical. They are a rather simple group that will easily be turned vitriolic given the chance. Their core purpose seems to be to sustain a tight community. Whilst there are a few outliers in this group, Belle, Maurice, maybe the book shop owner, everyone is pretty tight. When we push on out of the town and come across these guys…
… I don’t think it’s just mere coincidence. The wolves seem to be the final layer of projected community and doubt that encircle the town. That is to say that they act in a similar way as the town to those trying to escape or be different; they’re a violent deterrent. This becomes all the more clearer when we see Maurice leave. With doubt and weight on his shoulders, intentions to escape the town with his daughter…
… Maurice is a character with a lot of internal conflicts bubbling below the surface. Not only is there self-doubt, but a fear that he fails his daughter, that he’s lost in the world, stuck with the townspeople. This leaves the wolves a projection of his doubt somewhat linked to the town and themes of community. They possibly attack as a way of forcing him back home, back to the overbearing town and townspeople. However, the wolves fail, leaving Maurice to find himself in this position…
This is where the thematic link between the three main characters becomes all the more important. The Beast, Maurice and Belle all meet in the enchanted castle under the guise of being in similar situations – pushed away from community, isolated. This leaves the castle as a place tantamount to an Outlook Hotel.
I won’t delve too deep into this comparison, but, I think it’s evident that characters under this roof share a similar plight, and because of that, we can see it as somewhat metaphorical or symbolic.
Understanding exactly what the metaphor is, is pretty simple. It’s not so different from the metaphorical veil put over the prince. Everything in the castle is drenched in an ugly gloom and made to loom. It is a projection of character and so an extrapolation of mood – The Beast’s depression and self-loathing. This projection of The Beast is put upon those who inhabit the house also…
The Beast’s servants are reduced to caricatures just as he is. This implies they were sucked into his ‘curse’ – what would be the implications of his ‘meeting’ with The Enchantress. If something as dark as child abuse occurred at this point, it makes sense that The Beast would be stuck in a childish mindset and so metaphorically transform his carers into caricatures. We find further evidence for The Beast’s childish nature in his behaviour. Not only does he eat like no one has ever taught him how…
… but he has an uncontrollable temper…
… does not know to interact with people…
… and cannot read…
These are all hallmarks of a child in a grown person’s body – a damaged person. This is the essence of The Beast’s character and is projected across the entire narrative, from his castle to his servants. You may say it even stretches out into the forest, the wolves being a violent projection of his psyche, maybe a product of ‘the curse’ – in short, part of the larger metaphor centred on community and isolation that all characters exist under. This all suspends the film in a rather intangible space of imagination, but through theme and character, this suspended plot and world becomes all the more comprehensible.
So, with Maurice held captive by The Beast, Belle having sung more about how she wants to escape after Gaston proposes…
… she is pushed towards her own captivation…
This juxtaposition mimics Maurice’s attempt to leave town via his invention and allows us to see Belle’s imprisonment as her being sucked into this curse of isolation. The trap Gaston sets up back in town, is then one that embodies the conflicting conceptions of community and standard this town put upon Belle – a conflict that, again, links to The Beast and The Enchantress. however, this conflict thematically catalyses Belle’s movement towards The Beast. The reasoning for this brings us to the turning point of the movie. From here on out, this film isn’t so much about being trapped, about having nowhere to go, but trying to figure a way out. For The Beast, Belle sacrificing herself for her father’s freedom is a pivotal moment too, one that shocks him, one that demonstrates in front of his very eyes, love. This marks The Beast’s slow unwinding. And so, from here the film begins to coast towards an end. But, the purpose of this meeting is one with implications of romantic magnetism; that Belle were meant for each other, that they’re meant to help each other in life.
But, before jumping into that, we have to quickly pick up on this sequence…
There are few greater villains than Gaston because when you say “you love to hate him” you aren’t just spewing a cliche. The Gaston song is the undeniable example of this. The song is so good, but only because Gaston is such a vain dickhead. In such, all I can do is commend the genius that is this segment of the film.
However, this song is of course interrupted by Maurice, back from The Beast’s castle. It’s here where we see the mob mentality of the town grow and the general community shift a little. Having heard Maurice’s claim, they dismiss him as crazy – all of course led by Gaston. This segment makes next to no sense without recognising Gaston as the leader of those at the bar. This is because, despite the ludicrous claim, Maurice could easily begin to prove that Belle has been taken. All he has to do is show that she’s not at home and that his cart and horse are gone. With this said, he would easily be able to convince the town to go to The Beast’s castle. However, this doesn’t happen for two reasons. The first is that Maurice leading the siege on the castle would not just ruin the final act but seriously convolute the message of the film. It thus has to be remembered at this point that Belle, The Beast and Maurice are thematically connected – they are outsiders. This segues into the second reason a siege on The Beast’s castle can’t occur right now: Gaston. He controls the town, as his song pretty much outlines, and so he leads them to act as he does. But, this ultimately leaves them to the consequences of his hubris…
Nonetheless, Gaston only really needs to be kind to Maurice to get in with Belle. If he helped her father, if he saved her from The Beast on the first night, well, I’m pretty sure things would have gone his way. But, because this line of thought is antithetical to Gaston’s self-centric and malicious thought process, he would never do this. Instead of earning Belle’s trust (even if that means lying and being something he’s not) he wants to force things his way and be a dick. Such calls back to the core conflict of this entire film: rigid communities run by idiots. All of this means that Gaston would rather exploit those that are different from him, take them under his control and continually use them as he wants – such leaves him an archetypal bully and the town a horrible high school made up of butchers, bakers and candle stick makers. This is exactly why Maurice is left in the cold once again.
However, back to The Beast’s castle we go and it’s here where we see the ramifications of this moment:
Shocked by the self-sacrifice and love displayed by Belle taking Maurice’s place, The Beast is forced to see her as a person, not just an intruder. It’s here where we see the film’s core romantic attachment to a fatal attraction.
No, not that kind of fatal attraction – an attraction dictated by fate. In such, we see Belle finding herself in the castle as an implied ‘meant to be’. However, with the moment that The Beast realises that he has Belle in his castle he also sees the way to breaking his curse – not just romance. And this is an interesting moment as it speaks to this one:
Both The Beast and Gaston essentially want to use Belle for their own gains. Whilst this seems sinister, it must be pointed at that this is kind of what love and attraction simply are. You initially just want the other person to be yours. So, the subtle undertones of ‘ownership’ are nothing to get to flustered over. Instead, what The Beast and Gaston seem to have in common is really what separates them most. The Beast, while he wants Belle as to break his curse, is willing to change for that, is willing to engage in an social exchange – whereas Gaston is not. This means that The Beast has quite a way to go as to reverse the bullshit he pulled in imprisoning both Belle and her father, but, understandably so.
We thus see The Beast trying to get on with Belle…
… as the start of his character arc. This of course starts out rough and is thinned out by Lumiere and co. with another timeless song…
And in case you’re blind – one of the best sequences ever animated. But, it’s in welcoming Belle that another key theme is reprised; change. What we see in this sequence is the home coming to life, is the servants reversing the atmosphere of the castle. This theme of change is pivotal to everything that occurs in the castle from this point onwards and is linked, again, to this:
Just as Maurice ran into conflict when trying to change his life, so do Belle and The Beast. This isn’t only evident in the action sequence depicted, but the interactions between Belle and The Beast. Each time The Beast tries to be nice, he’s shot down, just as each time Belle becomes inquisitive she runs into trouble – which is what brings us to the wolves. This sequence then marks a significant moment in the relationship between The Beast and Belle. Not only does he save her life, she care for his wounds and the pair work through an argument, but, as before, the wolves show up at a dire moment of change. It’s when Belle runs away and The Beast runs after her that both characters attempt to reverse who they are. Belle breaks a promise, endangering her father – something she’s forced to do. The Beast begins to care for someone, to see them as a person. It’s here where we see The Beast confronting all that is fractured inside him, all that was shattered by this moment in his life:
The cut away that interrupts the growth in Belle and The Beast’s relationship is the setting up of the Insane Asylum Trap. Again, this is a return to the motif set up by the opening. One person wants something from another, whether it’s The Enchantress or Gaston, and they decide to use threats as a means of getting it – when that fails, punishment.
Moving back to the castle, however, we come across the Something That Wasn’t There Before segment. This is the crux of the film, the Rocky montage of The Beast reversing all that’s broken inside him. The focus of this segment is weakness being revealed in The Beast and a playful exchange occurring between himself and Belle. In such, we see the first major lesson The Beast learns; learning to love someone. This essentially marks him being able to transform the way he sees others and the world around him. It’s because of this that he sees something different in Belle and his Outlook Hotel-esque castle is transformed in the ‘Human Again’ sequence…
What we’re seeing here is the first major instance that change is embraced in the environment of the film. However, this, as we know, isn’t enough. Not only does The Beast need someone to love him back, but he essentially needs to see himself change; needs to not see himself as The Beast. But, this is all thrown in the air after this sequence…
…. when Belle is given the mirror. When Belle is asked what she truly wants to see, it’s her father – and it’s here where The Beast has to let her go. What this says about themes of change, isolation and community all brought up throughout the film is simply that some people need each other, i.e, Maurice needs Belle. Moreover, those who have lost someone, need those they have most – which is why Belle returns to her widowed father. What this links well to is The Lion King…
Just as Beauty And The Beast is an expansion on themes of adventure and love brought up in The Little Mermaid, The Lion King is an expansion on themes of responsibility raised in Beauty And The Beast. Thus, we see the holes in this film, the lack of exploration into Belle’s responsibilities – all characters responsibilities – being somewhat made up for by later features. This raises a very interesting conversation on cinematic universes we’ll surely pick up on another time. Coming back to the moment in which Belle is given the mirror, however…
… what we are seeing here is another moment buried in subtext. The Beast gives Belle the mirror as a way of looking back on him. Belle accepts this mirror without much of a word. This means that there is an understanding between the two that she’s never coming back. Watching this film as a kid, I never understood the huge emotive beat that was this moment, because, can’t she just come back? The truth is, Belle doesn’t really want to. Not only would she rather be with her father, but seems to embrace the little town she wanted to escape as her future. To pick up on the comparison to The Little Mermaid, this is the equivalent to Ariel deciding to stay with Triton in the ocean instead of going off with Eric. However, there is the added element of change present in Belle decision to leave. She essentially disengages from The Beast’s plight, leaving him as a kind of broken kid. Whilst this seems both unfair and completely sensical (would you really want to live with a Beast that loved you?), this is primarily a moment of suspension for Belle. She decides to not walk away from the people she can help, her father and The Beast, but decides between the two. This is all reversed, however, by the town who can’t let things be…
The ‘Kill The Beast’ song is actually a very interesting one. This film is often seen as one closely linked to the composer, Howard Ashman. The theory behind this implies that The Beast is a projection of Ashman, who had HIV and later died of AIDs. (Link here to a more in depth explanation). Whilst Ashman had to have allowed this to contribute to his characterisation of the lead through songs, there is also a strong link to the theory we’re exploring now in this song. In such, we see the depth of subtext in Beauty And The Beast, one you could probably draw a myriad of theories and explanations from.
However, staying with our current theory, the lyrics of this song seem to paint The Beast as a potential paedophile or child molester – all because he was maybe molested himself.
[Gaston:] The Beast will make off with your children.
[Gaston:] He’ll come after them in the night.
[Gaston:] We’re not safe till his head is mounted on my wall! I
Say we kill the Beast!
[Mob:] Kill him!
[Man I:] We’re not safe until he’s dead
[Man II:] He’ll come stalking us at night
[Woman:] Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite
[Man III:] He’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free
[Gaston:] So it’s time to take some action, boys
It’s time to follow me
Through the mist
Through the woods
Through the darkness and the shadows
It’s a nightmare but it’s one exciting ride
Say a prayer
Then we’re there
At the drawbridge of a castle
And there’s something truly terrible inside
It’s a beast
He’s got fangs
Razor sharp ones
Killer claws for the feast
Hear him roar
See him roam
But we’re not coming home
‘Til he’s dead
Good and dead
Kill the Beast!
Light your torch
Mount your horse
[Gaston:] screw your courage to the sticking place
[Mob:] We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way
Through a mist
Through a wood
Where within a haunted castle
Something’s lurking that you don’t see ev’ry day
It’s a beast
One as tall as a mountain
We won’t rest
‘Til he’s good and deceased
Grab your sword
Grab your bow
Praise the Lord and here we go!
[Mob:] We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns
Bring your knives
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast!
This song, when looked at under the themes given to us by the opening of the film is very transparent. The townspeople seem to think The Beast will do to others as was done to him, but, given themes of change, we know this not to be true. There is no predacious subtext of this manner present in any part of the film, ‘The Beast’ is a facade that the prince took onto himself as a person who could never love and never be loved because of his tortured perspective of others – primarily, it seems, women. This is what the narrative fights against; a hatred and self-loathing built up in The Beast over his decade alone in his castle.
With the final conflict, we are then seeing the poison in the town that is Gaston confronting the epitome of its opposition; The Beast that has tried to change himself. Again, what we are seeing here is conflict constantly proceeding a change in a character. What the final fight represents is the fight that The Beast has to have fought to better himself. This is the guiding pattern of the film, it’s all about escaping the environments and people that try to control you and designate you a way of life. This is where The Shining comparisons I’ve been hinting at really come into play – but this is something we won’t delve too deeply into.
With the fight concluded, what this final transformation means should be clear by now. The Beast, almost taken down by the essence of conflict in this film…
… that which of course destroys itself, transforms. This is because Belle comes back, allowing The Beast to see that someone cares for him, that he isn’t the inevitable product of his past. This reverses his perception of self and billows out into the final surge of change that the film needs.
The commentary of this film is thus very simple, it’s all about recreating a perception of self by over coming external pressures and the myriad of elements of life that we ultimately cannot control. And in doing this, The Beast becomes a person capable of fully embracing Belle, of creating an environment in which they, the weirdos of a provincial little town, can live their happily ever after.
This brings us to the conclusion of the post. Beauty And The Beast is a film largely centered on changing the symbolic stained glass that filters the light into The Beast’s home. Where it once contorted all that shone in with memories of a dark past…
… it now allows him see the true light of a brighter present…
The Little Mermaid – Character & Story: An Adventure In Fantasy Beyond Imagination
The Last House On The Left – Exploitation Is Intimacy
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