Movie Week #1: Beauties and Beasts
It should come as no surprise that the first entry for the 5×2 Blog Movie Week is a Disney film, given the Donnelly fascination with all things Disney. When Mike and I heard that the 3D reworking of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was being released near the start of the 5×2 Blog, it seemed a natural starting point. So, off both families went to the local theater…
I first saw Disney’s version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in a Boston theater on its initial 1991 release. I remember enjoying it and thinking it was a worthy addition to the Disney canon. More recently, my daughter went through a huge Disney/animation film period, but as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ wasn’t one of the favorites, it was only played once or twice, with the last viewing easily a half-dozen years or more ago. Thus, I went into the movie theater to see the new 3D release with very little baggage.
What did I find? Well, the movie itself hasn’t faded or diminished much since it was new. The storyline grabs your attention and doesn’t let go for the duration of the movie. The music and lyrics stand up well, and are probably the strongest part of the Disney version of the story. I found myself humming snatches of the songs for the next few days, without even realizing I was doing it. To become that embedded after only one fresh hearing is a remarkable feat. Unfortunately, the 3D aspects weren’t very compelling – the extra dimension didn’t add any extra dimensions, if you know what I mean. The best part of the 3D experience was the end credits, so make sure to stay through them if you do see the 3D version.
When the movie was first released, I remember Belle being held up as another in the new trend of strong Disney heroines, breaking the old stereotypes and claiming new ground for women in animated films. Seeing the movie again, I have qualms about the truth of those statements. Sure, she doesn’t fall for the heroic adventurer, and she is basically running her household on her own, and she dreams of having adventures like those she’s always reading about, but all of those grand ideas disappear after the first quarter of the movie. She dashes off to save her father, but then seems content to settle into the life of the Castle with the Beast. Okay, it’s an adventure, but her behavior rings a bit hollow after her earlier statements. For all that Belle was said to break out of stereotypical behavior, she and the rest of the cast each seem to personify a larger role (Heroine, Handsome Villain, Misunderstood Monster, Humorous Sidekicks, etc), rather than being unique individuals. That’s perhaps appropriate in a fairy tale, but it does make the characters a bit less real, human, and approachable.
I wondered if this concern about the Characters As Archetypes was inherent to the fairytale itself, so I watched the Jean Cocteau 1946 version of the story (‘La Belle et La Bête‘). While there were some interesting differences in details of the storyline, the largest difference was in the way the characters were treated. In the Cocteau version, they were all allowed to be human, and to have human foibles and failings. There was almost no trace of archetypes or personifications in the Cocteau version – the plot moved forward because Belle loved her father and simply wanted to help him. Other characters were allowed to have both good and bad aspects to their characters, and act according to their conflicting human drives. Was Cocteau’s version better? That’s hard to say. The Disney version seemed more epic, while the Cocteau version felt smaller, more contained and intimate, with less emphasis on being relevant to all of the broader world.
In the end, you’re likely to remember the sweep and the grandeur of the Disney version along with the wonderful music, while what will remain in your memory from the Cocteau version are the more fallible, quirkier characters that generate a lasting, human experience. Both are excellent movies, and seeing either is time well-spent.