Iconic Scenes: Beauty and the Beast’s “A Tale As Old As Time”

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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was released in 1991 and was the first Disney film to incorporate digital animation. Since its release, Belle has become an integral part of Disney’s Princess brand, and the film has been adapted into a stage musical and as a live action film, due out later this year. The film is typical for Disney’s fairy tale adaptations with less grimm and gore, more singing, dancing and animal sidekicks. Perhaps its most famous scene is when, midway through Belle’s captivity, an isolated Belle and Beast have a ball for two and dance in the manor’s ballroom, cleaned up for the occasion. WWAC writers Stephanie, Emma, Romona and Claire discuss the scene and its lasting impact.

When did you first see Beauty and the Beast? What were your initial reactions to Belle? The Beast?

Stephanie Tran: Beauty and the Beast came out on VHS in 1992, which is when I assume I saw it (my parents bought a whole stack of Disney movies on VHS one Christmas when I was young), but I remained enamored with the story and the movie for years afterward. I really identified with Belle’s bookishness and her feeling that she was an outsider in her town. I moved towns and schools at eight and resisted the change, so I didn’t make friends easily. I was also starting to understand what it mean to be one of the few Asian kids in a nearly all-white town. We had the movie soundtrack too so I had nearly the whole thing memorized. The Beast scared me in his early scenes, as well as his reaction to finding Belle in the West Wing. I think I was especially scared of how uncontrollable he seemed to be, how monstrous. When he was arguing with Belle he seemed much more easy to reason with. To this day I’m very wary of any men with tempers.

Emma Houxbois: In 1991, wow, I would have been seven. I’m not entirely sure I saw it in the theater, but I definitely saw it in the first year of release. I know that I fell in love with Belle pretty much right away. Bookish French girl yearning for adventure? She was practically me. Probably the Disney princess I related to the most until Merida. Beast definitely spooked me, and I don’t think I ever really warmed up to him.

Romona Williams: I first saw this at a theater with my mom when I was eight. I was already a bookworm and it gave me a kick that Belle loved books, too. I also liked how over her small town she was, and that she had no interest in the local alpha male. I have no recollection of what I thought of The Beast outside of him being an improvement on the look of that TV show.

Claire Napier: I don’t know. I don’t remember the first time, how strange. I was five. I loved her, obviously, for much the same reason as Emma. I’m not French, but I am a book-loving adventure-inclined face-to-face unfriendly (“quiet”) brown-eyed brunette, which seemed a very important “same!” at the time. The Beast was scary–not the scariest thing in the film (lost in the forest, aah!), or the most sinister form of scare (MURDER-GASTON, AAH)–but very plush; his mane looks so comfortable! Most of all I regretted his sad human form, and Belle being stuck with it all of a sudden. Bummer.

Beast in his "sad human" form

Beast in his “sad human” form.

We all know this scene; it’s a classic: In hopes of wooing Belle, the Beast is trying to be kind. Throughout a montage of humanizing moments where both Belle and the viewer grow more comfortable with the Beast, he treats her gently and thoughtfully. The crowning moment comes when Belle and the Beast, both dressed in formal finest, cap off a romantic candlelit dinner with a sweeping, gorgeous dance, set to “Beauty and the Beast,” the title song from an excellent soundtrack. What was your initial reaction to this scene? How effective was the music, choreography, and direction on visceral sensation or experience?

Stephanie Tran: I’ve always loved dancing and music (I started dance classes around five), so the waltzing was incredibly romantic to me, especially the closeness of it (Fun fact: When it was first introduced, the waltz was seen as incredibly scandalous, because it required the male partner to hold the female partner so closely to him as to allow the quick turns). The song “Beauty and the Beast” remains one of my favorite romance songs. It just feels so relaxing yet somehow a bit exciting. As a child, I was very attracted to this comfortable sort of relationship. I also loved the ballroom. In fact, I’m pretty sure I love the whole Baroque aesthetic because of this movie. My sister and I had the chance to eat lunch in “Belle’s Castle” at Disney World, and we almost decided to eat in the ballroom complete with ceiling painting and falling snow. Ultimately, we ended up eating in the “gallery,” which was never shown in the movie, but my inner child was definitely awestruck upon entering the ballroom. As a foodie though I always did wonder why they didn’t even finish dinner before dancing!

Emma: It was breathtaking, definitely the first time I’d ever seen 3D animation, which was a big part of it for sure, but the costumes and everything gave it the sense of having a massive scope and scale for a film that, for the most part, is very small and intimate. Bearing in mind that I was super young and socialized as male when my initial impressions were formed, I was pretty detached from the princess fantasy, especially the heteronormative romance part.

Romona: On one hand, I thought Belle’s dress was beautiful. The color of honey. But even as a kid, I found something very empty about this scene. How did they come to decide to hold a two-person dance? They were dressed in matching outfits, The Beast had a bow in his hair, Mrs. Potts had a song rehearsed, and ready to go; there was some amount of planning involved. It seemed like an activity two extremely bored, isolated people would come up with. Add to this the fact that Belle is trapped there, and it’s actually a fairly disturbing scene. I doubt my opinion was this thought out at the time, but I remember being uncomfortable watching it.

Claire Napier: 😌😌😌😌😌😌😌 Dreamy. The word “swoop” (or indeed “sweep”) is very relevant here–the use of 3D animation allows both the camera and the room to move in an inimitable way: to act like the stomach of somebody falling in love and/or the centre of gravity of somebody dancing an effortless waltz. The room and the scene feel enormous; the lighting and outfit colour choices make it so warm; the song (and the fact that it’s being performed by their affectionate, respectful, and wholly approving local community) tell us it’s right and wonderful. This scene, in itself, is a generous creation, a wholly positive cinematic experience designed to both communicate (for the characters) and engender (for the viewer) shy and sparkling awe. The whip of her petticoats past the camera lives in my heart. That’s certainly down to the mixture of the drawn skirts with the smooth track of the simulated camera crane. The combination of 3D and 2D animation, when well-judged as here, is something that animation studios can really bank on. Stand Alone Complex‘ Tachikomas, and other vehicles, are a similarly enlivening example.

Watch those petticoats.

Watch those petticoats.

Let’s break down the character construction a little further. How do you feel about Mrs. Potts’ narration and position of observer? How about the Beast as a gentleman? Or the country girl Belle as a genteel lady?

Stephanie: I remember really thinking that Beast was a spoiled immature man-baby and never understood how the bossy Cogsworth and maternal Mrs. Potts couldn’t control him. My mom explained that as servants they weren’t really supposed to raise the Beast and that since he had no family and was royalty he had sort of grown up that way. This made me feel like Mrs. Potts narrating this scene was kind of strange–she hadn’t narrated or overseen the story up to this point. I also thought it was a bit quick for the Beast to mature, though perhaps that may be due to me being rather judgemental as a whole. As for Belle as a genteel lady, I guess I always sort of assumed that she wasn’t raised as a country girl and did indeed have some sophistication even if the story never hinted that she did (in some of the early storyboards Belle indeed was a poor gentlewoman). Maybe it was how she talked and interacted with the townspeople and the objects in the castle, but I always assumed that she was learned in some way.

Romona: I have very little sympathy for The Beast. He was cruel to the disguised sorceress, which brought the curse on him and the entire castle (even children). It’s implied that he hasn’t evolved for the better as the years have gone by, as he is initially cruel to Belle and her father (not to mention the servants). But through Belle’s influence, he reconnects with his humanity and becomes a better person. What does Belle get from their relationship? She falls into something that resembles love, but the circumstances are highly suspect. Meanwhile, if I were Mrs. Potts, I would be pissed at The Beast. There she was, working at this castle for her prick boss, and then the guy is so rude to a sorceress that her son is cursed into the form of a chipped tea cup? That’s some bullshit. She is either very forgiving or she is pretending to care about The Beast. Because, without her efforts, it would have been even less likely for Belle to fall in love with him, and the curse might not have been lifted.

Claire Napier: I fuckin’ love it all, man. People in places and positions that don’t suit them, finding out how to respect themselves and emerge from self-involvement. The nobleman thing is something I take for granted, culturally; I spent a lot of childhood weekends in National Trust houses and National Heritage ruins, so the class distinctions and various abilities or inabilities to flourish within those several levels of classed strata didn’t phase me, or even seem like … something I noticed. Some people were (it was clearly an “olden days” situation) born into mansions, some people were servants, and some people were known as commoners. Marriages cause these facts to mutate. “Some people are unable to cope with their position; many do better once shaken up” is an element of so many stories I read before, during and after my greatest period of Beauty & the Beast fandom I can’t even suggest an example.

If the Beast is waiting for his 21st birthday and has been cursed for ten years, he was rude to a stranger when he was almost eleven–presumably already an orphan, or did the Beast bury his parents like a cat buries a turd? An eleven year old orphan, even a very economically comfortable one, being mean to an old lady bothering him with flowers while it’s cold is not somebody I can blame for said fake old lady’s decision to curse an entire household. Sure, she was teaching him a lesson, sort of, but it was a really stupid lesson. The Beast grows up terrible; I don’t mind at all that he learns about it and embraces both humility and discipline. A traumatised twenty-year-old discovering that there are elements of worth in him is a lovely backstory for a straight-backed, weightless dance.

meetingthebeast

OMG A BEAST!

This scene was notable at the time for its use of digital technology, necessary to get the sweeping, grand angles and shots. Did the use of digital animation instead of traditional hand-drawn change the feel of the art?

Stephanie: I personally didn’t feel like it did, but then Beauty and the Beast was one of the first animated movies that I watched as a child, so I didn’t have much to compare it too. It certainly made the scene, which could have easily been quite boring, more dynamic and exciting.

Emma: I vividly remember it. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, in terms of how it was different from traditional animation when I first saw it, but it left a massive impression. I can actually, weirdly enough, remember watching the 1992 Oscars and seeing the segment that broke down the technology behind it. It was a hugely memorable year for the Oscars from the protests over the perceived transmisogyny of The Silence of The Lambs to wins for Beauty and the Beast, Thelma & Louise, Terminator 2, and JFK.

Romona: Yes, the digitized portions altered the feel of the scene. Maybe not necessarily for better or worse, but this scene has a different texture than other classic Disney scenes.

Claire Napier: I already answered this. I’m sorry…

Beauty and the Beast is often criticized for romanticizing toxic, abusive relationships. In what way does this scene uphold or refute those criticisms? Is it romantic or worrying? Can it be both?

Stephanie: I’ve actually did a little bit of research into how fairy tales socialize young girls, but I still don’t know how I feel about Beauty and the Beast as a toxic relationship. I have such a soft spot for it in my heart, but I also can’t deny that belief in the power of transformative love is very problematic and frequently plays a role in real life abusive relationships. I think perhaps part of the reason Beauty and the Beast works is because it’s very clear that Belle doesn’t take any shit from the Beast (even though yes, I did fear for her life when the Beast found her in the West Wing). As I said above, I also consider the Beast’s issues to stem from his temper and immaturity, as well as a certain sense of entitlement. The first two sins I could possibly forgive or see as something that is changeable, but I am a little leery of the entitlement now that I’m older and understand male privilege a bit more.

Emma: It’s weird, being a transgender lesbian I feel like I can be a lot more flippant or dismissive of whatever the redeeming aspects might be than straight, bisexual, or pansexual women might be. I look at Beauty and the Beast and I just see Belle as being like a reward for Beast learning some basic human decency. I can’t see past that, but I also, you know, don’t have to navigate toxic masculinity in my relationships in that way. Masculinity in general is something that I unlearned and could walk away from free and clear. I can just wear a t-shirt that says “Dump Him” seven days a week and not ever have to examine that impulse, so I don’t know how well placed I am to give that question the answer it deserves.

Romona: This scene has a touch of The Shining to it. These two people are secluded, with no structure whatsoever to their daily lives, combined with supernatural pressure to fall in love. They are groomed into an ideal of a couple at a ball, and then they dance. I buy that they are enjoying themselves and appreciate each other, but what choice do they really have? She is his last chance at breaking the curse (as well as saving several lives), and she has to make the best of a bad situation. It’s like when you had to go to a grown-up event when you were a kid and you’d come up with some game to play with another kid that was there. Did you have fun, sure. But it’s hard to say how much fun it actually was, since your other choice was sitting still quietly.

Claire Napier: I understand how somebody in danger from a toxic or controlling relationship may find their confusion compounded by a viewing of this film. It’s not wrong to say “Belle breaks the Beast’s abusive authority through force of will, and is granted a nice partner as her reward for sticking with it.” Somebody who should, for their own safety, leave a partner, but who lives in hope that that partner will just get better will find sympathy for that hope here. But I don’t perceive this as the primary message of the film, and it’s not my personal read either. How this affects its general standing, I am unsure.

Belle doesn’t enter a relationship with a partner who she believes will love or respect her. She agrees to a domestic deal with a beast. Eyes wide open thing, right? Gaston is trying to engage her in a “romance,” and she both rejects him continuously through her own agency and escapes him altogether with community help (and high roofs). The Beast, initially, is being a stroppy asshole and using his power unreasonably, which Belle comprehends. In acting as she pleases, and how she believes to be correct within her unfortunate circumstance, Belle sets an example for personal deportment, and Beast is humiliated into trying to catch up (See also: Rochester). Once he’s managed to become reasonable, and is acting like a real adult human, they reevaluate their relationship, and once both he’s chosen not to require that she stay and she has chosen to leave him, they reevaluate it again. Sure, it’s high-stakes adrenaline all over, sure it’s melodramatic and less than ideal for a real life partnership foundation. But I don’t think it’s interesting (or kind) at all to dismiss it as glibly as is often seen.

A happy ending?

A happy ending?

Disney is often criticized for its portrayal of impossibly perfect princesses and fairy-tale endings. Belle is often claimed as a more realistic woman, celebrated for her brains as much as for her beauty, yet she’s usually seen in merchandise only in her yellow “Princess” gown. Did Disney deliver a winning, independent heroine in Belle? If they did, is the iconic nature of this scene, that gown, this dance and song, harmful to her?

Stephanie: I grew up on the Disney Renaissance princesses so when contrasted with Ariel, Pocahontas, Jasmine and eventually Mulan, Belle didn’t seem all that groundbreaking to me, but neither did she seem like a throwback. Personally, I always loved Belle’s blue dress and apron and always wanted to see more of her “casual” green and pink dresses that she wore around the castle. I guess as a kid I understood that those were her “dress-up clothes” that she, like any other woman or girl, would bring out only for special occasions and that it was a sort of heightened version of her everyday outfits. As for Belle’s personality, I already said that I identified with her bookishness, as well as her feeling an outsider, but I also liked her sacrifice and admired her gentleness and kindness. I felt that all those things made up Belle and that her kindness and wisdom was shown in her having the patience to work with the Beast and move past her initial judgement of him.

Emma: Looking back now as an adult woman who’s read Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, I’m going to say no, I don’t think it’s harmful. With Austen in particular, her work is deeply informed by a tension between craving self determination and a mythic romance. Pride and Prejudice is critical, scathing even, of the contemporary institution of marriage while also indulging in the fantasy of Mr. Darcy. I think you can see the outlines of an Austen heroine in Belle, or at least understand her as the product of women who came of age reading Austen, so I’m inclined to be generous and say that Belle represents an exploration of a very similar kind of tension. There’s also shades of Jane Eyre in how Belle excavates Beast’s past deeds and reconciles with them. Put simply, for the last 25 years Belle has been defined for me by Little Town and the awe I shared with her at Beast’s library, so no, I don’t think the dress has overwhelmed her character.

Romona: The dance itself falls comfortably into the narrative of the entire story. I don’t like the scene, but I also don’t have a high opinion of the movie. This particular scene does not make or break the story; the message would remain the same whether or not it was included. While I would like to see Disney toys with more wardrobe choices, the inclusion of this dress isn’t particularly harmful to the character. The character and plotline are flawed regardless.

Claire: As I recall, when the film was current, there was as much merchandising featuring the blue dress as there was the yellow. I know I had a doll who wore it, and my own version (which my mum sewed) for dressing up. It’s pretty boring to use only the yellow, if that’s what they do now, and I think it’s also fairly foolish to ignore the aspirational nature of the many scenes in which Belle wears the blue. Many, many little girls are out there thinking there must be more than this provincial life and rejoicing in the version of them who thinks that and deeply, vibrantly experiences those feelings of yearning is just as important, probably just as marketable, as the imaginary version of them who has achieved the dream. I mean, even the book ladder moment alone–it soars in spirit and it could surely soar in sales.

I do think it’s a shame to emphasise the yellow dress to Disney audiences who haven’t seen the film, because it’s much easier to underestimate a simpering ballgown wearer than it is a spunky girl in a “plucky common folk” pinafore. Thanks, society.

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The rock that drops on your head. WWAC Features & Opinions Ed. Find me at claire.napier@wwacomics.com

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