Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (1991): Gender Under The Microscope

Due to living a life of egotism and greed, a young prince and his castle of servants are cursed by an enchantress. His name is now Beast (Robby Benson) and he’ll be a monster forever, unless he can learn to a love a young woman and subsequently, obtain her love before the last petal falls. Years later, an opportunity presents itself when a young maid named Belle (Paige O’Hara) offers to take her sick father’s place when he is taken prisoner by Beast. With the help of the castle’s staff, she learns to look past her captor’s exterior and see what lies within. However, back in the village, a vain huntsman named Gaston (Richard White) has his own plans for Belle, whether she likes it or not.

Retrospectively, this is one of three animated movies to be nominated for Best Picture. Toy Story (2010) and Up (2009) were also nominated, yet Silence Of The Lambs (1991) struck gold and became the only horror movie to ever win the award. Belle (O’Hara) is an old soul who wants to read and acquire knowledge. She’s made for bigger things and the identity of her town is quashing her kindred spirit, a spirit that has an aptitude for imagining things. “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking” says Gaston, the film’s first example of criticism against society’s gender constructs. Belle is the main protagonist who wants to be more than just some man’s wife.

Paige O’Hara voices Belle in Disney’s Beauty And The Beast
(Walt Disney Pictures, Beauty and the Beast)

This is one Disney’s finest films and it’s certainly in my top five Disney features. It’s one of those films that will be remembered for generations to come. Mrs Potts (Angela Lansbury) says “it’s a tale as old as time” and she’s absolutely right. From its animation to its voice performances to its potent attack against masculine and feminine gender constructs, Beauty and the Beast continues to be relevant in the 2017. It has a beautiful narrative that ultimately tells us that we should not build walls to keep out difference, or discriminate against those who are. Darkness is the absence of light and Beast in this context, I believe Beast means the absence of Belle, the French for beauty.

She’s a simple girl in a French town, but is a major bookworm and her father is an inventor. They’re the town’s “crazies” but Belle is always being chased by Gaston because he sings: “right from the moment when I met her/ saw her/ I said she’s gorgeous and I fell/ Here in town there’s only she/ Who is beautiful as me/ So I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.” He wants her because he can’t have her, it’s that simple. One day Belle’s father gets lost in the woods and a number of events lead him into a castle’s cell. Belle trades places with him and thus we have our love story. The castle is alive, with living objects, including: a clock, a cup, a wardrobe, a candle holder and tea pot to name a few.

Gaston is in love with the only thing that matters to him, his own reflection
(Beauty and the Beast, Walt Disney Pictures)

They see Belle as a chance for Beast to find true love, but he must learn to be a gentleman and make her see that he’s more than a monster. His exterior is by no means a reflection of his soul, or his heart for that matter. This film came out before I was born but I’ve loved it ever since I was a young child. The songs are well-constructed. Each song fits the scene it was designed for. From ‘Belle’ to ‘Something There’, and ‘Beauty And The Beast’, sensationally sung by Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote), a song I think is as magnificent as Tina Turner’s Circle of Life in Disney’s Lion King.

This is engaging from beginning to end, with so much care and attention at its core. It’s much more than a bog-standard Disney animation. Inspired by the French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, this a diluted form of the story but still fine work as a standalone film. The musical score (Alan Menken) is unforgettable and is one of the greatest scores in history. Akin to many Disney films, past and present, Beauty and the Beast is a picture that resonates with both adults and children. There are themes that both audiences can feel something for, and typically, like lots of children’s movies, the subtle adult humour is there as well.

Belle (Paige O’Hara) and Beast (Robert Benson) dancing to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ sung by Angela Lansbury
(Beauty and the Beast, Walt Disney Pictures)

In the end, I guess one could argue that Belle accepted her fate as a woman. She did get married but then I’d argue it’s about the freedom to choose and she chose Beast/Prince Adam, and not the vain and beastly Gaston. She chose the kind one over good looks and unnaturally big muscles, regardless of him being a prince. With excellent performances, a stimulating narrative and a wonderful tracklist, Beauty and the Beast is now over twenty-five years old. It’s a tale as old and time, and if you have not gazed upon its awesomeness, than you should definitely do so before Emma Watson graces us with her presence as Belle in the live action remake on March 17 next week.

A classic that speaks to 2017: an era of building walls and hiding behind fences