Below is the first draft of a script I am working on. I am posting here as evidence that I am not plagiarizing anyone. I don’t know if some popular YouTuber will beat me to the punch; if they do, this is meant to be evidence that I thought of this idea for a video essay before someone else posted one. This is basically just me being paranoid. Enjoy!
Back in the year 1991, Disney released an animated feature film. After the success of its precessesor, The Little Mermaid, a fair amount of expectation was riding on this film. The movie had a notoriously, troubled production. Most animated feature films had a 4 year production cycle; this movie only had two years. One of the lead songwriters had just been diagnosed with AIDS and was splitting his time between this and another project at Disney. This movie was made on a shoe-string budget and was based on a fairy tale that had been failed to make it past preproduction for many decades.
You’ve read the title of this video. You already know what movie I am talking about.
Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s 30th animated feature film and has gone on to be a landmark movie in many ways. Despite the production’s limitations, the animations turned out to be some of Disney’s most beautiful and nuanced. The movie was so good that it was nominated for Best Film in that year’s Oscars — and this was back when there were only 5 nominees in total. (It was up against movies like JFK and The Silence of the Lambs, by the way). Beauty and the Beast is still regarded as Disney’s best movie and arguably is the greatest animated movie of all time.
So when it came time for Disney to cash in on its live-action remake of classic movies, there was a lot of baggage that would come along with adapting a movie that is already pretty dang-near perfect. There were a lot of ways that they could have made a live-action remake that would have been great. There were a lot of ways that they could have made this movie bad, but worthwhile. Instead, the folks at Disney chose another route: one where the movie’s existence is wholly unjustified and is little more than a cash-grab.
I was shocked to see how positively people reacted to this movie. The critics were mostly favorable toward it and audiences seemed to love it. It has earned over 500 million (!) dollars from American cinemas and is now one of the most successful movies of all time. As the movie got more and more popular I grew to resent it more and more and I just have to talk about this or I may very well explode! I feel like the kid in the crowd shouting that the emperor is naked, except no one seems to believe me.
THE OVERALL PROBLEM
It is really hard to explain in simple terms what exactly went so wrong with the live-action BATB. Leaving that theater reminded me a lot of how I felt when I left the theater after watching The Last Airbender. Now, to be clear, BATB is nowhere near as egregious an offender as The Last Airbender, but the problems both movies had in adaptation are of the same kind. In the broadest of strokes, both movies seem like faithful adaptations of their original animated counterparts. Both hit many of the same plot points and both look like the same sort of story. But, there are all these tiny changes that seem harmless but amount to catastrophic consequences when taken as part of the whole. By the end of this video, hopefully you will understand where I am coming from.
This movie has a lot of things wrong with it. On the production side of things, the movie is rife with bad acting, bad singing, bad animation, and overall bad directing. But, this is not the primary culprit for what makes this movie so offensive.The main problem with BATB2017 is that it tries to infuse modern sensibilities into a distinctly not-modern story without considering the consequences of these changes. While it makes me feel old to say it, Beauty and the Beast is not a modern film. It is a product of the 80s/early 90s. As such, it is not mired with the cynicism and desire for realism that constitutes most movies in a post-9/11 world. We’ll go into each of these things in detail, but basically these tenants of modern movies do not work within the context of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:
- The desire for our main characters to be flawed
- The feeling that everything needs an explanation or justification
- Writing villains who are nuanced or morally grey
- Making your lead a “strong” female character
Since that last one requires a lot of explanation and has to do directly with our protagonist, that seems like the best place to start.
A BEAUTY, BUT A FUNNY GIRL
In order to understand both what made Belle work in the animated film and what ruined that character in live-action, we need to understand what exactly makes a female character “strong”. First, let’s take a look at the bad way of making strong female characters.
Sometimes writers will make a female character who has a lot of tomboyish qualities. Maybe she likes sports, or maybe she rides a motorcycle (megan fox). Whatever her exterior is, her interior is just a frail female stereotype whose role is little more than the love interest/prize to be won. To quote an article from The Mary Sue, this fake version of a strong female character is
“… A character whose exterior qualities and achievements are designed to stand in contrast to her inner feminine vulnerability. She is given value because of her masculine traits; she is kept from being the protagonist because of her feminine traits.” –Bijhan Valibeiji, form The Mary Sue
One of the most famous examples of this problematic female character would be Trinity from The Matrix Trilogy. Sure, she may seem like a strong woman because she kicks all sorts of butt and can fly a helicopter, but her character only exists to fall in love with Neo. Outside of the role, she has nothing. She has no hopes or dreams, no purpose or impact on the plot. She is just the girlfriend.
For a similar example from the Disney Princesses, we have Princess Jasmine. Sure, she is strong-headed and naturally athletic, but in the end she was just a damsel in distress.
I feel I should point out at this time that not every female character has to be strong. It is okay if you like any of the characters mentioned above as an example. All I am doing right now is setting clear definitions to delineate between strong female character and those who are not.
Moving on to the next deceptive attempts at a “strong: female character. These are characters who are basically written as males but then cast as female. Their character traits and arc are extremely masculine — usually revolving around revenge. If a man was cast into their role, the character would feel like a male stereotype. These are you Sarah Connors from T2, Beatrice Kiddo from Kill Bill, or jhjhadsksadf.
Unlike the trope used before, this one is far less problematic. At least these men but with boobs characters are characters and have an influence on the plot. The problem here is that their strength is defined by masculinity. It is not the fact that they are women that makes them strong, but that they are women in traditionally male roles that makes them strong. It is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.
So, what makes a strong female character strong? Well, basically they just have to be a strong character. That’s it. As long as they have a distinct personality and their hopes and dreams aren’t entirely devoted to finding true love, then there are probably a strong character. (Lilo and Stitch Sister, Mulan, etc)
There is actually a perfect example of a strong female character ina recent Disney movie. (Frozen) No, not that one. (Moana) Yup, that one. Moana is, like most modern Disney Princesses, kind, adventurous, and fairly stubborn. Her motivations are to serve her people in the best way she can. She does not leave for adventure because she wants it, but because she believes wholeheartedly that it is both her duty to the ocean and to her people to go out and have Maui restore the heart of Te Fiti. This love of her people drives her to risk her life crossing a dangerous ocean, follow a demi-god into hell, and even challenge Te Ka head on.
But, what makes Moana such a strong character is that her compassion is what saves the day. The ocean chose her to take the heart back to Te Fiti because she was the only person who could see past the monstrous façade of Te Ka and recognize Te Fiti’s corrupted form. Combined with her courage, she walks calmly toward the rampaging deity in what is one of my favorite moments in any animated movie ever. That is how you make a powerful female character.
This now begs the question: was Belle a strong character in the 1991 animated feature?
I would argue that, yes, yes she absolutely was a strong character. She is fiercely independent, kind-hearted, and very intelligent. She dream is to find adventure like the ones she has read about. She acts cordially when the situation calls for it, but is unafraid to say no. Above all else, she is fair. She won’t start a fight but she will stand up for herself. The only thing about her story that is “problematic” is that all her dreams come true because she found true love. Other than that, she is one of the strongest of the Disney Princesses.
BELLE 2.0: FITTING A SQUARE PEG INTO A ROUND HOLE
When Emma Watson took on the role of Belle, she had a vision of the character becoming an example of modern feminism. This meant that Belle now had to shed off any characteristics that a traditionally associated with women (caring, patient, etc.) and now must be actively pushing against the societal constraints put upon her by the tiny town in which she lives. This is exemplified in the scene where she builds a washing machine only to have the townsfolk destroy it.
This change comes at a cost, however. Belle’s attitude changes from kind and carefree to bitter and downtrodden. We’ll get into this more when I talk about the problems with Gaston, but for now just remember that the way she interacts with the people of her village makes her come off as stuck-up and snobby. Sure, the opening number is basically just Belle complaining about how basic her town is, but this doesn’t mean she has to hold such contempt toward them or them toward her. This change in behavior may make Belle a more “believable” character, but does not fit in with the events of the rest of the movie, and often contradicts things.
The central themes of this story is that Belle’s powerful character and example inspires the Beast to change his attitude to be worthy of her affection. This is not Pride and Prejudice, wherein both main characters have to overcome their baggage in order to realize they love each other. This is a story about how one person can lift another to their level. In the animated film, from the very beginning of their relationship, the Beast is constantly impressed by Belle’s actions and personality. Now, neither he nor she do anything to change each other; it just sort of happens.
So, what? Does this mean Belle has to be an perfect saint? No, not at all. As stated before, one of the core aspects of Belle’s personality is that she is fair. She responds to other’s actions in kind. If Gaston is being insulting, she is insulting (Proposal Scene). If the Beast yells at her, she yells at him. But, this also means that she is grateful when she should be and is. Compare that scene to the same scene in the live-action movie. It plays out exactly the same, word for word, except she does not thank him at the end. She just leaves all pissy and upset.
New Belle is almost antagonistic in her attitude. Here is the scene where the Beast asks Belle to dinner on her first night of being a prisoner. Understandably, she is distraught and uninterested in having dinner with him (especially considering he ordered her to join him). She says no and refuses him. He persists, but even when feigning gentlemanliness she continues to say no. After several failed attempts he finally loses his temper and this happens:
Now, let’s look at that same scene but in the live-action version. Upon the first time he asks her to dinner she immediately responds by insulting him. [Are you insane?] This, in turn, immediately sets off the Beast into his outrage. So, we went from a Belle who responds to Beast rudeness with her own to one who antagonizes her captor. I guess that makes her “stronger”, but it ruins the character when she turns out to be just as angry a person as the Beast.
It is not just the dinner invitation scene that shows how Belle lost her kindness. In the animated film, the first scene that shows exactly how selfless and caring a character Belle is is when she makes the deal to trade places with her father. As the scene originally plays out, she realizes that her father is not doing well in his cell. When she begs the Beast to let him go, she offers herself as a trade knowing that she would fare better in a cell. The Beast immediately is amazed at her nobility and recognizes her as potentially being the one to break the spell. So, he makes a bargain, that if Belle is to take her father’s place she must stay there forever. Despite the awful trade she made, it seems she had every intent of keeping their agreement. Even when faced with an unfair situation, Belle values the honor of their deal over her own dreams and freedom.
Yeah, new Belle doesn’t have any strengths like that. The very moment she makes the offer to take her father’s place she intends to escape. You know, because she is honorable or something? Again, maybe this is just me, but I do not think that Belle 2.0 is a stronger character. Original Belle was willing to sacrifice everything to save her father. New Belle uses subterfuge to try and have her cake and eat it too. Our hero?
With Belle losing so much of what made her special and Beast not actively trying to break the curse, it is a small wonder that they fall in love at the end. Even if they did, it is not like they improved for each other. Sure, they offer small graces to one another, but Belle and Beast have no character arcs anymore. Neither changes and learns to be more patient, they just bond over books. Honestly, Gaston puts the more earnest and sincere effort into wooing Belle than the Beast ever does. Speaking of…