Why Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast" Is Thematically Terrible
Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney films. In addition to being a big part of my nineties childhood, the grand film score, the vibrant animation, and its memorable characters easily make it one of Disney’s finest achievements. The film went on to become the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which inspired the rather nonsensical Best Animated Feature category. I love every song in the movie—From Belle, to Gaston, to Be Our Guest, to Something There, The Mob Song, and of course Beauty and the Beast.
Therefore, unlike many other Disney animated films, I wasn’t motivated to pick this one apart. I found it enjoyable, which is rare. As one of the few Disney films that I like, I had to consider if it actually measured up in terms of its story and moral compass. With the live action re-make hitting theatres this year (I do not think that looks promising) I thought about this. No, it does not. I was disappointed to realize it is a confusing mess of cynical themes that we somehow ignore because of its other truly great qualities. Here’s why (and it’s not about Stockholm Syndrome).
Beauty and the Beast is ultimately a story about how a rich and privileged prince gets everything handed to him, and even when he receives a punishment for his bad behavior, it is still a blessing in disguise.
The introduction informs us that our protagonist prince was spoiled, but he was so much more than that. He turned away an old woman seeking shelter from a storm, uncaring about her fate and unapologetic until she transforms into a beautiful enchantress. The powerful female entity turns him, and his innocent servants for some reason, into non-humans, but Beast, being the prince that he is, definitely gets the better end of the sentence, remaining at least an animal with opposable thumbs while his servants, including a child, become a candle stick, clock, tea cup, clock and feather duster. Even the dog is punished!
Prince Beast in the end is blessed with a beautiful and intelligent princess—his servants, whose services he was never entitled to if you believe that someone’s genetics doesn’t give them a divine right to rule—they earn the chance to continue serving the prince in their lost human forms, perhaps being treated a little better from a less rude master. The writing even goes as far to suggest that this is all the servants want in life, in the lyrics to the rousing Be Our Guest: “Life is so unnerving, For a servant who's not serving, He's not whole without a soul to wait upon.”
This could almost be seen as sarcasm or dark humor, but the misfortune of the servants and the film’s complete ignorance of it is not even the worst issue.
We have our ‘antagonist’ Gaston, a near caricature of an unsophisticated ‘manly man’. He’s one of my favorite Disney characters because he’s such an amusing portrayal of a comedic villain, like the hysterical White Goodman from Dodgeball played by Ben Stiller and his similar character Tony Perkins is Disney’s less known but wonderful Heavy Weights. He’s easy to ‘hate’, and despite having the right ingredients, he isn’t even handsome or cute as we are told in the film. Beauty and the Beast isn’t a full-fledged comedy, however.
Gaston never catches a break. Once he is “publicly humiliated”, it all goes downhill from there for him, and eventually ends with him plummeting towards a brutal death with a skull and crossbones drawn in his eyes. But unlike Mufasa, we couldn’t care less. Why? What did Gaston do that was so terrible? In fact, let’s compare it to what our hero, Beast did.
- He has bad etiquette
- He’s a hunter (Disney rules state hunters are evil unless they are not human)
- He's a narcissist
- Tried to blackmail Belle by threatening to commit her father, Maurice
- He tries to kill Beast
- Was fine with letting an elderly woman freeze, potentially to death
- Locked Belle’s father in a dungeon knowing he would die for no reason
- Forced Belle to stay with him against her will
- Screams at everyone and terrifies them
The Beast’s sins include near-involuntary manslaughter, therefore they're arguably worse than Gaston's who, in addition, never got a chance at redemption. There is a callous indifference to his death because let’s face it; people don’t deserve to die just because they are callous jerks. Also, considering the Beast has threatened the livelihoods of people, is Gaston really that terrible for trying to kill him?
Of course, we know this is supposed to be motivated by jealousy, but it is not clear if Gaston actually doesn’t feel the Beast is a threat. He has every reason to believe he is, however. As for threatening to commit Belle’s father, Maurice was making some rather far-fetched claims. It seems established that Gaston and the rest of the townspeople do believe he is mentally unsound, but harmless. So at worst, Gaston is guilty of trying to blackmail Belle and Maurice, but Beast, also through the use of Maurice, tried to force Belle into staying with him.
The Beast had no excuse to threaten Belle’s father’s life or turn away the ‘beggar’. He has no reason to be jerks towards his servants who are cursed because of his cruelty. Beast is redeemed of all of this but Gaston is our unredeemable villain, even though he was one of the few people who didn't ostracize Belle for her supposed nerdiness. Everyone finds Beast to be a lovable flawed protagonist because he is a privileged 'enchanted prince'.
The story’s message makes no sense
Almost all of Beast’s actions in the film were done out of self-interest, including the act of heroism that seemed to make Belle go from fearing Beast, to falling in love with him (saving her from the wolves). Beast was merely recapturing his escaped captive. We all know that in order to break the spell, Beast must learn to love another (female) and earn her love in return. But what does this lesson teach Beast, exactly? Spoiled and selfish people still love and get loved. Beast’s problem was indifference to ugly people as he shunned the beggar because he was repulsed by her haggard appearance. Earning the love of Belle? He might have wanted to do that anyway, just as Gaston sought to. Belle is the opposite of the elderly beggar. Beast should be learning how to be kind to non-beautiful people. This is something a lot more people need to learn in general.
Instead, the film is more about Belle’s journey into seeing that ‘beauty is found within’. It is a strange idea however, that Beast is expected to woo Belle just by being a reasonable and well-mannered person. It might be due to archaic fairy tale logic, but just because a male is nice doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with him. Poor Belle seems to be forced to choose a mate by picking the ‘lesser of the evils’.
Beast was lucky to find someone who wasn’t like him; she not only looked past his Beastliness, but also his terrifying demeanor and his choices to imprison people. When Belle sings “I wonder why I didn’t see it there before”, Iwant to say to the screen, “because it wasn’t!” He was more than no prince charming. He was actually quite scary when I saw the film as a child. That and the carriage with the ‘legs’ that Beast threw Maurice into that was making cicada sounds for some reason.
So the film ends up unintentionally being about Beast’s royal privileges that prevail throughout his life. He is even allowed to commit villainous acts without us holding it against him, because we know he’s an ‘enchanted prince’ and the prison is an enormous and luxurious castle. Had a non-prince kept Belle prisoner in his cottage, it might not have gone over too well.
Films like this one depend on our faith in fairytale logic. We know who Belle is ‘supposed’ to be with, so we’re just along for the ride. Much of the classic animated Disney films masterfully craft great pacing, musical numbers, and humorous sequences together when there are giant gaping holes in the plot or story. The nonsensical ends up feeling right. The Lion King is another notable example.