Beauty and the Beast is probably going to be a very enjoyable movie, but, much like the Cinderella adaption before it, I think there’s something inherently a bit flat to its themes – in a way that doesn’t make for much improvement over the original two-dimensional animated adaptations.
Ultimately Beauty and the Beast is a story about two people who both end up being beautiful on the outside and inside. The Beast is initially a handsome prince who doesn’t care the least bit about a beggar seeking shelter in his vast castle in exchange for a rose. This results in the beggar, actually an enchantress, cursing the prince with the form of a beast and – in what is particularly just a bit much – making all of the staff in his castle into living objects.
Enter Belle, as beautiful and seemingly the only bookworm in her small village. Books have expanded the way she sees the world – to the ridicule of the other townspeople. With Belle being the most beautiful woman around, local alpha male/narcissus Gaston still wants to marry her. Belle, however, pretty much wants nothing to do with him.
The Beast can’t become human again unless he loves another and that love is requited. Since the curse of being a beast is that it’s supposed to be unlikely that someone would be anything but afraid of him, he has to become a much better person than the guy who doesn’t care about someone who’s down on their luck. Even if he does though, there’s no guarantee that someone good enough to see past his looks would be around (and as such, being in a shallow world is sort of central to the story). The Beast’s despondent loneliness seems to give him a bit more depth than he had previously, even as he’s prone to lashing out at the world around him. I don’t know that he would have read all the books in his castle’s library if he retained his handsomeness, but as the Beast, books are one of the only things he has, and reading so much likely enriched his own imagination/ability to see more in the world.
So plot happens, and he falls in love with likeable, intelligent, self-sacrificing (and beautiful) Belle – to the point where he pretty much sacrifices his chance to have his human form again for her well being.
All the while Gaston becomes worse and worse, threatening to have Belle’s father relegated to an insane asylum if he doesn’t get her to marry him, and then, when he discovers that Belle loves the Beast yet could turn away from perfection itself, getting the whole village to show up to the Beast’s castle with torches and pitchforks.
Of course, the love between Belle and the Beast pretty much restores light to the only world that seems to matter: the castle, as lit up by two beautiful good people and the human-again staff.
It’s an okay story, for all its classicism-trappings: like happy servants whose lives revolve almost entirely around people who are, in the end, perfect nobility. But with its focus on two characters who, looks-wise, are essentially the popular ideals of beauty and handsomeness, thematically the story seems to be about being so good as to be worthy of beauty. While Belle already was beautiful, selfless and kind – and remains so throughout – the story’s plot is in that the prince comes around the long way.
He does so for one person, and then he’s sort of the ideal noble. Hurrah. What if Belle wasn’t classically beautiful, though? If she were not, if the title referred to her inner Beauty, wouldn’t that be more?
The live action adaptation of Cinderella’s has a title character quite similar to Belle. The biggest divergence is that she loses the one loving parent she has left. She then becomes an indentured servant hated by both her new stepmother and less conventionally beautiful stepsisters. They don’t hate her just because she’s beautiful and good (heck, Cinderella is classical goodness personified); they’re the kind of people who only are nice to people who can help them maintain being on a superior level. But when it comes to Cinderella‘s plot, one has to wonder if the prince would have fallen for he if she wasn’t essentially both the nicest and the prettiest woman around. As with Beauty and the Beast, there’s certainly lessons about ‘hollowness and/or misery loving the illusion of grandeur/superiority,’ along with Cinderella rising above hating her stepmother and stepsisters, but she and the prince of that story are essentially already perfect people inside and out.
I suppose being worthy of beauty is certainly better than being beautiful and hollow inside. I’m not a paradigm of uber non-shallowness, but the theme of people who are always conventionally, classically beautiful being the best of us is far more fanciful than any fairy tale. Someone who isn’t conventionally beautiful or handsome is not inherently at their best in a supporting role to someone who is. Beauty can be a bit of an albatross, for whatever privileges it may bestow. Who society considers beautiful and who it does not is as much about the crap you’re spoon fed, and luck, as anything of substance. And unlike in fairly tales, it fades.
Shrek, in many ways, is more interesting thematically because it turns Beauty and the Beast on its head by making the two main characters ultimately remain in love even while being their world’s opposite of beauty/handsomeness.
Shrek, an ogre, starts off hating most people because they judge him before they know him. Princess Fiona has dreamed about being rescued by a handsome prince who’ll break her curse (she turns into an ogre at night), but instead gets Shrek. Both fall in love, anyway, and along the way, there’s Donkey’s friendship and waffles. Its main characters remain flawed but decent enough people throughout the story. Fiona is also quite capable, being a martial artist who mostly needs rescuing because of fairy tale tropes. Though she has to become a deeper person to love Shrek (that royalty always has to do more work to be a better human in these stories seems like less one of its less classical ideals), Fiona and Shrek both ultimately see each other as being the best thing ever – as ogres. Though its sequels are increasingly a case of diminishing quality, it’s also interesting that they explore that it’s a struggle to be happily ever after.