An excellent series of three articles on how Disney is often the dominant version of classical tales, showing what the “originals” are like: “The Disney Effect”. I especially appreciate this because the author, Allie May, loves Disney, so this is not the Disney-bashing you might expect (“Oh woe, how The Evil Culture Industry has destroyed our beloved classic stories!”), but a fun and knowledgeable outlining of the elements of the source texts from which Disney wrote their films (or sometimes were just loosely inspired by).
Every self-respecting blogger who ever uses “fairy tales” as a tag has to have a post about the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie, don’t they? Uh, actually, no. There is no law in fairy land about liking or even watching Disney movies. You’re free to despise and/or shun them as much as you like, and I might even agree with you on many of your reasons.
However, with this movie – well, I did something I’ve never done before: I watched it twice in as many days. That’s right – that’s how much I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since they first announced it, and the excitement was building with every fresh piece of news about the casting, with every new image and trailer. I don’t think I’ve ever been as keen on seeing a film as I have this one (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, as I grew up more or less movie-and-TV-less; up until age 20 or so, I could literally count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in a theatre. But I’ve kind of been making up for it since).
And, I’m happy to say, the movie didn’t disappoint. One of the things about writing a review for this is that I don’t have to tread carefully to avoid giving spoilers – Disney filmed a giant spoiler for this twenty-six years ago; if you’ve seen the cartoon, you’ll know the movie. It is a live-action remake of the 1991 cartoon, and it is just that – a remake. The dialogue, the songs, even much of the setting, are identical to the older film. (This is in contrast to the 2015 live-action Cinderella, which, while referring to the 1950 cartoon in many ways, was a whole new movie in its own right.)
But it’s not entirely identical. With the dialogue, for example, while much of the cartoon’s spoken lines are present in the new movie, there are whole new sections or additions, and more than once iconic lines have been given to different characters or are moved to different scenes.
Others are left out altogether, and the effect is emblematic of some of the differences between the films. For example, one piece of dialogue, or rather scene, that is missing is one of my favourites from the cartoon: the Beast is leaning on the balcony railing, watching Belle with her horse. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone,” he says. “I want to do something for her. But what?” “Well,” replies Cogsworth the Clock, “there’s the usual: flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep…” (We love quoting that around our house when it comes to making suggestions for presents on a special occasion.)
As funny as that line is, it wouldn’t fit the new version of the Beast – or of Belle, for that matter. Interestingly enough, in the new movie it’s Belle who watches the Beast from the window of the castle, as he walks in the snowy courtyard with Philippe, her horse (and, if you watch carefully, the Beast is gesticulating, obviously having a quite intense discussion with the horse). The Beast is not as much of an ineptly bumbling boy who just has a bad temper and needs to be parented and coached on relationships by his faithful household retainers. Yes, there is a little of that still, but for the most part this is a much more grown-up version of the Beast – a man who has a dark side to his character that he needs to overcome.
But, at the same time, Belle isn’t just a sweet bookworm who is all goodness and light. The cartoon Belle is pure heroine – she has hardly any character arc, does not change from the beginning of the film to the end; the Beast is the one who does all the changing. In this film, Belle changes significantly. She starts the story as a farm girl (her own words), looking after her father, feeling a vague sense of dissatisfaction at her life in this “poor provincial town”; then she sacrifices herself for her father (literally pushing him out of the prison cell against his will), but makes several attempts to get away from the castle; she does not passively submit to her imprisonment. But then she learns that there might be more to the Beast and to the situation of the castle than she initially thought. As in the original story, her agency is what brings about the change in the Beast – but in herself, as well.
The relationship between her and the Beast grows slowly, as both of them discover they have more in common than they suspected. As in the cartoon, a major turning point is the Beast “giving her” his massive library – but here, he is not an illiterate boor who has never cracked the cover of one of his many volumes, but a nobleman with “an expensive education” who knows to quote Shakespeare, and leads her into his library to score a point (namely that there are so many better books to read than Belle’s favourite, Romeo and Juliet).
Belle grows up in this film. Here, she truly finds a partner who fulfils her wish “to have someone understand”. One particularly poignant scene is when the two talk about being the odd one out whose appearance in a room makes the laughter of the common people fall silent, and they begin to realise that in each other perhaps for the first time in their lives they have found a friend. The dance scene in the ballroom is as gorgeous as expected – but one additional piece of dialogue I particularly appreciated comes right afterwards: “Do you think you could be happy here?” asks the Beast (note: “could be“, not “are“), and her response: “Can anyone be happy if they aren’t free?” Beast, of course, being now a changed Beast, gets the message – it was the last tiny nudge he needed. (Take that, “Stockholm Syndrome” naysayers!) Belle goes from Hermione-in-a-dirndl to a woman who is a true equal to a changed prince, with all that implies.
But the greater depth and rounding of characters does not mean there is not plenty of laughter in the film. Here, much of the humour comes from the characters and visual humour. As in the cartoon, one exhilarating and utterly hilarious scene is the battle between the household objects and the villagers (look out for Chip the Teacup’s frisbee shooting of his stack of saucers, counting off his hits as he fires). The laugh-out-loud moments come thick and fast during much of the movie, all the way to the end.
There is much more to be said on this, but for now, just one more thing: the visuals are out-of-this-world mind-boggling. Utterly astonishing. The CG graphics are as real as they can possibly be; Lumiere, for one, is a genuine, live, walking and talking metal candelabra – how can he not be real? And the mise en scène is fantastic. The setting places the story firmly in 18th-century France: the prince (Beast) at the beginning is a ludicrously powdered and patched macaroni, and the interior of Belle’s castle bedroom, with its powder blue and silver gilt walls, looks just like the Amalienburg in Munich:
Incidentally, there is one tiny little verbal Easter egg that you have to be a hardcore fairy tale nerd to appreciate: Belle’s village is called Villeneuve (Newtown), which just happens to be the name of the author of the first version of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. Cute, eh?
I’ll leave it there for now. As I said, this movie was worth the months of anticipation – if you haven’t seen it yet, do. I’ll come along; after all, I’ve only seen it twice in the four days it’s been out…
Life, the Universe, and Beauty and the Beast. A Tale As Old As Time…
Has it really been two-and-a-half years since I finished my degree? Looks like it has. If you want to see what I’ve been up to in that time, you can check it out over at www.amovitam.ca.
However, in honour of the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie that’s about to hit the theatres, I think it’s time to start up again here at quill and qwerty. So, with an updated tagline and renewed vigour, we once again burst onto the stage of the blogosphere… Or rather, we quietly putter onto it, mumbling to ourselves as we turn the pages of an old volume of fairy tales.
Huh, what? Yes, quite. Just put the tea over there, will you? Thanks.
Aaaaand here she is, all posted in the uni library’s digital collection. Ta-DAH!!! (In case you’re wondering, a thesis is a “she”. At least in German that’s so, die These or die Masterarbeit. And German is obviously right.) So if you want to actually read through the 46 pages of “Once Upon a Movie Screen”, go to Athabasca University‘s Digital Thesis and Project Room, here: http://dtpr.lib.athabascau.ca/. In the search box on the left type in “Offenwanger”, and there she’ll be, all ready for you to download, peruse and be edified by. (You’ll probably have to click “agree” on some button somewhere that makes sure you’ve understood that this is academic research, and that you shouldn’t plagiarize it or any of the many other excellent pieces of research posted on that site. But you wouldn’t have done that anyway, right?)
And that, folks, concludes our broadcast here on quill and qwerty for the time being. If you would like to keep reading more ramblings, much randomness, and even the odd bit of research, come on over to www.amovitam.ca, where my stuffed bear Steve and I share our thoughts with the cyberworld. We’d love to see you there!
So I just sent in the final, completed, combined project to my university’s digital collection. And as promised, here’s the abstract:
Once Upon a Movie Screen: Four Favourite Fairy Tales and Their Disney Film Adaptations
“Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Frog Prince” belong to the list of perennially favourite fairy tales, important parts of the canon of Western folklore. The reason for their popularity is the underlying story of each tale, which is empowering for its audience. Viewers and readers are able to experience the plot of a story through identification with the protagonist. These fairy tale plots are inherently empowering through their base story of the transformation from a spell-bound or oppressed existence to radiant happiness, a transformation that is either experienced or effected by the young woman who is the protagonist of the story. Fairy tales are re-told in myriad ways and often change significantly in detail during this process; however, each of the versions retains the key plot elements while adapting to the time and place of its telling. The example of these four fairy tales shows that the Baroque and Romantic fairy tale collectors – Charles Perrault, Mme de Villeneuve, Mme de Beaumont and the Brothers Grimm – adapt their versions to their culture as much as the Disney company does with their films. The Disney variants of the fairy tales take their place alongside the older written versions as a form of modern American folklore, disseminating the tales to today’s audiences.
And there you have it – two-and-a half years of grad school, condensed into one paragraph. It’s been a good ride.
I’ll let you know when the paper is posted publicly in the uni library for reading.
We briefly emerge from the paper writing trenches to bring you this piquant quote from Max Lüthi:
Fairy tales are unreal but they are not untrue; they reflect essential developments and conditions of man’s existence.
(from Once upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970, p. 70)
There. That’s what it’s all about. Fairy tales are unreal but they are not untrue.You do yourself a big disfavour if you disregard that statement – if you try to take fairy tales as real, or if you dismiss them as untrue. Unreal, not untrue. Lüthi knew what he was talking about.