If you know the story, you can skip down to what I thought!
Story: Once upon a time, a spoiled, selfish and unkind Prince was cursed by an enchantress for his arrogance. As punishment, he was transformed into a hideous Beast and his castle, and all who lived there were placed under a curse. Ashamed of his monstrous form,
the Beast concealed himself inside his castle. The only thing that could save him was an enchanted
rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another,
and earn her love in return, by the time the last petal fell, then the spell
would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As
the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope. For who could ever
learn to love a Beast?
Belle is introduced as this pretty young girl who always has her nose buried in a book. She and her father, a budding inventor, are ridiculed by the townspeople, who find them very odd. Then we meet Gaston, a popular and handsome but brutish hunter. He wants to marry Belle, much to her confusion and distaste.
Phillipe, his darling horse, arrives home alone and a frightened but determined Belle sets off to find her father. They reach the castle and the household is immediately abuzz with the arrival of a girl, who might be the one to break the curse. To set her father free, Belle makes a bold deal with the Beast, to switch places with her father and stay captured in the castle forever. The Beast is awed by her sacrifice, and in a moment of inspired kindness, offers her a room instead of the prison cell.
At the insistence of his servants, the Beast invites Belle for dinner. But she declines, proceeding to fume in her room. He requests her to get out, then forces her, and then guiltily shifts back to pleading her, only to lose his temper and declare that if she ever wants to eat she has to do it with him. But Belle is not one to be scared by threats. At night, she sneaks out of the room and at her request for food, the entire cutlery and crockery of the castle burst into delightful song and make her the grandest French meal in the history of cartoon.
On a mission to explore, in a forbidden part of the castle, Belle comes upon the slowly withering rose, stored carefully in a glass jar. It’s the young prince’s room, complete with a torn apart picture of a handsome young man. Just as she’s about to take a closer look at the mysterious rose, the Beast arrives and hides it. He angrily pushes her away from the precious remains of the flower and roars at her. Angry and insulted, Belle leaves the castle with Phillipe.
In the woods, the dreadful wolves attack them. A brave Belle is fighting them, when the Beast arrives. He chases off the wolves and is wounded in the process. Belle stays, if reluctantly, to help her saviour. Back at the castle, as she nurses his wounds, we notice in the Beast an almost childlike quality. There’s something very human about him arguing with the girl. Belle thanks him for saving her life, and he responds with a touched “You’re welcome.” It seems to be the first time that someone has thought of him as more than a beast. Over the following days, Belle brings out the good in him, till ultimately, he changes into someone worthy of her love.
Of course, the troubles are far from over with the horrible Gaston plotting to send Belle’s father to an asylum and blackmailing her into marrying him. Belle wants to leave the castle to save her father, and despite only the last petal hanging on to the rose, the Beast lets her go, wondering if she would come back.
What I thought: The thing I like the most about this story is that the characters are gray (except Gaston, whom I hate on principle.) Belle isn’t completely good just the like the Beast is not wholly bad. Belle takes unthinking risks, she can be a bit of a nose-poker (like entering his part of the castle when he’d expressly asked her not to) and she does let the Beast sway her mind with gifts (the library.) We never know why the servants are punished, but perhaps not all are as pitiable before the curse either as they appear during!
I think this is the only Disney story where the heroine is not in love with the idea of love. Here, love develops gradually and for a reason, it’s neither love at first sight nor prophecy. Belle isn’t different because she’s a reader. Belle is unique Disney heroine, because while she does read fairy tales and dream of adventures and princes in disguise, she isn’t waiting for love to happen to her. And in this story, love is hardly the only thing on her mind. Remember, she chases after her father, not Prince Charming.
I don’t accept the accusation that this story sends the message of loving a man despite the fact that he abuses you, of bearing with his tantrums. It’s about giving people a chance. Belle doesn’t discount any of the Beast’s angry comments or bad decisions – whenever he shouts at her, she shouts back. If he tries to hurt her, she fights him off. But she is open to the idea that he could be good. When she first sees him in the light, she doesn’t judge him by his appearance, even though he scares her. She gives him the benefit of the doubt.
But the story is not just about Belle’s forgiveness or second chances. At its heart, I always see it as the Beast’s story. It’s about meeting someone wonderful and falling in love with them and transforming yourself; becoming unselfish, trying harder to turn into the best version of you for them. As that fabulous Angela Lansbury song goes, “bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong…”