F This Movie Fest 2? Trick question, I can’t see your hands on the Internet. DOUBLE trick question. The answer is obviously “everybody.” Look, I’m not in the business of picking a favorite movie from 1991, partly because there are so many good ones to choose from, and partly because no one is offering to pay me. That’s how business works. TRIPLE trick question.
Instead, let’s talk about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and the middle of three Disney flicks in a row I saw in the theater with my family. I hadn’t seen it in more than a decade when I borrowed it last weekend from the library, to share with my three year old daughter. I wasn’t sure she’d sit through the whole thing (it’s still a struggle at her age), but I figured she’d like it.
The movie begins with the story of a selfish prince who refuses help to an old woman who offers a rose in return for shelter. The woman turns out to be an enchantress. She curses the prince, and turns him into a beast. She tells him that the spell would be broken only if he can find love and be loved in return before the last petal falls from the rose. Otherwise, he would remain a monster forever. Barely ten minutes into the movie and my daughter was already hiding her eyes. A great start.
She perked up a bit with the introduction of Belle, a smart, carefree girl who frustrates the villagers in her small, French town because they can’t understand why she spends all her time reading books. Equally baffled is Gaston, the local hunk slash the French equivalent of “bro.” He wants to marry her because she’s pretty, and can’t understand why she rebuffs his flirtations and impromptu wedding ceremonies. Belle doesn’t like him because he’s a dumb jock. Belle isn’t just a Disney heroine. She’s a geek girl, and not just because she’s into Furries (zing!). She loves books filled with adventure and romance. Her favorite, as she sings, has a prince in disguise. Vive le foreshadowing!
Fortunately for the Beast (and the movie), Belle was as brave as my daughter, tracking her missing father to the castle, where she meets the Beast, Instead of running away, she steps up and offers to take her father’s place as his captive. Although the Beast upgrades her from dank cell to luxury suite, she resents him and he returns her hostility in kind. She tries to run away, only to be attacked by the same pesky wolves that went after her dad, and probably Liam Neeson. Before the wolves can get her, the Beast jumps in and rescues her. Belle takes him back to the castle and tends to his wounds. She softens, he softens, and they become friends. Although he falls in love with her, fulfilling half of the prophecy, when she learns that her father is sick, he sets her free, hoping that if she loves him she will return, thus inspiring a generation of dumb Senior quotes.
Belle does return, of course, but it’s with an angry mob in tow led by Gaston -- he’s the REAL beast, FYI -- who wants to kill the Beast. Gaston finds him sulking in his tower and they fight, kinda like Edward Scissorhands and Anthony Michael Hall. Man, the early ‘90s were a great time for man v. half-man tower showdowns. Unlike that fight, the Beast stops short of killing Gaston, choosing his humanity over his bestiality (is that the right word?). Turns out it was a bad decision, though, because as Beast reaches for Belle, Gaston stabs him, then loses his balance and kills his own damn self. Idiot. The attack leaves Beast on the verge of death, but just as the last rose petal falls to the ground Belle tells him she loves him. The spell is broken! He turns into Fabio, his flatware turn back into people, and they all live happily ever after.
Those of us who grew up in the PG-rated Wild West of the ‘80s know all about scary kids movies. And while there’s a big difference between the Walt Disney/Roald Dahl Gremlins and the Joe Dante version, Disney understood the value in giving kids a villain to root against. It’s a lesson that seems to have been forgotten in the non-confrontational modern world of children’s entertainment. Even Disney characters have long been reformed by toy designers into harmless trinkets. Look at the Disney Princess blanket on my daughter’s bed (NOTE: THIS IS NOT A REAL INVITATION), and consider what happened to these characters in their respective films. Snow White: spared by an assassin only to be poisoned by an evil witch. Cinderella: child slave to a wicked stepmother. Belle: imprisoned in a castle by a cruel monster. Okay, so Beast wasn’t THAT cruel, and Belle’s plight wasn’t as bad as the Grimm-style nastiness underlying older Disney movies, but you try telling that to my frightened daughter (AGAIN, NOT AN INVITATION. SERIOUSLY, I AM CALLING THE COPS).
Belle isn’t the best known Disney princess. I’m not even sure she belongs in the same category as the others—and I mean that in the best way. As much as I enjoy Snow White and Cinderella, neither are particularly good role models. The stereotypical little girl might dream of marrying a handsome prince and living in a castle, but that’s a terrible dream. If my daughter needs a princess role model—and I’m not saying she does—let it be Belle, a woman whose beauty is secondary to her brains. Come to think of it, if she wants to dream about marrying a prince, let it be the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast is one of the few Disney Princess movies where the prince is something more than a hunky ideal. Aside from his final transformation into Beefy McBiceps, Beast is a complicated guy. He and Belle fall in love not because of a magic kiss or discarded footwear, but because they take the time to get to know each other. They are friends first. It might have been better for the movie’s central idea that “beauty is found within” if Belle wasn’t so dang beautiful, but the film at least suggests a more realistic version of romance than those other Disney flicks. Even The Little Mermaid, which came out just two years earlier, is about a “love” based solely on physical attraction. The worst Beauty and the Beast might have done is inadvertently start the “hot wife, dumpy dude” TV trend. I’m not sure I’m ready to claim Beast and Belle as my favorite Disney couple, but they’re definitely the ones I’d want to hang out with at the annual Disney Royals BBQ. I bet they’d be happy for some non-regal company, too. I can’t imagine Prince Charming is much of a conversationalist, and you just KNOW Cinderella’s husband caught Beast rummaging through his trash once.
I can't say that Beauty and the Beast is one of THE best movies of 1991. It’s clearly not, since it’s not one of the five we’ll be watching this weekend (it’s also not Terminator 2, by the way... more on that Saturday). Beauty and the Beast IS, however, the one I watched with my daughter this weekend, and it was great. Part of the fun was sharing something I saw when I was younger with my own kid. Part of it was recognizing in my daughter the same intelligence and love of reading as Belle—looking forward to the possibilities that life, and love, hold for her. And part of it was pondering the sexual logistics of a talking candlestick and a feather duster...
See you all in a few days. Vive le 1991!