Contrary to what is often believed, Belle is not the “Beauty” of Beauty and the Beast. Gaston is.
But let’s start with the story, shall we? Belle is the intelligent and innovative daughter of an eccentric inventor. Her father mistakenly ends up in the castle of a prince who’s been cursed to live as a beast. He determines to lock the man up for life, but Belle takes her place.
No no, I’m positive. Yes, this is the 2017 version. And yes, it is step for step with the original 1991 film. There are some occasional additions. Belle is shown working on an invention of her own – a horse-driven washing machine. She also teaches a child to read, and is scolded for it in a moment that feels very reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird. There are some additional details about Belle’s mother (which is to say that there are any at all), as well as occasional references to the Beast’s father. Virtually all of these additions, odd as it may seem, only aid the character development. Suddenly the Beast’s cruelty makes a little more sense. Belle becomes a more rounded character. And the chemistry between both of these actors benefits.
But it’s the things that haven’t changed that form the core of the story. The more I think about this film, the more I think it is a comparison between the Beast and Gaston. In a very real sense, Belle is not the titular Beauty of the film. Gaston is.
Let me explain. This is not, to be clear, another aspect of homosexuality, but rather a second later of metaphor in the film. This starts at the beginning of the film – the prince dresses himself up to be beautiful for the ball in his palace, and the narrator specifies that he held these parties for beautiful people. We even see him dance with several of these beautiful women. Gaston, by comparison, is much the same. The only time he calls anyone beautiful, he’s talking to a mirror. He also surrounds himself with beautiful people to feed into his pride, and like the women at the ball, the women in the village swoon over Gaston.
This comparison holds true in how each treats Belle in the first act, as well. Both think she is foolish (Gaston for her lack of social conformity and the Beast for her taking her father’s place) and both are so arrogant as to expect her to easily give in to their demands (Gaston for marriage, the Beast for dinner). These striking similarities are why Belle’s rejection of Gaston is so significant for the film’s theme. Before she’s even met the Beast, she says to Gaston, “Nobody changes that much.”
The Third Act is when this particular theme comes to a head. The first level metaphor of the film, as most viewers can probably tell, is that the beast is what the prince was on the inside. He learned true love because Belle loved him while he was still a beast. Ergo, true love loves even the unlovable – a distinctly Christian idea. But this second metaphor has depth as well. It’s worth noting that the resolution of the film doesn’t come until after the “Beauty” (Gaston) has killed the Beast. But the Beauty has died as well. So what is left?
The key to this ending is found, again, in a line of Belle’s, when she tells Gaston “You’re the beast!” What the enchantress ultimately wants the prince to realize is what Belle realizes – the Beauty (or pride in it) is the real beast. Thus, for true change to occur as far as the metaphor is concerned, both have to die. And what’s left is the inclination to selflessness that Belle has nurtured. The prince that rescued Belle in the woods and released her for her father’s sake cannot occupy the same space as the selfish beast. That leaves room for a second very Christian principle – the old man being put to death, and making way for the new man.
This level of thematic depth is by no means original to the remake; it all carries over from the 1991 film. That’s worth noting for families, because there are aspects of this version that are not as family-friendly as the original, or at least, not as friendly to younger children. It’s rather scary, for one. The sequences involving the wolves, which chase Maurice to the castle to begin with, and later trap Belle as well, are longer than the original and quite frightening. The Beast himself can be quite scary as well, especially in his first appearance. It’s also implied that LeFou is attracted to Gaston. In one scene in particular, Gaston feigns implied affection to manipulate LeFou, and elsewhere LeFou is shown very briefly dancing with a man. These two things together make it a film that’s not terribly appropriate for very young audiences, even if it’s great fun and good conversation for older audiences.
But herein lies the film’s great weakness: the original film does not have those drawbacks. There’s no denying that the film gets a lot right. The casting is excellent, the sets and effects magical, the music almost unparalleled in Disney films. But it harkens comparisons to the original by so seldomly straying from that already beaten path. And since the new film adds so little, and some of what it does add is problematic, I can think of very few reasons why I would choose to watch this version rather than the animated one.
As a story, Beauty and the Beast has tremendous and powerful depth. As a remake, however, it’s no more than perfectly fine.