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celluloid relapse: aesthetics rears its ugly head in beauty and the beast

We, the living, are warned incessantly of the trappings of aesthetics. Hounded from infancy by parents, folklore, teachers and anything vaguely resembling authority, our spawn soon learn to forsake a glamorous exterior in search of an elusive inner core. These warnings whilst omnipresent are neither threat nor intimidation. Found somewhere in the lower end of the spectrum between ‘Beware the Thane of Fife!’ and ‘Don’t you open that trapdoor’, oft repeated maxims like ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ and ‘It’s what’s on the inside that counts’ sit comfortably in a territory familiar to all who experienced childhood.

A metaphor all too common to children’s film and literature, we have it to thank for a large portion of cultural output. To its credit we have such excellent unattractive characters as Shrek, an anonymous Ugly Duckling and the eponymous ‘Beast’ from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). These are all characters or stories that surprise their audience in some way in spite of a hideous exterior, usually saving the day or winning whatever it is that stands to be won. Everyone goes home happy; the audience is pleasantly surprised, ‘social values’ are reinforced and the attractive villain is deceased or shamed at the very least.

You may be thinking it especially stupid to ‘revisit’ a film integral to childhood and known thus to all, but recent viewings of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast exposed facets of its construction worth remark that are not necessarily apparent to a child’s perception. It is simply brilliant. As it peddles the familiar aesthetics mantra far less subversively than some of its contemporaries, it never at any instance shoves its message down anyone’s throat. Themes or ‘inner meaning’ have to be searched for and only when they are found does their prevalence throughout the story become apparent. Its title may be quite suggestive, but children are not necessarily that perceptive; I certainly was not.

Having now seen the world of Beauty and the Beast with more knowing eyes, it is immediately apparent that an extraordinary portion of the plot revolves around certain characters’ looks, inner self and subsequent comportment. In the midst of the predictable figures of ugly, stupid Le Fou; attractive, intelligent Belle; and a portable band of blonde airheads, sit ‘Beast’ and Gaston, two figures that defy any pre-existing idea we may have held about appearance. In this tale, they are the advocates for the Ugly Duckling’s case. It is as though the characters somehow swapped temperaments. Apparently a mere inch of Gaston is something worth the sacrifice of several fingers; he’s handsome, terrifically talented at slaying animals, every last inch of his abundant figure is covered in hair, and his daily egg consumption surpasses all precedent. As he praises himself through speech and song however, he forgets to mention his heinous personality. He’s a stinking, egotistical twit and absolutely incomparable to the gallant, kind and physically repugnant ‘Beast’. In a gripping roof showdown the true ramifications of this dichotomy become apparent.

Cinema of the Hollywood persuasion would normally demand that anything as deprecatingly ugly as ‘Beast’ have a horrible personality, a paucity of intelligence and perhaps murderous tendencies but not here. Disney thoughtfully turns this perception on its head. In Belle’s own words ‘Beast’ is ‘kind’, ‘gentle’ and ‘would never hurt anybody’. He may lock her in his castle but he learns kindness and love, later saving her from wolves and Gaston. Size considerations aside, he’s our Ugly Duckling. His dichotomous relationship with Gaston may be yet another portrayal of a monotonous aphorism, but it’s zesty, intelligent and not to mention an ample excuse for a rewatch.

Viewing other films in Disney’s classical oeuvre unfortunately does not necessarily yield such satisfying outcomes. I can enthusiastically report that The Little Mermaid (1989) and The Lion King (1994) are still absolutely inspired, but Peter Pan (1953), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Snow White (1937) are disappointing in the eyes of my adult self being respectively racist, an insult to Tchaikovsky’s good name and disparaging toward mental illness. Age and era certainly contribute to these positions, I know, but this is really not a sufficient excuse.

Beauty and the Beast stands apart from its siblings. Right from its gorgeous orientation and illogical fairytale beginning, it is perfectly perfect. Similar to the filmic likes of Pixar, this is not solely a children’s film and adult viewing will not damage one’s childhood perception as is so often the case; it improves it, and vastly so.

4 thoughts on “celluloid relapse: aesthetics rears its ugly head in beauty and the beast

  1. Um, are we forgetting the ending? When the Beast gets turned back into the handsome prince as a reward for finally learning to be good on the inside? Sure, Belle loved him before he was transformed back into his stunning, human self, but then why is it necessary for him to be transformed back at all? I think ‘Shrek’ did it much better when Shrek and Fiona both remain as ogres at the end of the film.

    I’d also like to point out ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ as having another troubling ending…Esmeralda ends up not with the lovely, yet ‘hideous’ hunchback, Quasimodo, but with the dashing soldier Phoebus. Sure, Quasimodo is finally – somewhat – accepted by the community, but, of course, not enough to get the pretty girl.

    Having said all this, I love Disney movies. I just have to try not to pay too close attention to them.

  2. Nice article! I think you mention a lot of really interesting points. I guess it’s also worth noting the very beginning of the film that is told in stained glass panels—the handsome and arrogant prince turns away an old, ugly beggar woman at the door. Her ugly facade melts away and she reveals herself as a beautiful sorceress. She transforms him into the beast because this it more accurately reflects his personality. The prince and Gaston would probably have been very similar people once upon a time. But it’s ultimately Belle’s influence and her ability to look past exteriors that transforms the Beast into the ‘kind’ and ‘gentle’ person she describes. The film challenges the mindset beauty=good, ugly=bad in some ways, but I think it also reaffirms them.

    Disney has it’s problems, but I think it’s treatment of Belle is pretty good actually. I always liked her because she wore usually wore blue (and pink only once!) and she always had her nose stuck in a book. In terms of feminism, it actually comes a long way from one of the original tales—Beaumont’s version is essentially a way to coerce and console young girls who were about to become wives in arranged marriages to older, scary men who would have seemed like beasts to them. The ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ trope is a much better underlying message.

  3. The Beauty and the Beast is definitely my favourite Disney Princess meeting. And watching it again recently reiterated it — I loved how Belle wanted more and waited to find someone who challenged her instead of having a safe, by-the-numbers life.

    Serrin – I just wanted to question something re your Shrek comment. I’ve never actually been able to sit through the whole movie or the sequel (I’ve just seen bits and pieces of the two of them), but in the parts I saw, it seemed that Princess Fiona choose to remain an ogre to placate Shrek’s own insecurities, and I held issue with that. Like I said, I haven’t watched them in full, so I could be completely off-base. If she genuinely wanted to be an ogre than that’s fine and lovely, though!

  4. Freya – Fiona didn’t stay an ogre for Shrek, she fully expected to be changed back into a princess after the magic kiss. When she realises that she’s still an ogre, she says “I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be beautiful.” to which Shrek replies, “But you are beautiful.” (thank you, imdb) thus letting us know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    …Though, I haven’t seen the film in years, so my opinion of it may well change upon looking at it through more adult eyes.

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