Beauty and the Beast: Fairy tales, morality, and making all things new
by Ted Giese
Bill Condon’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson is a live-action version of the 1991 Disney musical animated fairy tale of the same name. It’s the story of a spoiled vain prince cursed by an enchantress to live his life as a beast in an enchanted castle to learn a lesson about making value judgments based on appearance alone. The curse can only be lifted if someone loves him despite his beastly appearance—and this all before the final petal falls from a single red rose given him by the enchantress.
This sets the stage for the Beast’s interaction with a merchant named Maurice who wanders into the enchanted castle years later after being set upon by wolves in the forest. As Maurice is about to leave he remembers his promise to bring back a single rose for his daughter Belle. For stealing the rose he is imprisoned in the castle.
It is his daughter Belle who comes to his rescue. Belle is considered beautiful but odd by the townspeople because of her bookish independence. She desires more than her town provides and spurns the advances of the local “heroic” heartthrob Gaston, who wants to make her his trophy wife. Eventually, Belle finds herself in the enchanted castle and trades places with her father to set him free. What follows is a problematic romance in which she falls in love with the Beast and, after a climactic crisis, the curse is broken and everyone (almost everyone) lives happily ever after. It is a fairy tale after all!
While always innovating, Disney’s bread and butter has historically been centred in family entertainment—from amusement parks to merchandizing, to publishing, to film and television. But cultural consumers need to remember that massive corporations like Disney, while interested in creating innovative entertainment, are also interested in making money. For that reason, Disney, like many corporations, will want to reflect what society embraces and avoid being “out of step” with the world for fear of losing revenue. Christian audiences have to keep this in mind when it comes to anything produced under the Disney umbrella. This desire to compromise with the world is not Biblical. In fact, St. Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
The current Beauty and the Beast has received a fair amount of criticism regarding its reshaping of the story to conform to current societal attitudes concerning LGBTQ issues. While the 1991 Beauty and the Beast may have had some deeply sub-textual homosexual elements, the 2017 edition sets aside sub-text and more bluntly incorporates gay and transgendered elements. This should not be a surprise. A minimal amount of investigation will reveal the film’s director Bill Condon is openly gay. It isn’t surprising that he, like any other film maker, may choose to express his views and opinions through his films. But if Disney provides Condon with freedom to incorporate what he refers to as “a nice, exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast, then audiences likewise have the freedom to express their opinions about such content in the film.
2017’s Beauty and the Beast is one film in a parade of live-action adaptations/remakes of classic Disney films in recent years; Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty (in Maleficent), Cinderella, and The Jungle Book have all undergone this treatment recently. And parents and grandparents will likely have a new live-action Disney film to take the kids to every year for as long as the market will bear it. Families will want to think about how they engage with films like Beauty and the Beast and future films. It can’t be stressed enough that viewing films is voluntary and people are free to see or skip whatever films they like for whatever reasons they have.
Parents should think critically about the films, television shows, and other media their children consume. Just because something was made by Disney doesn’t give it “a pass” when it comes to family entertainment.
Parents should think critically about the films, television shows, and other media their children consume. Just because something was made by Disney doesn’t give it “a pass” when it comes to family entertainment. At the same time, families shouldn’t “canonize” earlier versions of films as if they were somehow totally pure either, even if they are deemed more wholesome in comparison to current offerings. Some see the nature of the love story in 1991’s animated Beauty and the Beast as problematic, for example, since it resembles Stockholm syndrome—a condition where the captive falls in love with their captor. Apart from question of LGBTQ content in Beauty and the Beast, viewers may also want to consider the age-appropriateness of the story’s central heterosexual themes, which some will recognize as broken and abusive.
It is part of the vocation of parents and guardians both to discern carefully what their family watches and to consider how they talk about the content with their children. Some parents will justify taking a three-year-old to see an R rated film like Logan—which is clearly not for children—by saying “it’s just a movie.” This reasoning does a disservice to the filmmakers whose vocational life’s work is creating films. For this reason, it is fair to consider the worth of a film, whether it is serious or silly in nature. Christians should consider everything and anything they view within the context of Scripture and Christian faith. Be encouraged: there is nothing wrong in doing so. It is more than reasonable to point out if something is sound or unsound morally or doctrinally. It is one of the responsibilities in being head of a household.
So, is the new rendition of Beauty and the Beast any good? It is about as good as a live-action adaptation/remake can be. For the most part, it sticks closer to its source material than other Disney live-action films. And while Condon and the pre-release publicity have downplayed the LGBTQ themes, it’s safe to say that every scene featuring Gaston’s sidekick LeFou is saturated with LGBTQ content. As the Toronto Star has noted, for some this character will be too gay; for others he will not be gay enough.
In the end, most people don’t seem to care either way about the LGBTQ question or about any other aspects concerning the film’s appropriateness for family viewing. After all, LGBTQ characters are all over network television. The numbers tell the story. In its opening weekend, Beauty and the Beast (2017) made approximately $170 million domestically on an estimated $160 million budget. Impressive numbers to be sure, but are box-office results the only measure of a films worth? No.
The singing and pacing of the 1991 film is better than Condon’s film. This is especially obvious in the iconic moment when Belle walks, book in hand, through her “little town” singing. The chorus sung by the town folk sounds muddy and jumbled in comparison to the 1991 film. It’s simply not as crisp or easy to follow what they are singing. Some of the CGI could look more naturalistic, especially when it comes to the Beast. That being said, there are some show-stopping musical scenes; a good example is when Beast’s enchanted servants sing “Be Our Guest” to Belle. The CGI and the voice work of Ewan McGregor as the candelabra Lumière, Ian McKellen as the mantel clock Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson as the teapot Mrs. Potts work exceptionally well together. In particular, the CGI porcelain rendered for Mrs. Potts and her son the teacup Chip is very well done.
Christian viewers will gain much from considering the breaking of the curse at the end of the film in connection to the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day—that moment when the sinner’s “beastly” nature is transformed—washed away forever—and Christ makes “all things new.”
For those who have seen the film—or who plan to see it—and want to think about it more deeply, the film’s most positive element is the breaking of the curse at the end. Christian viewers will gain much from considering it in connection to the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day—that moment when the sinner’s “beastly” nature is transformed—washed away forever—and Christ makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). There is even a brief moment to watch for when a statue of a Pegasus on the Beast’s castle is transformed into a statue of St. George and the Dragon—just one more image pointing to the defeat of evil and the setting right of all things. It is a fairy tale after all.
Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is a contributor to Reformation Rush Hour on KFUO AM Radio, The Canadian Lutheran, and the LCMS Reporter, as well as movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow him on Twitter @RevTedGiese.