A Tale As Old As Time Returns

2:19 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

In recent years, Disney has seemingly taken up the project of remaking many of their classic animated hits into live-action films. The latest in this series, Beauty and the Beast, hit theaters last Friday, and I was in the audience on opening day. Admittedly, I have a bit of a biased view, given that this has long been my favorite Disney movie, but even I didn't expect the film to be as wonderful as it was. From filling in plot holes that have bothered fans for decades to rounding out the characters and their world, this remake beautifully balanced a devotion to the original and a desire to bring it into the modern world.

There's no denying the nostalgia factor, but this Beauty is more timely than it seems. While Belle's intellectual pursuits (and, in this version, her inventing/engineering fascination) and resistance to the no-means-yes Gaston are in line with modern conversations surrounding women, it is "The Mob Song" where we most clearly see the contemporary relevance of this tale. Granted, this is nothing new: many involved in the original film pointed to Howard Ashman, the legendary lyricist, as the biggest influence on the story and its style - and, indeed, on the Disney Renaissance as a whole.

The dedication in the end credits of the original Beauty and the Beast

A tale about a man in his prime who is shunned due to a mysterious affliction can certainly be read as an allegory about the treatment of "the Other" from a gay man dying of AIDS in the early '90s. We don't like what we don't understand, in fact it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least... These eerie, dark lyrics can be read as a reference to this disease and the historical furor around it, as well as a horribly spot-on summation of xenophobic sentiment that crops up at regular intervals throughout history. The latter, however, is highlighted in the new film: Gaston's rallying cries to the mob call magic and the Beast a "threat to our way of life" - a horrifyingly timely turn of phrase. It is only by seeing monstrousness as a trait, not a category, that we can be like Belle. Otherwise, we are the mob: well-meaning, perhaps, but fatally blind.

In terms of the core romance, the new film makes the smart move of turning the Beast into Belle's intellectual peer. Unlike the animated film (where the Beast's education is never mentioned) or the stage adaptation (where the Beast is illiterate until Belle teaches him to read), this Beast has the wry, quick literary opinions of an English major, and the sarcasm to match. The first moment of true commonality between Belle and the Beast comes in an exchange of quips about Shakespeare - the first time either of them have had an intellect to match wits with. In this way, it becomes a tale not of "changing" someone - a complicated and fraught notion - but of rediscovery and restoration, which is a classic fairy tale theme.

Belle and the Beast have a sparkling rapport, an educated banter, and an understanding of how painful it can be to be smart and thoughtful when the world only wants your beauty, not your opinions. The Prince gave in to those pressures, but Belle has not. Not only does this make the love story infinitely more satisfying, but it addresses the criticisms long leveled at this particular Disney tale. This Belle plans escape, but chooses to stay behind out of a desire to help if she can. She is an inventor, a problem-solver, and one gets the sense that she hopes her talents might finally be of use to someone.
A relationship blooms between intellectual equals

For me, the music of Beauty and the Beast is the most important element, and also the most personal. Long before I began to formally study music and writing, I learned about structure, rhyme, song placement, and more, all from absorbing the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Their movies, their stage shows, their songs - they were my earliest teachers, and they are the standard I aspire to with every word I write. Their music soundtracked my childhood - and my adulthood as well, if we're being perfectly honest. I got teary-eyed when the first haunting notes of the prologue played; I felt like applauding the glorious finish of "Be Our Guest"; I could physically feel a swell of joy from within as the finale swept us all away. And the title song never fails to move me - yes, even the pop version.

In the new film's version of "Gaston," there are restored verses that were cut from the original version, full of the delicious, hilarious, sophisticated yet accessible lyrics we have learned to expect. Hearing "new" Menken/Ashman verses after all these years was a powerfully emotional experience. That's the beauty of this score: it's not just the nostalgia for the movie we all loved, but the profound and deeply human emotions it evokes in every note and every clever rhyme. It's a story about love and loss and learning and all that goes with them. And that, more than anything, is a tale as old as time.