Saturday, October 15, 2011

What is Beautiful, and what is Bestial

Like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast was another of my childhood Disney obsessions. However, when rewatching Beauty and the Beast as an adult, I found it to be much more appealing than I did The Lion King when I also rewatched that recently. Both have a nostalgic cachet that prevents me from rejecting them entirely, but I was sour towards The Lion King because it was a film that said everyone should know their place or they're stupid, evil, or misguided. Beauty and the Beast, though it also has elements that make me uncomfortable, was much more appealing.

The characters of Beauty and the Beast are well-crafted and defined, even if they are big ol' Disney clich├ęs. The viewer wants to follow them through their adventures and to believe the film is a good one. For one thing, I like Belle. A three-dimensional female lead with an iron will doesn't erase any uncomfortable elements in the film, but I was enamoured with her bibliophilia, determination, and desire for adventure and still am now. In short, Belle is still pretty damn cool.

Even without my thinking the Beast is attractive (see below), his character design is still great. It's a little top-heavy, and his muzzle seems to get about twice as long when he roars, but the way it combines so many different mammals into a single refined whole is a great look. The silhouette he cuts is appropriately minotaur-ish, and the human eyes just add more uniqueness to it. Robby Benson also has an amazing voice, deep and terrible.

Gaston is a great villain. He portrays a very human evil through his unappealing traits and simple desires, yet it makes him no less threatening. Also, unlike Scar, Gaston never loses that villainy when being exposed as a weak coward and a fool, therefore taking the easy way out and giving the audience no threat. Gaston is a jackass, and the early parts of the film try too hard to show what a boor he is, but Gaston is still a dangerous one when he's crossed or defied.

The castle servants aren't as annoying as they could have been. The three main objects have motivations and intelligence, so it's less easy to brush them off as things designed for merchandising and/or ensuring the film doesn't get too dark. Me, I was always the fondest of Cogsworth, due to my weakness for fussbudgets.

On a minor note, it was a treat hearing the late, great Tony Jay as Monsieur D'Arque, the corrupt asylum keeper that Gaston bribes. I had completely forgotten about that role of his, but it was wonderful to hear one of my favourite voice actors from childhood in one scene. Tony Jay only had one voice, but damn it wasn't a good one.

However, D'Arque reinforces another disturbing element that doesn't have anything to do with gender politics: that Belle's village and the surrounding country seem to be full of assholes. Some people are nice, such as the elderly librarian, but most of them seem willing to support or follow Gaston in everything he does, jump to mob violence, and find Belle and Maurice suspicious simply for being eccentric. No wonder Belle dreamed of something else.

However, yes, despite that I like the film a great deal, there are elements to Beauty and the Beast which make me uncomfortable. There’s been a backlash towards criticisms of Beauty and the Beast's themes over the years, with it being just as likely to find someone who says the film was totally not about Stockholm Syndrome, abusive relationships as fixable things, or anything even remotely like that. But these things can't be confirmed or denied outright, especially in a way that would put an end to the debates.

Here's what I think: Beauty and the Beast tries really hard, unintentionally or not, to try to defuse the more disturbing elements in its premise. That doesn't make it immune from criticism, but it makes it more palatable than The Lion King, which embraces its subtext without question.

To start with, it's Belle who makes the choice to stay in the Beast's castle, so she is not, in a direct fashion, falling in love with her captor, since she chose to be there rather than being abducted. The bargain also ensures Belle will stick around without coercion or violence, since she's the sort of character who honours her word. Because of this, it makes the Beast appear less monstrous.

However, the sweetness of their falling is love is tainted by the fact that not until after the ballroom scene does Beast give Belle explicit freedom, meaning that all their sweet moments took place when Belle was still a prisoner. On the other hand, it's still easy to be moved by his willingness to let Belle go free, because of the depths of sacrifice it means for him. It makes the audience more inclined to believe the best about the central romance.

Secondly, the more obvious point: Gaston is a worse beast than the actual Beast could ever dream of being, which ensures that the audience sympathy is routed to the even hairier male lead. Not only is Gaston violent, conniving, vain, callous, anti-intellectual and slowly becomes clear that the Beast is more bark than bite.

While he appears terrifying at first, and throws Maurice around like a chew toy, in many  later scenes Beast come off as all bluster,  a spoiled brat with claws that he'll never use. It's only because Belle softened him, by both standing up to him and then loving him, but the impression nonetheless colours any later viewings, solidifying the viewers' sympathy towards Beast.

That said, I still can't transcend my distaste for the fantasy convention that female humans can fall in love with male beings that are physically monstrous/alien. All progressive ideals have been leeched from the trope due to it nearly always being a female human and a male watchathing, so that it seems more like male wish fulfilment than anything else. The trope can still be enjoyable in the hands of a good writer, but it is not subversive or inspiring.

Beauty and the Beast plays that aspect entirely straight: Belle is beautiful and human and learns to love Beast despite his monstrous exterior and initial harshness, and in doing so, civilizes him. The villagers describing Belle as "funny" might be an attempt to make her seem at least a little more level with Beast when it comes to overall strangeness (or maybe just to show that the village sucks). However, it's not unheard of for stories like this to add some quirk to the female human to make it more plausible that she'd fall for a male whatchathing-- it doesn't really change the trope.

It's also because of this that Gaston can be both a subversion and a conventional character. On one hand, he's "handsome" while the Beast is "ugly", and so it's a subversion of older stories and epics in which the heroes and heroines were equally beautiful, something which Disney does with gusto even today.

And yet, in the modern era, male beauty is treated with suspicion and scorn, with the female lead often ending up with the grubby guy instead. Male vanity, too, is treated with more derision than female vanity, without the related contradiction that we expect women to care about looks anyway. Though Beauty and the Beast was made twenty years ago, this sort of backlash was already in full swing then, so in some ways it's entirely unsurprising that the more conventionally handsome male lead is the villain, and is exaggeratedly concerned about his looks.

On top of that, Gaston isn't really interchangeable with a Disney Prince in terms of his looks. There's a comical quality to his design, and he seems to veer slightly more towards men's image of their ideal body, rather than what is attractive to female viewers, although as with all things, viewers vary in their response, and some female fans do find Gaston as handsome as the other characters do. In short, the role-reversal that Disney is trying still manages to hold up, but it's not as cut-and-dried as it first appears.

(Incidentally, whenever I hear talk about "manliness", I think of someone like Gaston, whether or not that was the person's intention.)

Perhaps in relation to this, I've seen many nerds decrying the ending where the Beast transforms into a human. Human Beast is apparently "ugly" and it undermines the message of the film to have him transform—if the writers were really liberal-minded, they would have kept him a Beast, and have Belle go all the way with him! However, when genre fiction is already full of romances like this where the male being never changes his form, I'd rather have them both end up as humans at least intended to be attractive, rather than continuing this overdone theme. Also, I don't think the prince is that bad-looking myself. Nicer than Gaston, certainly.

Besides, it's abundantly clear that being the Beast sucks. Despite the shaggy badassery, he lives in the middle of nowhere in a decaying castle and can't really go anywhere or do anything. The writers have also suggested that he was becoming more and more bestial as time went on, degenerating mentally.  That's even without factoring in the poor furniture-servants whose lives must suck doubly.

About the only return to form that I did mourn was that of the castle—all those wonderful lions and gargoyles were replaced by cherubs and pastels; yuck. I've felt that way since I first saw the movie in 1991, and haven't changed my feeling. I recognize the symbolism involved, but it's not so hard to believe that the castle could have had that shape before the transformation, and just gotten dirtier and more decayed. After all, the interior was always luxurious enough.

My issues with some of the themes prevent me from considering Beauty and the Beast my favourite animated film, and besides that, the pacing is a little too fast. I'm glad the extra "Human Again" number was left out of the theatrical cut, because it corrupts that same pacing, but my impression of the film was still that it was so fast. At least it doesn't have that huge gaping timeskip in the middle that The Lion King does.

There are also a few possible logistical errors which have been brought up before: was the prince really only eleven years old when cursed, as anyone who does the math can figure out? Then where are his parents, and who’s in that torn picture? Were there really enough servants to be every object in the castle, including every dish, and what happened to the actual objects? Also, a French cast with largely American accents...again.

Still, Beauty and the Beast is a great movie to have, and I was glad to watch it again. If the promised theatrical re-release happens, I'll be there with bells on.

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