Op-Ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (#34)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
I must admit that I have never seen Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). It is a deep source of shame for me as I know that it is widely considered a masterpiece and Cocteau is widely considered to have created the definitive film version of this story. This means that I don’t have a highly informed opinion when it comes to the history of adaptations of this classic tale but I couldn’t help but feel like this 1991 animated feature was not dark enough. I understand the fact that this was targeted towards children and families but it feels like the writers deliberately tried to avoid examining any of the disturbing subtext lurking within this fairy tale. There are so many movies for kids that were made during the 1990s that are full of thought-provoking material that could leave you feeling troubled by the sexual angst that adolescents experience or the fact that your parents occasionally fantasize about murdering you. Beauty and the Beast (1991) doesn’t go to those places and that means that it isn’t nearly as compelling as Hercules (1997), which is unabashedly wacky.
The film concerns a beautiful young bookworm, Belle, Paige O’Hara, who is ostracized by her fellow townspeople because she does not conform to societal conventions. She is pursued by the conceited Gaston, Richard White, who values her only for her beauty and not her intelligence while callously insulting her inventor father Maurice, Rex Everhart, whom he accuses of being insane. Her father is kidnapped by the Beast, Robby Benson, who was once an arrogant prince who incurred the wrath of an evil witch and was sentenced to be a beast until he found love along with all of his employees who have become home appliances. Belle takes her father’s place as a prisoner but the home appliances try to push Belle and the Beast together and the two end up forging a close romantic relationship that could help the Beast achieve redemption.
I want to note the fact that I don’t dislike this film but I do think that it is incredibly forgettable and I was not strongly impacted by it as I watched it. I was mildly amused but never emotionally moved and I kept wondering when it was going to kick into gear and take some risks. It remains strangely distant from its audience and ends just as it seems to figure out what it wants to say. If I am honest, the high point of the film was the Beast’s transformation into Prince Adam. I know that he is animated but he has to be one of the more handsome leading men that I have discussed so far. He’s easily better looking than Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year (1942) and his orange locks alone are enough to beat out Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love (1998). I’m going to sound lascivious as I write this but there was a sharp intake of breath when Adam appeared on screen. His hair is lustrous, his eyebrows are neatly groomed, his bright blue eyes pop against his porcelain skin, his facial features are angular and he is muscular without appearing overbearing. Some animator figured out how to create the perfect man but then they decided to torture the audience by not giving him much screen time. I know that the whole point of this story is that physical appearances don’t matter and it is what’s underneath that is truly important but Adam’s beauty had me forgetting all about the message of this story.
I wanted to see more of Adam and Belle together. It feels like he goes through his transformation and the two of them start dancing straight away before the credits roll. This feels like a common problem with Disney movies based on fairy tales as the happy ending is seen as a given and they don’t feel the need to present us with anything new. You get to hear a reprise of the main theme, see the leading characters smile as they stand in a circle and pose for the camera, and then a final gag that ties back into something that happened earlier in the film. You don’t often get to hear a conversation between the two main characters and usually you are just meant to accept the fact that they are happy because of a shift in the tone of the score. I understand the fact that cinema is a visual form and a lot of directors will try to convey an idea through visuals rather than using dialogue to explain an idea, but the final ball feels very generic. It could have appeared in Cinderella (1950) or a dozen other films about women becoming princesses and I rolled my eyes as I was greeted with images that I had seen a million times before.
In many ways, the Beast ends up feeling like a typical ‘bad boy’ who needs to be tamed by a nice, virginal girl who will tie him down and stop him from engaging in self destructive behavior. This can be a pleasant concept as we all accept the fact that couples are meant to help each other become better people and balance out each other’s flaws but it can feel a tad trite to have one half of the couple being radically transformed by the love of their girlfriend. At least the Beast doesn’t actually say “You make me want to be a better man” but we are meant to believe that all of his flaws, both physical and mental, melt away in the presence of a pretty but bland maiden. The ends justify the means for him as he does a terrible thing, kidnapping a young woman, but gets rewarded for it. I don’t think that we are allowed to question what he does enough and the film is too excited about getting to the point where he becomes perfect and they admit that they are made for one another. This story would be more effective if we got to spend more time on the torturous period of their relationship, in which they can’t communicate and resent one another. I feel like we get to see that section of their relationship for all of five seconds and that makes it more difficult to feel a rush of joy when they do enter into a serious partnership and kiss in the rain.
Maybe I would have had a different response to this if I had been a young girl in 1991 and this had been a part of my childhood. I might have built up nostalgia for it and I may have been able to sing along to all of the songs on the soundtrack. I did not have that experience with this film as I spent most of my youth casually watching Bee Movie (2007) and developing in-jokes with my cousin about having sex with a bee. I saw Beauty and the Beast for the first time when I had already become a cynical, jaded critic and that meant that I wasn’t as susceptible to its charms as an innocent child who was just looking to be entertained for 90 minutes. I watched it because it was a Best Picture nominee in 1991 and I found myself comparing it to films like JFK (1991), which meant that it ended up looking fluffy and insignificant. Maybe I am being too harsh on it because it clearly satisfied the needs of nine-year-olds everywhere but I feel like the critical acclaim that it received set me up to expect something with more depth.
I could not identify with Belle because she was written as such a blank slate. Presumably, this was done so young girls could project their own personality traits onto the character and imagine being conventionally attractive in that Disney way. Belle has doe eyes, tawny hair, satiny smooth skin, and a Gal Gadot-esque smirk. It’s all a bit much and you end up wondering how she won the genetic lottery when her father doesn’t appear to be pulchritudinous. They don’t give her one terrible ‘flaw’ that would serve to make her more relatable and I am thankful for that. Often they give their heroines a mole or a miniscule scar which is meant to make them unique as well as turning them into a target of bullying over their looks. Usually, these minor imperfections only serve to make the animated figure look more beautiful and it is annoying when the film tries its hardest to convince us that the protagonist is ‘just like us’ when they clearly aren’t. Belle is too pretty to be an ordinary girl but she also isn’t as stroppy as your average young woman would be if she had been placed in this situation. Belle is so polite about this whole ordeal and acquiesces to the wishes of her captor at a scarily fast rate. I understand the fact that teenagers don’t want to acknowledge the fact that they are bratty but Belle would have been justifiably surly in this case.
Belle is meant to be feisty and intelligent because she reads books. They mention this fact about a million times and then use this to unite her and the Beast. It could have been a nice touch but it ends up feeling perfunctory and you just want her to stop waving around her leather-bound volumes of classic literature around. The script never goes that far into what her taste in literature is like and I was reminded of a scene in They Came Together (2014) in which Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd fall in love because of their shared passion for fiction books. In this scene they both act like they have never met somebody who enjoys fiction books before and this serves as a spot on criticism of romantic comedies. In their efforts to appeal to a wider audience they end up dumbing down scripts that might have had some specificity to them so that nobody in the audience will feel left out. I’m not so dumb that I can’t relate to people who have personalities that are very different to mine and I would have taken more interest in Belle if she had been a petulant, sour chit.
Despite those complaints, I will admit that there were a few more things to appreciate about Beauty and the Beast. It is full of vibrant colors and there are times when you can just lose yourself in the imagery. There is the iconic image of Belle and the Beast dancing together and there is always a little endorphin rush when you can match up the image in your mind with what is being shown on screen. These were not massive details but my lizard brain was drawn to the bright red hues of the curtains and I was able to turn my brain off and look favorably upon the details that I might have missed the first time I watched this.
I can’t understand why anybody would consider this film for the list. Yes, it does fit the definition of a romance but nothing about it is very captivating, and other than featuring an unusually handsome love interest, it is not any different to other animated films from this period. Maybe it was the Best Picture nomination that it sealed the deal or maybe AFI voters had been forced to sit through it with their children and they were brainwashed into thinking that it was a masterpiece. For some befuddling reason it ended up on the list and was ranked at an unreasonably high position. They placed it above classics like The Apartment (1960) and Double Indemnity (1944) and you can only throw your hands up in the air. I prefer this to dreck like Love Story (1970) but I also feel like the voters could have made a more inspired choice.