Beauty and the Beast

by Terri Windling

Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle

And yet, Disney’s film of Beauty and the Beast still disturbs me. Perhaps because it has not been billed as a new story inspired by the old fairy tale — rather, it has been presented to us as if it were the old fairy tale, and such is the power of the Disney name that audiences around the world will perceive this as truth. Yet it’s not the old tale. Too many fundamentals have been changed for thefilm to make that claim — and changed in glib or sloppy ways that lessen the story’s classic themes. The father has been changed into a harmless buffoon, his role in Beauty’s imprisonment diminished into an accident of circumstance. Beauty’s request for a rose, and her father’s unfortunate way of procuring one, have been deleted altogether, along with the jealous sisters. An arrogant suitor, Gaston, has been addedand presented as the villain of the piece. In short, the heroes and villains of the story are clear–cut, unambiguous — Beauty and her father are always Good, Gaston and his minions are Bad. In the old fairy tale, Beauty makes mistakes — she goes home, she forgets about the Beast, and by doing so almost causes his death. In the Disney film, we have a perfect heroine who never grows, never undergoes a transformation of her own to echo the Beast’s.The requisite happy ending is achieved, but the price for it has not been paid — except by the dull–witted characters unfortunate enough to be wearing the black hats.

I am reminded of something Jane Yolen once said, lamenting the fate of another fairy tale at the hands of the Disney Studio. In the old Cinderella tale, she pointed out, our heroine was a clever, angry, and active girl, but in the modern Disney film she becomes "a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by talking mice and birds because she is ‘off in a world of dreams’. It is a Cinderella who is not recognized byher prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled. Poor Cinderella. Poor us." In Disney’s beautiful animated version of Beauty and the Beast, we take one step forward with the creation of a literate and courageous heroine, and two steps backwards as the heart of the tale is lost in the musical razzle–dazzle. But hey, the film is entertaining and fun. My young friend and I enjoyed it thoroughly.So should we care about what’s been lost in the process?

In my opinion, you bet we should. It does no service to lie to children, to present the world as simpler than it is. Villains rarely appear with convenient black hats, good people are rarely perfect. Beauty has gone to Hollywood now. Poor Beauty. Poor Beast. Poor us.