I have three younger sisters. They are each beautiful, amazing, unique young women by whom I am honored to be loved. Because I have three sisters, Disney “princess” movies were a big part of my childhood. I’ve seen Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin more times than I could ever count. I’ve seen those movies so many times I sometimes find myself unconsciously humming songs from their soundtracks, and I frequently quote them out of context and without explanation. If you don’t believe me, ask the dishes.
Growing up, my sisters each claimed one of these princesses as their own, and the other two sisters were not allowed to “be” this princess when they played pretend. Sister #1 was always Cinderella, sister #2 was Aurora (which is how she would want me to refer to the princess in Sleeping Beauty), and sister #3 was Jasmine. Interestingly, my three sisters each have a different color hair (red, blonde, brunette), but none of them chose the Disney princess whom she most resembles. Something else motivated their choices, and I’ve always been curious what it was. I’ve long believed that our choices of favorite films revealed something about us, and so I’ve “studied” the Disney princess movies trying to determine what each of my sisters was responding to in the favorite characters that they chose.
(My sisters are likely reading this, and so I want to allay any fears they might have that I am about to psychoanalyze them in a very public place. I am not gong to do that, girls. Do not worry.)
I would like to take the opportunity provided for me by Disney’s re-release of Beauty and the Beast in 3D to consider the character of Belle and her thematic journey from the start of the film to its end credits. Movies work as story telling devices because they move us. We identify with and respond to the characters on the screen, because they are motivated by the same things which motivate us in our day to day lives.
Beauty and the Beast was originally released twenty years ago on the heels of Disney’s hugely successful The Little Mermaid and moderately successful The Rescuers Down Under. Beauty and the Beast was much more like Mermaid though in that it was styled after broadway musicals and told a story already well known by the general public. Beauty and the Beast was enormously successful, garnering popular and critical acclaim not experienced by any Disney film since Mary Poppins, becoming the first animated feature to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. (It lost to Silence of the Lambs, an admittedly different kind of film.) It is still regarded by many as the best animated film of all time.
I think Belle is an interesting princess, because when the story begins, she is not a princess, and she says, or rather sings, that she doesn’t want to be one. After the film’s prologue in which we learn the details of the Beast’s curse, Belle meanders through her local village singing about how mundane and boring it is, and the townspeople sing about how odd she is. She is eager to tell someone about the adventures she goes on in her imagination as she reads, but the townspeople are uninterested. She wants adventure in far off places and not a simple life. Gaston, whom we are told is a “tall, dark, handsome, prince,” wants to marry Belle, but Belle is completely uninterested, and when Gaston proposes later, she expels him from her house.
Every good story, some say, features a character who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it. In great stories, some say, the character may explicitly want one thing, but she or he really needs something else, something intangible, some kind of character growth, and the character is most often unaware of this need. Belle wants adventure, sure, but right in the middle of this song about how boring she finds this people and this town, she breaks into an interlude about how her favorite part of her favorite book (which is full of all the adventure she wants) is where the heroine meets Prince Charming. Similarly, after Gaston’s proposal, Belle sings again about how she wants “adventure in the great, wide somewhere,” but then more quietly confesses that “for once it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they’ve got planned.” It seems Belle wants adventure, but what she needs is to be loved and to allow herself to love in return.
In a good story, a character’s journey then is one of giving up what they want and then finding what they need, so Belle is soon faced with the dilemma of giving up her chance for adventure to save the one person in her life who truly loves her and whom she loves, her father. Belle allows herself to be held captive forever in the Beast’s castle so that her father may be free. Of course, in her captivity she finds the love she truly needs in the Beast, and while it may take her another two acts to understand this, she does eventually realize she has found her heart’s deepest desire. Finally, because this is essentially a romantic comedy and not a tragedy, in the end in her marriage to the transformed prince (a thing which she considered inconceivable when the story began), she receives both the adventure she wants and the love she really needs.
Beauty and the Beast then is a story about how familial love is better than unbridled, independent, freedom. This is a pretty standard value system for a Disney film. They are frequently about the value of family and community above all else. Belle makes Beauty and the Beast different though. Unlike Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, Belle doesn’t have to learn that she is remarkable. Belle knows she is special, that she is made for something “more than this provincial life.” Cinderella and Snow White are more like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, people who need to be awakened to their worth for the community. Belle is more like William Wallace in Braveheart or Juno in Juno, people who need to figure out how to fit their specialness into their community.
The constant though, in both kinds of princess stories, is the preeminence of community as exemplified by family and kingdom. Being part of and involved in the whole matters, and this, I argue, is the ultimate message of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Yes, there is a very strong theme concerning what is beautiful and how people need to see beauty in unlikely places, how people need to look past physical ugliness to the beauty contained inside. But the ugliness that Belle has to learn to look past isn’t just the physical ugliness of the beast. It’s the ugliness that she perceives in living an ordinary life. She has to learn to see the beauty of love even if it means surrendering some of her independence and sense of adventure. Belle has to learn to see the beauty of being surrendered to some sort of loving community.
This is a theologically rich message. If anyone was ever remarkable and didn’t fit in to normal life, it was God-incarnate, Christ. Jesus surrendered his will for the sake of the world just as Belle had to surrender her will for the sake of her father, the beast, and all his household. Jesus called us, his followers, to do the same for each other, the Church, and the world. Like Belle, we have to learn to see past ourselves to the beauty in loving and being loved by others so that we may become whole persons.
And because I believe that life is essentially a romantic comedy, like Beauty and the Beast but with far less dancing flatware, in accepting what we need, I believe we will also receive what we want, a more wonderful adventure than we could have ever imagined for ourselves.