Remaking a Better Belle

In 1991 Disney made history when “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (See above). Now, Disney has re-imagined  “Beauty and the Beast” as a live action film.  This remake counts on spellbinding its original audience while winning a new generation of Disney movie lovers. But is this “tale as old as time” really in need of a reboot a quarter of a century later? Is there “something there that wasn’t there before?”

In 1991, Belle was to be the Disney Princess ahead of her time. She was supposed to be a stronger, more complex character, unlike her arguably-shallow predecessors—think Snow White and Sleeping Beauty heroically slumbering till prince-savior arrives or Cinderella and Ariel whose life-dreams seem to end at elopement. This new iteration of princess was supposed to be a young woman who didn’t dream of falling in love with a prince, let alone chasing a happily everafter. She would be free thinking, strong and independent. Regardless of what anybody thinks, she wouldn’t be afraid to take a stand.

Belle was poised to reach this new, higher bar, and she came close. She was selfless in what she did to save her captured father. She was also assertive enough to stave off the advances of a “boorish, brainless” Gaston.

Belle was gentle enough to tame a cold-hearted Beast, who she ultimately fell in love with. Her efforts to stand up and defend the Beast against the fearful accusations of the townspeople are laudable. Does she actually reach this raised bar, though?

As progressive as Belle was supposed to be, there was still some scent of a typical Disney princess. She was supposed to be a smart and thinking young woman. So why is that she only reads romance stories?  Are these supposed to be proof of her intellect?  And aside from reading romances, all we see her doing is shopping in that “poor provincial town,” a menial task in a place she does not fit in.1 She sings that she wants “so much more than they’ve got planned,” but these aspirations are never named! Does she even know what they are? How strange for a character who has big dreams and knows what she wants, right?  Does she really want a prince to whisk her away to happily ever after, like all the rest of the of the Disney Princesses? She appears more than content with it at the end of the original movie — housewife to a handsome prince and caretaker to his charismatic possessions.

26 years later, Emma’s Belle would do Betty Friedan proud. This Belle overtly works against sexism. She teaches the girls in her town how to read, because the village school is just for the boys. She invents a mule-powered washing machine to free up her time to teach reading. This time, her rejection of Gaston is more than a fantasy recounted musically. She bluntly tells him that they could never make one another happy as she slams the door in his cocky face. They still call her “a funny girl” that no one understands. But now it’s less about distracted bookishness than outright transgression of gender roles.  

Still, courage and ingenuity are not Belle’s most noteworthy characteristics. It’s these two other things that drive her that are the most compelling: her strong feminist principles, and her heart full of selfless love. It’s because of her principles that she educates the town’s girls. It’s because she’s selfless that she tricks her father to take his place in prison. But Belle’s depth of compassion comes to view when she is faced with the opportunity to escape the Beast forever. In this moment, she is transparently torn between seizing back her life and doing the right and more difficult thing.

Belle may not have the physical strength of Gaston or the Beast, but her head and her heart grant her power nonetheless. And while Belle gets stronger, interestingly enough, the Beast gets weaker.  That’s not to say that he’s a wimp, but he’s definitely more vulnerable.  

In this version, a more vulnerable Beast shares more of his backstory.  He picked up selfish behavior from his father. His mom, who was teaching him to be selfless and kind, died when he was young. He is orphaned and is essentially raised by his servants. As the Beast drops his guard,  we understand that behind the ugliness of the Beast and his actions, is a broken human who is worthy of love.

We all learn from “Beauty and the Beast,” “not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty comes from within.” And for the first time in a Disney film, we witness a male character who exposes that inner beauty by being unabashedly vulnerable. Showing his vulnerability does nothing to emasculate him, in fact it strengthens him. It takes a lot for men to be honest emotionally, and this is never more apparent than when he sings out with all the robustness of a Broadway divo “I learned the truth too late/I’ll never shake away the pain.” He sings his song of lament, “Evermore,” when he releases Belle as his prisoner and believes he’s lost the newly found love of his life. And this vulnerability–or better, humanity–pierces the heart as he hopelessly belts “And as the long, long nights begin/I’ll think of all that might have been/Waiting here for evermore.”

The new Beauty and the Beast remains faithful to the original, while lavishing Belle and the Beast with layers of reality and depth more common outside of fairy-tales and storybooks. Belle finds a way to the Beast’s heart by being strong and selfless. The Beast makes his way into Belle’s heart by being vulnerable and showing a willingness to learn from his mistakes. And at the end, when the Beast sheds his abominable appearance, we too are transformed by the beauty we each possess within when we seek out the beauty in those around us. A flesh-and-blood reboot definitely offers “something there that wasn’t there before.”

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