by Rachel White
What is the greatest love story ever told? This debate has been held by literary analysists (and fangirls) all over the world, and if you’re a nerd like me, you’ve probably had this debate yourself with your friends. For a long time, the Disney film Beauty and the Beast has been in the running for the greatest love story ever told. Not only is it classic gem from the golden age of Disney, but it is also a film that has set standards for all Disney films following after it. If there’s one thing that Disney is known for, it’s being able to tell a compelling love story, and for years, they have heralded the title “masters of the magic romance sauce”. But what is their secret? What are the ingredients of a good love story, and what is it about Beauty and the Beast that makes it a “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme”?
The film starts off with a breathtaking opening shot of a castle in a forest. Over the shot plays a narration voice over that explains the plot of film the much better than I could in a few sentences…
“Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young Prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the Prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. But then, one winter’s night, an old beggar-woman came to the castle, and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold. Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the Prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away, but she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within. And when he dismissed her again, the old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful Enchantress. The Prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart. And as punishment, she transformed him into a hideous Beast, and placed a powerful spell on the castle, and all who lived there. Ashamed of his monstrous form, the Beast concealed himself inside his castle, with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world. The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope. For who could ever learn to love a Beast?”
The aforementioned “other” turns out to be Belle, the daughter of an inventor who lives in a small village near the castle. Though she’s extremely beautiful, Belle is thought of by her fellow townspeople as an “oddball”: a day-dreamy bookworm with her head stuck in the clouds. Against her will, she is being wooed by Gaston, a local dreamboat who is really more in search of a trophy wife than of true love. By a certain twist of events, Belle’s “crazy” father ends up in the dungeon of the cursed prince who has been condemned to spend his life as a hideous beast. Knowing her father will die in the dungeon, Belle immediately offers to take his place as the Beast’s prisoner, and realizing that it’s not every day that a beautiful girl walks into your castle and pledges the rest of her life to you, the beast accepts. His goal is to win her heart and break the spell, but he is quick to learn that love is a two way street. So issues a humorous yet heartwarming journey for both Belle and the Beast, accompanied by a cast of fun side-characters who apply many humorous antics in trying them together.
When we talk about quality, there’s really nothing bad that can be said about this film. For starters, the animation is absolutely outstanding. After two decades of being spoiled by beautiful 3D computer graphics, we don’t take much time to appreciate the quality of the animation found in 2D films. But when we look back on animation through the years, Beauty and the Beast has notable animation for its time. Every scene in the film, from the enchanted forest to the quaint little village to the grand ballroom of the castle, is painted with gorgeous, vibrant colors, one of the first uses of CAPS, a digital ink and paint system developed by Ed Catmull and the early Pixar team. The whole film is bursting with everything that classic Disney films are known for: fun musical numbers, hilarious side characters, and an overall sense of joy and wonder at every turn. Beauty and the Beast is without a doubt one the best films ever made, because even as someone who has grown up with it, I still get chills when I watch certain scenes.
But forget quality. Let’s talk about content!
Beauty and the Beast does not get by completely clean on its content. Like all Disney films both from the 90s and today, many of its intents and underlying themes have long been up for debate. Some believe that the film supports a feminist spirit, as Belle is one of the first Disney princesses to desire “Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere” rather than just the arrival of Prince Charming. Some believe that the portrayal of men is too liberal as well, seeing as the two leading males of the film are A) a short tempered animal and B) a conceited pretty-boy who worships his reflection in the mirror. Others will even go as far to say that the film’s real underlying message is the support of bestiality (yuck!).
As someone who strives to be very careful about my entertainment choices, I won’t deny that these ideas are present in the layers of the film, and depending on your interpretation of everything that plays across the screen, these ideas can be dangerous. But I’ve long held a belief that dissecting and interpreting a story is not much different than what we do every single day when we make choices. In the world, there is both good and evil; to exist in the world means to differentiate between the two, cling to what is good, and abstain from evil. The same goes for movies. When we watch movies, we exist in the worlds they create, placing ourselves in the positions of certain characters learning from situations that they experience. There is good, and there is evil. We just have to differentiate between the two.
And in this film, there’s surprisingly a lot of good to cling to.
What I like most about this film is that while it is bursting with classic 90s Disney spirit, it is severely lacking a lot of the bad messages that are usually present in Disney films of that era. Almost all Disney movies gravitate towards a same message: be true yourself, and never let anyone come between you and your dreams. In the proper context, these are good messages to live by, but Disney tends to take a rather humanistic approach to them. Beauty and the Beast, however, places its focus outward instead of inward. Rather than stressing humanistic ideals, it puts more of its emphasis on the importance of relationships. It is, at its core, a love story—one that emphasizes the selfless and character-changing nature of true love rather than just the gooey, touchy-feely nature of romance. And it does this in more ways than one.
Let’s start with Belle’s relationship with her father. From the very beginning, Belle is both supportive of and submissive to her father Maurice, even though he is seen by most of the village as the local lunatic. She defends him against Gaston and Lefou’s taunts, and is found encouraging even his most hair-brained inventions. No matter how “crazy” he is, she is still loyal to him. It’s typical for parents in Disney movies to be portrayed as clueless, but rarely are children ever portrayed as being submissive rather than rebellious. Belle loves her father to the point of taking his place as the Beast’s prisoner, and this selfless love sets an example for the Beast to pattern his own love for Belle after. Later on in the movie, after Belle and the Beast have formed a relationship, Belle tells the Beast how much she misses her father and voices her concern that he may be dying without her there to care for him. While Ariel in The Little Mermaid is quick to abandon her father for a man she has fallen in love with, Belle is willing to leave a home and man she has come to love in order to care for a father who hasn’t given her away yet. Her choice gives Beast a chance to exercise his own selflessness, letting her go even though it means that the spell will never be broken.
Another thing that Beauty and the Beast teaches us about love is that it is something that changes one’s character. Beast starts out as monster both inside and out: his spoiled selfishness wins him a curse of ugliness in the beginning, and even after he has been transformed into a Beast, his temper and impatience remain with him. But when Belle begins to tolerate his quick nerves and show kindness to him despite his appearance, it changes him on the inside, setting the stage for his “outside” change later on. Belle changes over the course of the film too, though her change is far more subtle. In the beginning, it’s clear that she has no desire to play the role of “little wife” to anyone, and that she is content to let fairy tales provide her with all the romance she needs. During her first moments as the Beast’s prisoner, she is clearly resentful of him and has little respect for his wishes. But as he softens, she learns to be more respectful to him. Just as he has to learn to control his temper, she has to learn not to provoke it.
For women striving to model their lives after the Bible, the struggle will always be finding the happy medium between being submissive to their husbands and being completely owned by them. For men, the struggle is finding a way to lead their wives without lording over them. The relationship between Belle and Beast displays these struggles perfectly. In fact, many aspects of their relationship are right in line with the biblical principles of love that Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of Ephesians. To win Belles heart, Beast has to put aside himself as Christ did for the church. In turn, Belle has to learn how to be gentle and submissive to Beast in order to tame his temper. Belle is also a beautiful personification of the “meek and quiet spirit” we read about in the third chapter of 1rst Peter. She is bold, strong, and firm when she needs to be, yet she still manages to be respectful and kind to Beast. And of course, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the theme that the entire story revolves around: the idea that beauty is found in the heart, not in the skin.
So, going back to my original question… what is the greatest love story ever told? The question has been up for debate for ages, and will never be settled in a single movie review. But in my opinion, a love story can only be called a “tale as old as time” when it is patterned after the love that Christ had for his Church when he died on the cross. Beauty and the Beast emphasizes the selfless nature of love, how it changes ones character and relies on inward beauty rather than outward appearances. It keeps in the biblical roles of men and women in line, while at the same time displaying a beautiful equality between the two. Unlike many other Disney films from the 90s, it’s not something I would be cautious about letting children watch; quite the opposite, actually. The characters are ones that children would benefit in learning from, and the worldview of the film rings with beautiful truth.
All this, plus beautiful animation and great comic relief, definitely puts Beauty and the Beast in the running for the greatest love story ever told. It is indeed a “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme”, and will surely be cherished by thousands for many years to come.
Rachel White is a fellow Christian writer and entertainment geek who has a special interest in animation. Share your thoughts on her review in the comment section below.