Disney’s Beauty and the Beast turned twenty-five this week. It’s the first movie I saw in theaters, so it holds a special place in my heart. But does it hold up to a quarter century of age? Of course it does — it’s a tale as old as time.

Director: Gary Trousedale, Kirk Wise
Writers: Linda Woolverton
Key Cast: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury

In Short
Belle lives in a little town, a quiet village, where everyday is like the one before. When her father gets lost on a the way to showcase his invention at a fair, she goes to look for him and comes across a castle hidden in the forest where he is being held captive. His captor turns out to be the Beast, a man transformed into a monster by an evil sorceress after he refused her hospitality. Belle offers herself in place of her father, and the Beast, whose curse can only be broken by true love, agrees, hoping that maybe she’s the woman to save him. Because she’s a captive, their relationship gets off to a rocky start, but the Beast’s persuasive servants, all turned into household items that can talk, convince her to look past his bad attitude to try and see the man underneath. Their relationship grows until Belle catches a glimpse of her father in a magic mirror and sees he’s sick. The Beast lets her go. She goes to her father, but the village thinks he’s crazy with all his talk of a beast in the woods. The village lunkhead, Gaston, tries to institutionalize him, but Belle arrives in time to corroborate his story. Gaston shifts gears and leads the villagers toward the castle to mob the beast and hunt him. The castle’s servants fight them off, but Gaston manages to stab the Beast in front of Belle before he falls off the castle into the rocks below. She confesses her love as the Beast is dying, and the magic that transforms him into a man also brings him back to life.

As Cinema
This movie is beautiful. It was one of the first animated movies aided by CGI, and despite its age, it holds up beautifully. The music, composed by legendary Alan Menken with lyrics by the great Howard Ashman, is some of the best to ever come out of Disney. In an age before celebrity voices dominated animation, Beauty and the Beast smartly utilized Broadway stars, and the quality and character they bring to each voice is undeniable.


The Horror
I’ve put off writing about any of the Disney princesses because of how divisive they seem to be. Princess culture is often regarded as damaging, promoting the idea that women need to be rescued or require a prince to save them. But in this case, Belle, despite her status as a captive, is very much the heroine of the story. Like Cinderella stories throughout time, what appears to be a story supporting the status quo is actually sneaking through valuable messages for little girls.

Belle’s defining trait is her love of books. She loves the sense of adventure she feels, even when trapped in her small town, when she cracks open a novel. They open her mind and help her see her father’s extraordinary vision for his inventions, even when no one else does. And unlike her fellow villagers, she does not view the Beast or the talking housewares with fear, but curiosity. Her education makes her compassionate, brave, and open to love.

Gaston spends most of the movie pursuing Belle for no reason other than she’s beautiful. He mocks her books and her compassion, and he’s the person that rallies the mob to kill the beast. Through all his brash displays of machismo and stupidity, Belle maintains both her calm and her boundaries. She knows she wants better for herself than to become his “little wife.” She would rather go on adventures, but even if she cannot, she seems perfectly fine to be alone. She knows her value and her capabilities, and she does not need a man to help her. This makes the moment when she returns for the beast, to tell him how she feels, that much more impactful. She’s not looking for a prince, she’s seeking an equal who understands her worth.

A frequently cited problem with Beauty and the Beast is that it follows standard “dream girl” tropes. Belle, a woman on put on a idealized pedestal by a man, exists only to change that man for the better. And while it’s true that Belle does not have much of an arc in the movie, it is clear that she is a whole person with an internal life. It’s easy to imagine what her life looks like outside of the runtime. While the Beast is little less well-drawn (character-wise, not animation), he does eventually let Belle go, trusting her autonomy in a way that Gaston does not. He loves her because she is a caring person, and he knows he cannot stifle that. When she comes back, he knows it is love, and he treasures it.

At the end of the day, Beauty and the Beast is a gorgeous movie about a self-assured woman with a love for reading who draws the attention of two jerks. One jerk learns, through her example, the he is a jerk and adjusts accordingly. The other does not and falls off a turret into some jagged rocks. The real takeaway is that women can change the world if we let them. Otherwise, we’re on a path to certain destruction. I’d say that’s a pretty powerful message — one that certainly deserves twenty-five years of relevance, and, hopefully, another twenty-five more.

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