25 years ago, Beauty and the Beast, the third feature in Disney’s animation renaissance, premiered and would go on to incredible critical and commercial success. In 1991, I was in sixth grade when I went to see it as part of a birthday party, and Belle instantly became my favorite Disney heroine because 1) she had brown hair; 2) she loved to read; 3) she isn’t impressed by the use of antlers in decorating; 4) she loves and defends her kooky inventor father; 5) FRANCE! Marriage wasn’t the end-all life goal for her, and she wanted more from her life than the confines of a town where days involve routine chores and local gossip and nights are spent at the local tavern.
Okay, okay: so she ultimately moves five miles away to the nearest castle and marries the resident prince in less than a year, but he did give her a three-story library and their relationship became one of mutual understanding and respect, long before the curse that had turned him into an anthropomorphic beast was broken. Watching the movie now that I’m in my mid-thirties, most of it still rings true: the wonderful art direction, Howard Ashman’s lyrics and Alan Menken’s score, the remarkable voice actors (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Robby Benson, etc.) who made a teapot and candelabra and beast come alive. After 25 years, I still love this film, and, as with all great films, one's perspective evolves over time.
Beauty And The Beast
The film begins with exposition into the background of Prince Adam, who is eleven (if you follow one theory) when an old beggar woman arrives at the castle one night asking for shelter. Now, I worked with pre-teens for twelve years, and I can honestly say that they live each day in extremes, whether their emotions or actions, because their hormones are beginning to run wild and they are caught in the Upside Down between childhood and the teen years. If a rich, entitled eleven-year-old prince who has full reign of a majestic castle and no parental supervision is approached by an old woman offering a rose instead of a gaming console for a spare bed, he acted somewhat wisely by turning her away. She must’ve recognized him as one of her former students, because hiding beneath the hag garb is a beautiful enchantress who curses the kid by turning him into a ferocious beast -- and turning all his innocent servants into household objects that could easily be broken or melted or hacked into pieces by poor, provincial townsfolk.
The crux of the curse is that the prince has to get someone to fall in love with him before the last bloom falls off the rose on his 21st birthday or everyone will be doomed to their current form forever. One could only imagine the staff meetings because of this. How do they get food? Do they have it delivered to the castle’s back entrance? Or do they not have to eat like the cursed Pirates of the Caribbean? That would be torture waiting for that kid to mature and not being able to eat the delicious grey stuff from the kitchen.
A decade goes by (if you take a future reference about rusting for ten years literally), and Beast -- which is what he now goes by since his behavior is such that the staff seems resigned to his surly and haughty demeanor -- has not yet secured a true love because he’s a bit of a jerk consumed with self-pity. Back in town, there is a beautiful young brunette named Belle who spends her days either cleaning up after her father’s inventions go kaput or hanging around the bookshop where she gets ideas which lead to more thinking. Granted, she could peruse the nonfiction section a bit more, maybe choose titles that are more career-oriented, but her predilection for daring sword fights and magic spells shows a character more inclined toward dreaming and a stubbornness of will than the mundane practicalities of village life. It’s too bad the hunky Big Man in Town, Gaston, doesn’t like women reading but definitely likes Belle for her beauty, despite the blonde, interchangeable fembots that follow him around. Gaston is wily enough to know what he has to offer and how to attain his personal best, which includes possessions like antlers, trophies, wives, children, etc. Every bully must have a toadie that sustains his ego, and Gaston has Le Fou, a squat, bullish oaf whose inferiority causes him to poke fun at anyone so as to deflect attention from himself.
Belle vividly feels the isolation from the other townsfolk, but she never gives up hope that her father’s inventions will take them away someday, which is why she urges him to take a wood-chopping machine to a fair. I don’t know why she couldn’t have gone with him, as he is obviously scatter-brained, and it’s not like they had a farm to tend daily, so, naturally, he gets lost in the woods and comes upon a dark, foreboding castle that seems to be abandoned. Are the townspeople not obliged to the nobles within the castle, or was there a statute of limitations when all public appearances by the prince mysteriously ceased a decade prior? The castle is not that far from town, as Maurice has traveled less than a day when he comes upon it. Maybe they are on the other side of the forest.
When anthropomorphic appliances Cogsworth (a clock-butler) and Lumiere (a candleabra-manservant) begin introducing themselves and escorting Maurice around the castle, the inventor’s mind is intrigued until Beast shows up and explodes at the stranger sitting in his chair. For all his pedantry, Cogsworth the clock-butler said that would happen, but Lumiere just had to be sympathetic. While Maurice is hauled off to a dungeon cell, his horse Philippe returns to Belle and warns her that he left the old man high and dry.
When she arrives at the castle, Cogsworth and Lumiere immediately spot their opportunity to break the spell: she’s female, therefore she’ll do -- never mind that their employer is Henry Higgins with rabies. They allow Belle to explore the castle looking for her father, knowing that Beast will find her and be his usual charming self, offering an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom. The beast has a bit of Edward Rochester in him, as, at that point in the story, he doesn’t show any confidence in breaking the spell, and Belle living with him forever is solely for his own satisfaction, but she agrees out of concern for her father’s delicate health.
Beast continues the chivalry by relegating her to one side of the castle -- forever, remember -- because the west wing is “forbidden,” oblivious to the fact that he is speaking to a tenacious, brave girl like Belle who just ventured alone through wolf-infested woods. Yeah, stay in your bedroom forever, EXCEPT at mealtime and then entertain me while I shovel food in my maw like a brute. I smell romance!
Behind their master’s back, the staff are dying to serve someone who isn’t a megalomaniac, so they treat Belle to a night of feasting and entertainment that miraculously does not wake up Beast. Belle wants to make the most of her incarceration, so she sneakily asks Cogsworth to take her on a tour of the castle that will inevitably lead to the west wing, which houses -- you guessed it -- the film’s MacGuffin ... which she almost destroys ... which would have been hilarious. The would-be accident triggers Beast so viscerally that he shouts her out of the castle before realizing he should have maintained better. She runs off and, not being very outdoorsy, attracts a dozen or so wolves before Beast bursts onto the scene and fights them off.
He acts really injured on the snowbank, but, back at the castle, he just has a scratched arm (what a baby!) to which Belle tends because he saved her life. No apology from him, no “I'm sorry that my powerful roars blew your hair back,” only sulking because the hot water stings the wound. Belle, however, senses a vulnerability beneath the churlish persona and decides to stay, even though he had told her to get out, which constituted a verbal dissolution of their agreement.
So Belle Florence Nightingale and Beast Henry Higgins start dating because aww, she’s in prison to save her sick dad. Whoa, that's right: Maurice! Did Belle forget that her father was sick when he was hauled off? While she and Beast are having day dates and snowball fights and the servants wink knowingly at each other, Maurice is regarded as a raving lunatic back in town. Only Gaston sees his usefulness, and that is to manipulate Belle into marrying him, kind of like Cogsworth and Lumiere planned only with less antlers and strapping boys and foot rubs.
As Beast becomes more gentle and less brutish, he lets Belle have greater run of the castle, including the greatest prison library ever! The day dates eventually deepen into one giant evening date, precariously close to Birthday #21, where Beast gets a bath (Is it his first one since meeting Belle? Ew if true.) and a new suit, while Belle is radiant in a gold gown. As an eleven-year-old, I have to admit I wondered during the dance scene how it was going to physically work between Belle and Beast if the curse was never broken. When they have their little tête-à-tête on the balcony and Belle’s gold dress is dangerously low on her shoulders, the beast fidgets uncomfortably before saying, “Belle?” and she grasps his paws eagerly and looks into his eyes like when Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets tells Jack Nicholson “If you ask me, I’ll say yes.” Was that just me? Did I read too much into that scene as a hormonal middle-schooler?
Just as things seem a bit too intense between the Beauty and the Beast, he asks if she’s happy with him, and she replies she wishes she could see her father again. He replies, “There is a way,” and I initially thought he was going to have her father brought to the castle, but instead he shows her his magic hand mirror which will spy on anyone. Apparently, Beast carries this mirror around everywhere, leading me to wonder just who has he been telling it to show him and at what time of day? Ew #2. Since he is completely useless, the mirror reveals that Maurice is LOST IN THE WOODS again! Belle must leave immediately, and Beast looks like he wants to kill the old man before realizing he has to let her go -- again -- even though she could have gone at any time but whatever. L’amour.
Belle gets her dad back home and into bed for a quick minute before the asylum director, D’Arque, shows up with the paddy wagon to collect him. Magically, Maurice is all better and entertains the gathering crowd of spectators with exaggerations as to Beast’s size and ferocity. With his incarceration imminent, Gaston offers to help Belle as long as she agrees to marry him, which is the second terrible bargain she has been offered that year. Of course, she says no and tries to sway the crowd by showing them Beast through the magic mirror, which shows him immersed in grief and despair. Gaston sways the crowd by twisting the Beast into a bloodthirsty creature that will snatch children and destroy the village, and a lynch mob gathers to march to the castle, which now seems just a stone’s throw from the town (honestly, how could Maurice get lost twice?).
With Beast sequestered in the west wing with the enchanted rose and his own defeatism, the villagers break into the main floor and battle the household objects while Belle and Maurice hurry to help. Gaston eventually sneaks into the Beast’s chamber and shoots him with an arrow, trying to provoke him to fight back. It isn’t until Belle appears on the bridge that Beast regains the impetus to take Gaston down, which only takes a move or two before the latter is shrieking in fear and begging to be spared. Out of a newfound compassion, Beast lets Gaston go and attempts to reunite with Belle on a balcony, only for Gaston to stab him from behind before losing his footing and plummeting to his death.
Belle pulls Beast to the safety of the balcony floor, and she’s all “damn my lousy timing” and he’s all “it’s better this way,” though he’d be completely justified in bluntly stating, “this is all your dad’s fault and be sure to tell him that.”
As the last bloom falls off the enchanted rose, Beast apparently dies just as Belle admits she loves him, which always confused me as it was never clear if mutual love had to be simply felt for the spell to be broken or explicitly admitted. I think Belle realized she loved him on the dance floor, but I guess the old hag enchantress was all about specifics. The transformation scene was anti-climactic, as the Beast becomes human again through the power of star shine, and rays of light literally shoot out from every appendage (every?). When he turns to face Belle for the first time as a man, my eleven-year-old self was unimpressed as compared to Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid, but he was sufficient. Nice eyes. Strong nose. It's all good.
So Adam gets his life and love back, and Belle gets her magnificent library filled with books about adventure, and they dance into the sunset. The servants also revert back to their human forms, which must have been a great relief. I wonder how many gave their leave after that, and if Adam ever did reward their loyalty?
The little boy, Chip, gets the last line when he asks his mom if he still has to sleep in the cupboard, to which she just hugs him and laughs. Personally, I could have done without Chip, so I would have sent him home with Maurice so they could be unnecessary together ... through the woods ... where I’m sure they would have made it back to town just fine.