Institutions adopt certain characters and themes that they seek to perpetuate through their work. This is a truism that applies to every organization, ranging from universities to multi-national corporations and from governments to mutual interest organizations. As they grow, however, it is also a truism that these institutions, almost without fail, ‘moderate’ that character to achieve the broadest possible appeal and cultivate a positive public image. This moderation, inevitably, leads to oversimplification, an institutional tendency to “play it safe” and avoid offense, and efforts to contort and “brand” everything in such a manner that the bulk of their work fits comfortably under whatever identity the institution seeks to portray.
This tendency results in a curious, nuanced clash when the institution in question is artistic in nature. Artists are usually characterized by their individuality of expression, and exhibit a thirst to achieve something new, unique, and consequential – objectives that often run counter to those of the large institutions discussed above. Nevertheless, certain institutions attempt to strike such a balance, to varying degrees of success. None, perhaps, are more ubiquitous in the American psyche and its culture than The Walt Disney Company.
Today, the company is either loved or hated – few are merely ambivalent about it. The custodian of childhood memories for each of the living generations, the public possesses a curious relationship with this company, which shapes formative experiences in a ubiquitous manner that, had that power been held by a government institution, would be considered Orwellian in its power and efficacy. But because the means with which it shapes individuals is perceived as saccharine, clouded in nostalgia, and generally lacking in philosophical sophistication – in other words, blissfully inoffensive – it is permitted, even encouraged, to take center stage not only in the lives of the young, but also the mature and aged alike. It should be no small wonder, then, that the company’s carefully engineered image, “when you wish upon a star your dreams come true” mantra, and consumerist business model is an evergreen subject of sociological, financial, and cultural study.
But at the end of the day, each and every one of this institution’s works originates in the mind of some artist or group of artists, somewhere, at some time over the last 80 years. And like all art, that creation will forever bear the fingerprints of its maker, and even say something that the institutional owner, try as hard as it might, cannot eradicate. That owner’s marketing efforts may go a long way toward obfuscating, even infantalizing, that art in order to draw our attention toward whatever message it wants us to obtain from that art – usually some moral, or possibly (more dubiously) a goal of imbuing cognitive awareness of some “character” that the company seeks to market as a consumable item or lifestyle product. But it can only go so far. Like any object of art, literature, music, or any other form of creative activity, the works commissioned by this institution retain the complexity with which their creators imbued them.
That phenomenon holds true even unto the works whose copyright is so fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) to be held by the Mouse. Attempts to tease out the artistic intent, impact, and inspiration lying beneath the surface of films allegedly fashioned for a child audience abound on various internet platforms – many, perhaps, are ex post facto attempts to legitimize childhood nostalgia, others perhaps more purposefully investigative. So long as the company that owns the property continues to insist that their works derive their value from “childhood memory” and “nostalgia ” and the happiness they inspire in the “young and young at heart,” they will forever seem self-consciously middle-brow, and not fully worthy of consideration by serious art historians or critics. But the fact remains that certain works overseen by this company ARE formative moments in American cinema. And, indeed, they were intended to be just that by their creators. It is only time and marketing sophistication that has dulled what was, in the beginning, a consciously artistic endeavor. And even today there are those moments where, if not the company, at least the artists themselves, try to say something important. And it is in those moments that what might appear juvenile and ersatz due to the saturation of marketing suddenly appears sophisticated, nuanced, or even starts to exhibit outright profundity.
Among modern Disney films, the one that comes closest to achieving a complexity of expression and status as truly great cinema is 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Its visuals, music, and narrative have been praised time and again both by professional critics and fans, and as such I will eschew such analysis and direct you here for an exemplary and thoughtful review. Instead, I want to wade into what the artists intended us to derive from the story.
Today, Beauty and the Beast is a vehicle primarily harnessed for the sale of princess merchandise and specialty food items at Disney Parks, and when it was re-released on Blu-Ray in 2017 it was hailed in commercials as “a tale as old as time.” But curiously, in 1991, when it was first released, it was marketed more widely as “The Most Beautiful Love Story Ever Told” – a tagline that has since been missing from its myriad reissues. At a Club 33 breakfast lecture in 2015, when asked about that tagline’s provenance, Producer Don Hahn stated that the tagline was not a marketing pronouncement, but instead was what the animation staff universally considered to be the movie’s theme, and in fact the tagline was changed from “Tale as Old as Time” at the last minute at the team’s insistence. If we are to take him at his word, and view the film through that prism, then the ramifications of that theme run deep.
Almost all Disney movies gravitate towards the same message: be true to 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. In Tangled, Rapunzel goes on her mission. In Cinderella, the heroine seeks to marry her prince. In Zootopia, the protagonist seeks to get out of Podunk and find a better life for herself. Each of these films ends with the fulfillment of the heroine’s dreams, and she herself goes through little-to-no personal development, and any sacrifices she makes are within the context of a single relationship, rather than including those of anyone beyond.
In Beauty and the Beast, however, Belle is consistently challenged to place her focus on something outward rather than inward. Rather than stressing humanistic ideals, it places more of its emphasis on the importance of relationships, and not just that which involves the romantic interest. 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. In that sense, it is an altogether mature love story in a way that even most mainstream cinema (let alone Disney films) completely misses.
Even more than that, the film is so nuanced as to tackle various kinds of love rather than simply the boy-meets-girl-and-they-live-happily-ever-after variant of it (though it includes that as well). The film, then, has manifestations of each kind of Christian love – agape (self-giving love), pragma (long-standing love), ludus (playful/romantic love) and, for good measure, there’s a little eros (erotic love) in there as well.
The first relationship of significance is that of Belle’s relationship with her father, Maurice. Providing one of the very few examples of pragma in a Disney film, from the very beginning, Belle supports and selflessly honors her father, even though he is perceived to be a lunatic by much of his village. She defends him against Gaston and Lefou’s brazen taunts, and the viewer sees her getting excited by and even encouraging her father about the genius of even his most hair-brained inventions. No matter how “crazy” he is, she is still loyal to him, and she loves him for it. It is typical for parents in Disney movies to be portrayed as clueless, even tyrannical (so that we sympathize with our heroine), but here is a case where a child is portrayed as being loyal rather than rebellious. Indeed, so loyal and selfless is Belle’s love for her father that she gives up her “dream of adventure in the great wide somewhere” and instead take his place as the Beast’s prisoner, and this selfless (indeed, self-giving agape) love sets an example for the Beast to pattern his own love for Belle in the days to come.
Later on, 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 with whom she has fallen in love, Belle is willing to leave a home and man she has come to love in order to care for her father, effectively choosing his well-being over her own romantic happiness. Adding an even greater dimension of agape self-giving, her choice gives Beast a chance to exercise his own selflessness, and he decides to let her go, sacrificing both his chance at love AND, more importantly, the chance that the spell that has bound him inside the body of a beast will never be broken.
The film is also notable among Disney films in its exhibition of the complexity of a real male-female relationship. Unlike Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, who is mainly a damsel in distress, or the title character of Snow White, who just wants to marry a prince and both their respective relationships with their princes, Belle and Beast’s relationship actually mirrors a real relationship. Belle is shown as struggling toward figuring out how to honor and respect her significant other on the one hand but avoid being completely owned and controlled by him on the other. Similarly, Beast struggles with finding a way to respect and honor Belle while also resisting the desire to control her or get his way by yelling. To win Belle’s heart, Beast has to put his own needs and desires aside. In turn, Belle needs to learn how to be gentle, patient, and forgiving with Beast in order to tame his temper. Belle, while a strong woman, manifests the qualities of the Beatitudinal “meek and quiet spirit” that, ultimately heals a broken, angry heart. She is bold, strong, and firm when she needs to be, and tells the Beast when he is wrong, yet she remains respectful and kind to Beast, and doesn’t give up on him. In the end, Beast softens, and they begin to fall in love.
The “spat” between Belle and Beast following the moment where Beast saves Belle from the wolves and, rather than running home, Belle returns to the castle to nurse Beast back to health, is the turning point – here, Belle manages to see Beast’s humanity, and cares for him, while Beast no longer sees Belle as “a girl,” but instead as a full, beautiful person whom he can respect. The “bickering” nature of this encounter, which plays like an argument between a married couple, stands in stark contrast to their previous disagreements – all of which were defined by mutual disdain, fear, and lack of understanding. When the two of them chose to understand one another, and make a conscious effort to give selflessly, they entered the process of falling in love. This spat becomes their last in the context of the film, and Beast becomes sympathetic, patient, and kind, while Belle becomes patient, understanding, and forgiving.
Just from these relationships, it becomes clear that, at least in narrative terms, for Beauty and the Beast, love is not just a happy feeling of butterflies and roses, but a whole lot of work and self-sacrifice, characterized by mutual growth, patience, selflessness, and forgiveness. In that sense, though it is an animated musical fairy tale, it is pardoxically, perhaps, one of the most nuanced cinematic representations of love ever put on screen.
But a film’s theme cannot be constituted by its narrative alone. Instead, its visuals must also echo and support its theme. While Disney may be rightly criticized for its often reductionist morality and simple stories, the brilliance of its artistic execution is seldom challenged. Beauty and the Beast is no exception in this regard, and as the first masterful example of CAPS technology married to hand-drawn animation, it is the single most beautiful Disney film since Sleeping Beauty, and has not been matched since (except, perhaps, by certain sequences of Fantasia 2000).
Beauty alone, however, is not enough to support a theme. Instead, subliminal imagery must be incorporated to underline and substantiate the theme. There are several moments where lighting, expression, and staging serve the intended message, but one in particular requires discussion – Beast’s Resurrection.
Forever considered animator Glen Keane’s magnum opus, the resurrection scene was famously completed during a two-week period within days of the film’s theatrical opening. When he received the assignment at such a late hour, he left the studio to visit the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where he found inspiration in Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais sculptures (left) and The Bearded Prisoner of Michaelangelo (right) depicting the liberation of slaves being freed from their bonds.
From these influences, he found his muse to depict the transformation of paws, hooves, and fur into hands, feet and skin. Drawing from his Christian faith, he pinned two verses to a bulletin board above his desk:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, for love is strong as death.” (Song of Solomon 8:6)
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The final scene, then, was explicitly inspired and intended to communicate the nature of Christian resurrection – namely, the love these artists sought to communicate was, not romantic, but rather the ultimate manifestation of agape.
The scene remains the seminal moment of 1990s Disney animation – the first, and still most effective, animated manifestation that love truly is stronger than death. Love breaks not only the enchanted spell laid upon the beast, but also the heaviest of enchantments laid upon all of us beasts – Death itself. In one of the best moments of eucatastrophe ever animated – drops of rain begin to change into magical torrents of color, and Ashman’s musical score rises to crescendo, carrying the Beast into his transfiguration. This is the transformative moment – revealing on the outside who the Beast has become on the inside. This is his resurrection, and it is no accident that Beast is “reborn” as human out of his beastly self.
After Beast is transformed, human once more, he turns to Belle, who for a moment doesn’t recognize him – namely, she doesn’t recognize him until she looks into his eyes, the windows of the soul, and sees he is truly the tortured soul – only tortured no more – that she loves. Even now, as throughout the narrative, only here spoken wordlessly in a way the narrative cannot express, Belle is shown as looking beyond the handsome prince now before her, looking beneath the surface to find the man – the true man – that she loves.
Love never affects only the lover and the beloved, for just as a rock thrown in a pond causes a ripple, the power of love brings Beauty and Beast together, transforming every brick of the castle, making all things in the castle new again, awash in the light of rebirth. It is paradisaical in its vision – and only here does this “fairy tale” become a “happily ever after.” And one is left with the conviction that they will live happily ever not because they can’t help themselves, but because they chose to love one another.
Here, in this singular moment, visually, as much as narratively, this is a film that truly owns its reputation for showing the power, agency, and wisdom of true love.
It takes two to break the spell. But the greater effort, throughout the film, was taken by Belle. She was not subject to the spell, but she bore her burden with free agency in a way that Atlas would admire.
Beauty and the Beast will be 27 years old this year, and no doubt millions continue to be moved by this story even as it ages into its status as an evergreen classic. It is a sweet story, with catchy songs and gorgeous artistry. But its longer lasting impact is to be credited to the timeless truths it portrays – that love is patient, selfless, and hard work; beauty is found within; love triumphs if you really want it to; believing is seeing; and life has a happy ending. These truths, as Howard Ashman wrote in the title song, are as certain as the sun rises in the east.
Such is the majesty of Beauty and the Beast – one of those times where a conglomerate corporation found itself the apostle of a group of artists’ desire to turn an audience’s eyes to Truth. It truly deserves mention among the great works of 20th century cinema, for it is one of those moments where a fairy tale has the capacity to be more real than real life itself. In that way, this is one Disney film that transcends mere movie-making and becomes true art.