I don’t remember a Disney movie launching with as much controversy as this year’s live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. First it was Emma Watson, a well known advocate for women’s causes, taking fire for playing the role of Belle, one of a long line of Disney Princesses who fall for the charms of a man (the term “man” used loosely in this case). Then there were Christian groups advocating boycott of the film because of a brief moment hinting that the character of Lefou (Josh Gadd) was gay.
In the midst of the blowback resulting from that “gay moment” (which, for the record, was quick and innocent), social media blew up with a meme shaming the film’s detractors with a message to the effect of “Keep your gay characters out of my movie about bestiality and Stockholm Syndrome.” A first, I thought the meme was funny, but then I finally saw the film. The truth is, this Beauty and the Beast is about much more than the 1991 animated film leads us to believe. This version is bigger, smarter, more emotional, and- dare I say it- more human.
Much like mythology, Pagans often look to fairy tales for lore and wisdom. Like the ancient myths, fairy tales are often thought to express deeper truths that shine through the fantasy for those with eyes to see. Larger in scope than the original Disney movie, this Beauty takes more time to explore a number of these deeper truths.
- True Beauty is on the Inside. This is the obvious theme from Beauty and the Beast. The film stresses this not only through the medium of the plot, but also in its casting and costuming. Characters who are terrible people, like the Prince before he is transformed and our villain, Gaston, are good looking. The Prince, in particular, dolls himself up with excessive makeup, almost as if he is intentionally overcompensating for his inner ugliness, much in the same way Gaston does with his constant bragging.
- Feminism and anti-rape culture. Gaston’s efforts to gain Belle’s affection are steeped in misogyny and male privilege. “The only kids you should worry about are your own,” has mansplains to Belle after climbing onto her porch against her will, crowding her space, and making a baby bump gesture over his own belly. It even seems like Gaston’s entire character arc is essentially a large date rape scheme as he singlemindedly attempts to “work a yes out” and assumes his good looks entitle him to the woman of his choosing. Instead, Belle falls in love with the Beast, who eventually reveals himself to be intelligent and sensitive, exactly the type of man she was looking for. True, he kept her prisoner, but he does eventually free her and she voluntarily returns to save his life.
- A Call to be Authentic. Beyond the obvious “Beauty is only skin deep” theme, there is Pagan-friendly call to know thyself in all your parts. Prior to his transformation, the Prince heavily made up and lathered in wealth and privilege, an outward showing meant to cover his inner insecurity. We later get glimpse into a childhood in which his beloved mother died young and his father twisted him into a monster – a monster he eventually became. Belle, on the other hand, knows who she is and what she wants, and she pursues it. We learn that there is more to each of the Beast’s servants than the objects they turn into, but their human lives were clearly overshadowed by their employer. After all, “Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving.” Sometimes seeing yourself for all that you are and integrating your various parts is the key living a fully human life.
- The Rose in the Wasteland. This may be a bit of a stretch, but bare with me. In Arthurian legend, the King’s wounded relationship with Guinevere is often seen as a wounded relationship between the King and the Land. This wounded relationship transforms the lush kingdom into a barren wasteland, which only the Grail can heal. In Beauty and the Beast, the Prince is similarly out of relationship with his people and in love with his wealth and power. The curse of the enchantress, which comes as a consequence of mistreating a woman, creates a similar wasteland. The castle descends into darkness and disuse as its inhabitants slowly lose their humanity while the nearby village forgets their lives and their sovereign. Yet hope, in the form of a rose, exists and reuniting with a representative of the sacred feminine restores order to the land.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The live version questions what would happen if what was “gone” was humanity itself, and it explores that question more effectively, in my opinion, than the original animated movie. Through that loss, the cursed in the castle learn a new respect and love for their very existence. What they become literally, perhaps we could all become metaphorically – in the words of a song from the Broadway musical that was cut from thus film – human again.