Tale as old as time.
I haven’t seen Beauty and the Beast since I was about seven years old. I remember the general plot — a girl gets locked in this castle with a beast, a candelabra sings “Be Our Guest”, Belle falls in love with her captor, they all lived happily ever after, the end. I knew it was part of the growing Disney line of princess movies (and also my mom’s favorite Disney movie). I knew it had great songs, in usual Disney fashion. What I wasn’t prepared for was how relevant it still is today and why this remake came at the right time.
I watched an interview with Alan Menken, who wrote the music to Beauty and the Beast, as well as a number of my other favorite Disney movies. In the interview, it was mentioned that Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics, used Beauty and the Beast to comment on the social climate of the world at that time, particularly the AIDS crisis.
Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast premiered in the fall of 1991 — during a growing AIDS crisis that had already killed an entire generation of men in the 80’s and in 1992 became the number one cause of death for U.S. men ages 25–44. Howard Ashman died of AIDS only a few months before he got to see his timeless lyrics performed on screen.
Seeing the newly remade Beauty and the Beast with this information in my head completely changed every aspect of the movie that I knew. Belle and Prince Adam (The Beast) were both outsiders, ridiculed and threatened by others for being different or weird. They were seen as potentially dangerous. The crowds began rioting against them for their differences. The masses blindly trusted a brash leader who made false claims about Belle and Beast. The remake added even another layer in explaining how Belle’s mother died. The scene showing Belle’s mother on her deathbed dying from the plague was very reminiscent of the scenes that took place in many hospitals and homes around the nation in the 1980’s and 90’s — doctors dressed head to toe in protective gear, warning everyone to get away from the people infected with the sickness before it got them too, leaving them to die alone.
When director Bill Condon stated that Josh Gad’s character “Le Fou” would be Disney’s first gay character, it sparked outrage within masses of conservative audiences. It caused an Alabama drive-in movie theatre to refuse to play the movie. People rioted. Called the “gay agenda” dangerous. Before the movie even came out, people were protesting it and refusing to see it because of the gay character. How ironic that people are doing the very thing the movie comments on — judging a book by its cover. A character that was seen dancing with another man for less than five seconds on screen caused a national debate on whether Disney had stepped too far*. Meanwhile, the beast gets attacked by savage wolves, Maurice is left out to be eaten alive by said wolves, Gaston shoots Beast three times and then dies by falling off a bridge, but God forbid they show a gay man in a children’s movie.
The remake of Beauty and the Beast was a magnificent retelling of a classic tale. The additional layers that Disney, Howard Ashman, Emma Watson, and Bill Condon have added only helped make this movie even more beautiful.
The remake came out 25 years after the animated film, but nothing has changed, has it? Smart, strong, independent women are still seen as weird. We still judge people based off of how they look. We protest against people we know nothing about simply because they’re different from us.
In the movie, you can use a magic mirror to show you any person or thing you want to see. In the real world, Bill Condon used Beauty and the Beast to shine a very real mirror on our society.
*As a side note, being able to see a gay man in a Disney movie, even for just a moment, was empowering. Representation matters.