Revisiting Beuty and the Beast

With all the fervor around Disney’s latest live action classic, Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, it seems fitting to revisit my experience of this story. And yes, before it was a Disney animated “classic” in 1991, it was a story by Madam Prince de Beaumont, first published in English in 1783.
Years ago, I went to Beauty and the Beast, The Musical, with my kid’s. We were sitting close to the front, and Belle entered from stage-right. As the actor started singing, I had a horrifying moment as I thought they had dubbed the voice of the Disney Belle in for the actor’s voice. Just as quickly, I realized it was actually the actor. That stopped me muttering to my daughter, for there was Belle, come to life on a stage in Edmonton. She was amazing. None of us has ever forgotten that performance of Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve watched the film many times over the years. I’ve taught the story in conjunction with the film in my folktale classes, and I’ve often thought it the best animated feature Disney has ever produced. I may be a fan, but I’m also a teacher. I remind my students what happens in this story and this film—details easy to forget if you approach either just as an enthusiast.
Remember, the prince in this story is under a curse. In de Beaumont’s story, it’s a wicked fairy who curses the prince, but in the Disney film, the prince mistreats an old woman who comes to the castle in a storm. In the language of folktales, which Disney understands, being nasty to strangers is always bad news.
The Prince, now the Beast, imprisons another stranger, this time the merchant, for plucking a rose. He makes a deal with the merchant—the merchant’s life for one of his daughters. The merchant isn’t stupid enough to agree to such a thing, but he wants to say farewell to his children before he is killed by the Beast. But Beauty, Belle in the Disney film, comes to the rescue. She willingly agrees to become a prisoner so the Beast will spare her father’s life.
Disney, even more than de Beaumont, turns this story into one of burgeoning love, but it’s hard to get around the fact that Beauty, or Belle, is the prisoner of a selfish, cruel, and monstrous beast. Is the story, not to mention the film, simply romanticizing the abuse and incarceration of women?
Because I have daughters, and because I can’t help, in part, reading the story through a modern lens, I wonder how the story would go if Beauty wasn’t so willing to sacrifice herself. How’s this?
Beauty, or Belle, now aware of her father’s predicament, decides to act. She goes into her father’s study, where she takes his hunting rifle from where it hangs on the wall. She dresses for travel, saddles her horse, and rides away to the Beast’s castle, the rifle under her arm. When the Beast appears at the castle gates to take possession of Beauty in exchange for her father’s life, Beauty shoots him. End of story.
This would never work—I realize that. For one, such a fractured retelling overlooks the gradual transformation of the Beast’s character, but even more it misunderstands the fundamental nature of the story. “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale, and it has many antecedents. The story, “Cupid and Psyche” is probably the oldest form of this tale, while Asbjornsen and Moe tell a similar story in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
These are stories of transformation, of monstrous male power that needs taming. It’s up to a young woman to take control and humanize the beast/lover. Humanizing the male monster through love, compassion, and suffering is the way for the fairy tale to resolve imbalances and return the world to a state of equilibrium. But even in the world of folktales, it’s not always possible to humanize the male monster. And everyone who goes to see Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast should bear this in mind. Just ask the young woman who married that Blue Beard fella.

Into the Woods: Disney in Name Only

Disney has made enough money from its filmic versions of fairy tales in the last seventy-five years to make Smoug’s treasure look like a piggy-bank. Since the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney has been feeding us feature-length versions of fairy tales—and they’re still doing it.
I went to see Into the Woods, and I was a little surprised Disney decided to put its name to this project. Not that it isn’t a film worth seeing. Disney’s Into the Woods is a live-action musical, based on the musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. If you like musicals, and if you like folktales, you will probably like this film. My favourite characters were the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, and Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick. The film has some fabulous moments, including Cinderella stuck to the palace steps as she sings out her indecision, and Agony, the duets sung by the two insufferable princes, played by Chris Pine (Yes, indeed, the latest Captain Kirk.)And Billy Magnussen. However, you will have to see the film and judge for yourself.
What surprised me was some of the darker elements from the Grimms’ folktales that find their way into the film. One note. Jack and the Beanstalk is not a Grimms’ tale; it’s English. The film makes use of Grimms’ versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red riding Hood in order to tell the story of Mr. and Mrs. Baker who attempt to break a curse on the male line of the family.
Anyone familiar with Disney is aware of how the corporation tends to sexualize its princesses—all you need do is rewatch The Little Mermaid. But this film takes things to a different level—namely, when Red Riding Hood makes her way to Granny’s house. Little Red, played here by Lilla Crawford, meets the wolf, played slaveringly by Johnny Depp. Red offers the wolf a self-possessed, “Hello Mr. Wolf,” and then endures his fawning and slavering before carrying on to Granny’s. The scene is disturbing in its overtones, and the sexual nature of the wolf’s interest smacks more of Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood than it does Grimms’ Little Red Cap.
The Grimm Brothers show Red Cap as a child, and she’s clearly a child in the film, which makes the wolf’s appetite that much more disturbing. Red learns her lesson, as she is saved from the wolf’s belly by the woodcutter, but her song about being “excited and scared” puts a different spin on Red’s experience.
I was also struck by the use of the Grimms’ Cinderella in the film. This is not the version of Cinderella with which most people are familiar. In Grimm, the stepsisters cut off first a toe and then a heel in order to fit a foot in the slipper. In the film, the stepmother obliges each of her daughters by thwacking off first a toe and then a heel in the hopes one might marry the prince. Cinderella’s helper birds arrive not long after to blind the stepsisters for their cruelty. These details are one thing to read in Grimm, but they are something else to see on the screen. The stepsisters later show up wearing dark glasses and carrying canes, which suggests some black humour that’s a far cry from the folktale.
Remember, I liked this film. Parts of it were a little hard to take, but the music carries the two hours, despite the weird restart of the plot once the giant’s wife shows up to find and kill Jack, who is, of course, responsible for her husband’s death. Disney’s retellings of such fairy tales are often dark, sometimes sexual, and always follow a formula. Into the Woods is not a Disney production, but it does carry Disney’s name, which says something about the corporation and where it’s prepared to put its money.

Disney Princesses—No Short Supply

Since its release in 2013, Frozen has become the new benchmark for Disney princess movies. But what happened to Tangled? The film certainly hasn’t disappeared, but Rapunzel pales somewhat compared to her princess cousins from Frozen. Next time you watch Frozen, pay attention to the coronation scene: you can see a brief cameo by Rapunzel and Flynn Rider.
Tangled, unlike Frozen, attempts to adapt a fairy tale into film. I’ve heard repeatedly that Frozen is based on Hans Andersen’s “The Snow queen,” which is a stretch. It may have been the inspiration for the film, but Frozen bears little or no resemblance to Andersen’s dark, strange, and stylized story of Gerda and Kai. Tangled may not accurately represent the Grimms’ “Rapunzel,” but since when did Disney ever attempt accuracy? The film contemporizes the fairy tale in its language and relationships, and Mandy Moore gives a convincing performance as a conflicted princess. Disney often kills off parents early, but the parent-child relationship is one that informs most of its films—this one being no exception. The controlling, passive-aggressive Mother Gothel is unlike any villain Disney has ever given us, and she’s repellant in a way that many villains can’t manage. She’s psychologically realistic in her concern for Rapunzel, right up until she turns. Less the evil witch than Snow White’s stepmother, and less the parental caricature than King Triton, Mother Gothel strikes an interesting balance between villain and caregiver. She’s no doubt a more frightening villain for parents watching than she is for kids.
I recently watched Tangled with my youngest daughter. Even though both of my kids are in their twenties, they often prefer watching Disney movies with their dad rather than something adult. It’s still better than teenage hood. The list of films I was allowed to watch during my daughter’s teenage years was strictly controlled, and it was always better if I knocked when approaching the TV-room door. I’m not complaining. We all love Disney movies, and we watch them again and again. This time, it was tangled.
I was happy to watch the film again, even if just to get Frozen out of my head. Flynn Rider is a bit of an ass, and the details get convoluted—the hair, the flower, the floating lights unnecessarily complicate the story. But I was impressed all over again with Mandy Moore. She’s no cookie-cutter Disney princess. For years, by which I mean before the Internet (was there really such a time?), I was convinced that Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine were played by the same actress. That’s what I mean by a cookie-cutter princess. Disney princesses aren’t just types; they’re personalities. Mandy Moore is not such a personality—thank god. She brought life to a type that hasn’t seen much innovation since Jodi Benson’s performance as Ariel in 1989.
Apart from interesting characters, Tangled is a conventional film—prince (in this case rogue) and princess meet, they variously rescue one another, and then they marry. Tangled’s Rapunzel is certainly more active than her fairy tale counterpart: she, at least, gets herself out of the bloody tower. And remember, she doesn’t need help to escape; she needs a guide to the floating lights. She doesn’t have twins, as does the Rapunzel in the fairy tale, but that seems a forgivable omission. Try explaining why Rapunzel has twins in the wilderness the next time you read the story to a child. Hopefully, you won’t have to.
Aside from its conventionality, Disney’s Tangled will hold up for a long time yet to come. It’s unlikely the corporation will top Frozen for a while, so forget about Anna and Elsa, and go back to some of your older favourites. I always offer a comparison between a fairy tale and its Disney adaptation as an essay topic for my children’s literature students. Tangled has been a popular choice since its release in 2010—with good reason. It’s a good film.

“11 Awful Truths behind Disney Movies that will make your Inner Child Scream” – Really?

“11 Awful Truths behind Disney Movies that will make your Inner Child Scream” recently appeared on Bustle, a lifestyle and Entertainment website. What are these truths? Perhaps not so awful, after all.
It’s a popular thing to rag on Disney, one of the handful of corporate giants, such as Microsoft, Apple, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto’s, that influences our lives on a daily basis. I have no problem with corporate bashing. But remember to take care where you point the finger
Let’s look more carefully at a couple of these apparently hair-raising truths behind Disney movies to see if they warrant packing your inner child off to bed. If you want, have a look for yourself first.

The Little Mermaid. “In the original story, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get the guy in the end, and she kills herself. So. There’s that.”

          This doesn’t strike me as such an ‘awful truth.’  It’s always good to know from where Disney gets its material. And if anything, it might be more shocking to read Andersen’s original story after watching the Disney film.
The Jungle Book. “The Disney version is incredibly racist, and in the original, the animals kill everyone.”
          That someone finds Disney racist is hardly surprising. The corporation’s use of racial stereotypes is often appalling, but hardly shocking. And again, pointing out what happens in Kipling is a comment on Kipling, not Disney.
Sleeping Beauty. “You have to be awake to give consent, for your information.”
          A fair point. However, and also to be fair, Disney is attempting to represent the folktale. Reading either the film or the folktale in terms of date-rape does both something of a disservice. Kissing sleeping and apparently dead princesses is an issue for folktale princes, it’s true, but it’s more a folktale issue than one for Disney.
And one of my favourites.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “When you really break this one down, Quasi Modo is a guy who is needlessly ostracized for having a physical deformity who’s enslaved by a religious guy who feels conflicted by his rape fantasies about a stripper. You’re welcome.”
          I don’t disagree, and I might say something similar to my children’s literature students. But such a point comes from critical watching, and again, seems hardly appalling. Admittedly, though, this film stayed on the Disney PG list for my own kids.
I love Disney films—not all of them, but most of the animated classics (as the corporation calls them). The corporation itself is a different matter. I still watch these films with my grown-up daughters. And yes, Disney films do some pretty weird things. Having said that, it’s possible to note the weirdness while enjoying the films at the same time. My point is that the Bustle article exaggerates these ‘awful truths.’ They are hardly awful, and they never sent my inner child running anywhere.
Enjoy the films. Watch them for what they do, and talk about why they fail. If you don’t like Disney, then you have the option to not bother. But if you return to these films as an adult, then all you need do is watch them as an adult. Talk about them, think about them, and don’t be afraid to address them as critically as anything else. But if you watch these films to recapture something of your lost or abandoned childhood, then you might be disappointed.