‘The Beauty and the Beast’ is my mother’s favourite fairy tale and Belle is my favourite Disney princess, and incidentally one of my earliest blog posts was a detailed dissection of this movie’s plot inconsistencies, so obviously I have even more opinions than usual. By 1991 Disney had made an art form of the princess musical and this one ticks all the boxes but one; for the first time, we don’t have a glamorously evil villainess.
Don’t worry. Gaston can totally handle it.
The fairy tale: I reviewed three versions of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, my preference of which involves a snake prince and face punching, but Disney is riffing with the French one. You can tell because of all the names and Lumiere’s terrible accent.
The film: Somewhere in the depths of forested France, in a castle that may just win out over Prince Eric’s on pure architectural beauty, there lives a selfish, spoilt young prince. One wintry night, an elderly beggar woman knocks at the door, asking for a night’s shelter in return for a single rose. The prince turns her away. Karma offers unexpected whiplash when she reveals herself as a dazzling enchantress and transforms the prince into a beast. His fate is bound to the rose: it will bloom until he turns twenty one years old, but if he has not loved and been loved in return by then, he will never be human again.
Years pass. In a village not too far away, an inventor and his daughter Belle take up residence in a dilapidated old millhouse. Belle is bookish and quietly sarcastic and loves fairy tales and is basically my ideal human being. The villagers disagree; they admire her beauty but are nonplussed by her enthusiastic intellectualism. All except for the hunky local hunter Gaston, who just ignores whatever he doesn’t want to see. He has decided to ‘woo’ Belle. “Right from the moment I met her, saw her,” he carols, apparently not realising those are two different things. He tells the whole town his plan before he tells her, advises her to stop thinking, knocks her book in the mud and still comes out of the encounter thinking she likes him.
Spoiler: she doesn’t like him. She thinks he is ridiculous.
Also, she has other things on her mind, chiefly helping her father with his latest invention, an enormous wood-chopping machine that frankly looks like a lot more effort than it’s worth but that he is treating like a life’s work. When he finally gets it operational, they hitch it up to a cart and he sets off for the fair. Near nightfall, he takes a wrong turn. Here’s a handy tip when you are lost in the dark forest: pay attention to your horse’s reactions or you might find yourself thrown to the ground while wolves circle. The inventor runs for his life. A gate looms providentially into sight; it opens at his frantic shove and he ventures inside to seek assistance. He sees no one – but someone sees him.
When the prince was cursed, the enchantress turned all his employees into household furniture or knick-knacks. Lumiere the hospitable candlestick wants to allow this unexpected visitor to stay; Cogsworth the clock is more cautious, but his protests are ignored while Lumiere blithely reveals himself to the stunned inventor. Who is thrilled, prodding eagerly at Cogsworth’s inner workings in the hopes he’s now living in a steampunk novel. He’s soaked to the bone and exhausted, though, and Lumiere seizes the opportunity to display a little over-excited hospitality. Other members of the staff come out of the woodwork (not literally. Yet) including Mrs Potts the teapot, her son Chip the cup and a cute little footrest that was once a dog. How terrible a person do you have to be to enchant a DOG? That enchantress has a lot to answer for. Everyone has been going a little stir-crazy and they are happy to see a new face.
All except for the prince, whose temper has amazingly not been improved by becoming a huge furry beast. He stalks into the room, all sharp white teeth and glaring eyes. The pleas of his servants are ignored. He is, in this moment, as he drags the inventor away, every inch the monster.
Belle does not know to be worried yet, and she has more than one thing to be worried about. After their little chat, Gaston set up a wedding in the field outside her house complete with cake and musicians…all without actually proposing. He barges into her house (her eye roll when she sees him is a thing of beauty) to share his vision of domestic bliss and, in the process, deface her book again. This time even he can see she’s not interested – he turns predatory and she backs quickly to the door, so that when he tried to corner her he finds himself flying headlong over the step and into the millpond. In front of the whole town.
Once he’s safely stormed off and taken the townsfolk with him, Belle emerges to vent her indignation. Marriage is not what she wants right now, let alone with Gaston – she wants adventure and friendship and really anything but staying in this village all her life. Thoughts of the disastrous proposal are pushed out her head, however, when the carthorse Philippe appears with the cart, and without Belle’s father. Philippe really is an exceptionally clever horse, he takes Belle directly back to the castle.
Just inside the gates, she finds her father’s hat. Searching the echoing spaces inside, she is led by an unseen guide (Lumiere, who has pounced on the idea that she will save them all, followed by Cogsworth, who just gets caught up in these things). She finds her father in a dank cell and is manhandled by the furious Beast, but she refuses to be cowed, insisting he take her in her father’s place. The offer is almost enough to startle him out of his rage. Almost. Not quite. He accepts in about as ungracious a manner as possible, sending for his frightening spidery carriage to transport the inventor home before (on Lumiere’s advice, it should be noted) pushing Belle into her new room. So at least she won’t be living in a dungeon. The Beast makes one attempt at conversation, telling her that as a permanent resident in the castle she may go where she wishes – only not to the West Wing. She asks why. He shouts “It is forbidden!”
He is so incredibly bad at interaction.
Meanwhile, back in the village, Gaston is brooding over his wrongs while sympathetic townsfolk remind him of how muscular and manly he is. He’s been cheered up by a bar brawl and several swooning women when Belle’s father comes bursting into the tavern telling them what’s happened and begging for aid. He’s laughed out into the snow. That scene hurts. The incident gives Gaston an idea. A really horrible idea.
Belle’s new room is actually rather luxurious but she’s sobbing so hard she probably hasn’t noticed. She’s roused from her misery by the intervention of the castle’s ladies – Mrs Potts bringing the tea and the cheerfully chatty wardrobe offering an outfit for Belle to wear to dinner with the Beast. Except she’s not planning to eat dinner with him, or look at him, or talk to him if she can help it. Lumiere and Mrs Potts do their best to cajole the Beast into something approaching civility, but he’s having a self-loathing episode and instead of trying for charm, yells through Belle’s door that she can either eat with him or starve.
He doesn’t know her very well yet. When the castle has gone quiet, and the Beast has retreated to the West Wing to wallow, Belle quietly emerges and looks around until she finds the kitchen. There, Lumiere puts on dinner and a show, because he’s like that. Belle has no good feelings for the Beast, but she’s a bit enchanted by his staff. They are certainly ready to adore her. After the meal, and the spoons’ synchronised swimming routine, Belle asks for a guided tour of the castle and gravitates towards the forbidden West Wing like it’s true north instead. Unlike the rest of the castle, which has been well maintained, these rooms are ravaged. Belle finds a shredded portrait with arresting blue eyes, and a glowing rose upon a table. Reaching out to touch it, she’s interrupted by the Beast, who is horrified – that rose, after all, is his only chance at humanity. Losing his temper yet again, he screams at her to get out and she takes him literally, riding the hell out of there.
But the wolves are still out there, and all she has to fight them off is a broken branch. At the last minute the Beast comes charging to her rescue, finally applying that ferocity of his to a worthwhile cause. Having sent the pack running, he collapses in the snow. Belle takes him home to the castle. He did, after all, save her life – and as she patches him up, she realises he’s really just a huge, sulky, fluffy idiot who is accustomed to getting his own way. They re-establish their relationship on the basis she pretty much always knows better than him.
As things improve in the castle, they grow worse in the village. Everyone believes the inventor to be a bit mad; now Gaston is capitalising on that by bribing the owner of an asylum to forcibly remove him. Not that Belle’s father is hanging around, he’s packed up a few essentials and gone straight back out to look for her.
She’s quite happy at present, exploring the castle grounds, and the Beast (by now utterly besotted) is racking his brains for nice things he can do for her. Again on Lumiere’s advice, he leads her to the library and announces every one of the books in it – and there are a LOT of books, it’s gorgeous – is hers. She’s overjoyed. The Beast’s enthusiasm is adorable here, you get the feeling he’s probably never given a present before. He’s making a huge effort, trying to eat nicely (and Belle meets him halfway, delicately slurping from her bowl), learning how to feed birds (and loving it) and dressing in handsome suits. They have a snowball fight in the garden and later read together in front of the fire while the servants look on, shipping it hard.
Cogsworth decides the budding romance needs a helpful nudge and marshals the castle’s staff to throw a spectacular ball for two. They are beginning to dream of being human again. There is in fact an entire song number devoted to this in the extended edition. It is worth watching if only for the scene where Belle reads Romeo and Juliet to the Beast and he gazes at her with heart eyes, and then she shows him how to read it himself. If books be the food of love, read on!
But the servants have a mission and these two maybe-almost-a-bit lovebirds are not getting in their way. Belle is given a stunning yellow ballgown; the Beast scrubs up well in a blue frock coat. Lumiere gives him a rousing pep talk while he’s trimmed and combed like a rather recalcitrant pet. He’s been practicing his manners, offering his arm to Belle to guide her down the stairs, and shows he has not lost all his human skills by swirling around on the dancefloor. Admittedly, they are the only couple, there’s no other couples to get in the way.
They drift out onto the balcony. The Beast awkwardly takes Belle’s hands and asks if she’s happy, the answer to which is a conditional yes; she wants to check on her father. It just so happens the Beast has a magical mirror that can show any person or place, and he offers her to use of it. I love Belle even more right now because she talks to the mirror so politely (well, I suppose you’d get in the habit if you knew just about anything could talk back).
She sees her father lying sprawled on the ground, alone, lost, very sick. In that moment she has to leave, and the Beast asks only that she keep the mirror to remember him by. The staff are appalled. The rose, you see, is drooping. Time is almost up.
Belle takes her father home – unknowingly bringing along Chip as a stowaway. But home is not safe any more, and before long Gaston and his bought doctor show up to take the ‘madman’ away. Trying to prove her father’s sanity, Belle produces the mirror and uses it to show the Beast is real. Gaston, suddenly scarily perceptive, notices how soft her voice is when she speaks of her friend’s kindness. Instead of going after her father, Gaston whips up a pitchfork-wielding, all-torches-blazing mob and marches on the castle to take down the biggest trophy he’s ever seen. A frantic Belle and her father are left prisoners in their own home…but they have an unexpected asset on their side. The woodchopping machine! Chip single-handedly gets it going – a remarkable feat considering he does not, in fact, have hands – and hacks open the locked door.
The mob has already reached the castle. Heartbroken, the Beast hardly cares. He’s a sweetie but useless in a crisis. Everyone’s lives are at stake here and the staff arm themselves however they can, setting traps, mounting assaults. The invaders are not prepared for a devilishly grinning oven or streams of boiling water from a furious teapot and her many children. A favourite moment is when the minions think they have the footstool dog cornered, only to be confronted with drawers full of animate knives. If only justice was always so sharp.
Gaston, however, keeps his eyes on the prize. While everyone else flees, he prowls through the empty rooms until he finds the Beast – who will not fight back, even pushed to the edge of the roof with a club above his head, until he hears Belle’s scream from the courtyard below. Now he knows she cares.
The club never connects. Gaston may be a fine hunter, but the Beast is all raw power and he desperately wants to live. He finally gets Gaston by the throat, holding him over thin air. He doesn’t kill him – he lets him go. After all, Belle is here, and all the Beast wants is to be with her. Gaston, instead of running, climbs after them to the balcony and stabs the Beast in the back. In so doing, he falls to his death. No one cares.
The damage is done – the Beast is dying. Belle sobs against his chest. “I love you,” she breathes, as the last rose petal falls.
There’s not much good that can be said for a sniffy enchantress who transformed a child into a monster to teach him manners and cursed his entire household staff as well (including his pets), but she included one hell of an escape clause. True love, in this instance, really does conquer all. Lights falls everywhere like shooting stars; the Beast floats into the air, radiating beams of magic as his limbs reshape into their true form. A man falls to the ground – a built redhead with very bright, familiar blue eyes. Belle is a little unsure at first, but those eyes confirm it. He’s her Beast.
At their first kiss, the staff are restored and the Beast rushes around giving everybody hugs. They celebrate with another grand ball. Belle’s dad strikes up a friendship with Mrs Potts; Cogsworth and Lumiere bicker wildly, as per usual. A crowd of well-dressed guests have been conjured from nowhere. On the dancefloor, Belle and her prince whirl in their own world.
Spot the Difference: I’ve heard this fairy tale described as a story about Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a valid interpretation of the source material but I could not agree with it less. To me, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a story about isolation, and how everyone needs to be seen for who they truly are. The Disney adaptation emphasises this with the Beast’s passionate self-loathing. His temper is rooted in fear and insecurity; he must learn to accept himself and his own inherent capacity for growth before he can become really loveable. But he needs Belle’s help to get there. That is not a shameful thing. It can be incredibly hard to believe in your own worth when others judge on appearances (especially when you’ve been cursed from the age of eleven, have no family and all your friends work for you plus are literally the furniture. JUST SAYING).
Belle is the Beast’s prisoner in name only and they both know it. Her beauty is what strikes him first but he actively supports her intellectualism, admires her good sense and tries to engage with her on every level he can. Belle is kind and practical, a woman who makes friends easily but takes no nonsense. Her real imprisonment was within the narrow expectations of the town, epitomised by Gaston’s breathtaking arrogance, and she handled it with the calm diplomacy of a born leader.
If you needed help remembering your humanity, why wouldn’t you go to her?