I am sure my first encounter with Beauty and the Beast was on VHS. When the movie was released in theaters in November of 1991, I was living in Wyoming in a town north of a very small private school, training for pastoral ministry. No prospects had panned out for that vocation, although I had, for a short time, filled the pulpit for the church we were attending after their pastor had been called to another church. I was supporting my wife and four children on my salary as a shift manager at Hardee’s, so I’m sure there had been no money in the budget to take them to the movie. Looking for direction as to what my next step should be, I was soon planning to attend the local community college to get a degree in Accounting.
Little did I realize what ministry opportunities God was to eventually open up for me, or how our lives were about to be thrown a curve. Things never turn out quite the way we expect or plan.
So Belle learns in the movie. She wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but has no idea what it would cost her. Sometimes the things which seem to be taking us away from our dreams are a catalyst to lead us to a serendipitous fulfillment of them. Although the fulfillment never looks quite like the dream.
In the “Walt Disney archival piece,” part of the bonus features for the 25th Anniversary Edition, out on Blu-ray today, they talk about how Walt Disney visited Europe in the 1930s and came back with a huge library of Fairy Tales. This library would be used as a source for ideas for animated shorts and features. Beauty and the Beast was planned as a feature as early as the 1940s. But the eventual product would not begin to be put together until the late 1980s, telling the tale in a way which related to contemporary audiences.
Beauty and the Beast was a ground-breaking film in many ways. The filmmakers were learning to use computers to enhance the flat cells which had been a part of animation from its beginning. The dance scene in the castle is probably the most famous for demonstrating the new technology, as the camera seemingly swoops through the hall from above. But new technology wasn’t the only thing happening. Two years previous, The Little Mermaid had brought the musical back to animation in a way that would eventually translate to Broadway, although Beauty (1994) would beat
Mermaid (2007) to that venue. Disney was beginning to recruit talents like Howard Ashman (who died just before movie Beauty was released), Alan Menken, and, later Stephen Schwartz. You will definitely not want to miss “A jam session with some of Disney’s greatest songwriters,” which features Menken and Schwartz, in the bonus features. They tell a fascinating story of creative collaboration. Disney was using the combined magic of animation and musical to touch people in amazing ways.
Belle has been called the first Disney anti-princess. In today’s terms she is a geek. She is traditionally beautiful, but in the opening song the townspeople also describe her as: “a funny girl,” “so peculiar,” “a puzzle to the rest of us,” and “rather odd.” “It’s a pity and a sin,” they summarize at the end, that “she doesn’t quite fit in.” Belle is a “beauty but a funny girl,” not quite what we would expect, but for Gaston, her beauty is the only qualification he’s looking for. She’s “the most beautiful girl in town,” which “makes her the best.”
Gaston is an anti-prince. He has many of the characteristics of a Disney Prince, but he, rather than the beast, turns out to be the true villain of the movie. As Stephen Schwartz says in the bonus feature:
Villains [before Beauty] were always like ‘I’m the villain. I’m announcing myself as the villain. If I sing a song, it’s going to be a villainous song and I’ll laugh fiendishly at the end.’ And then you have this completely clueless guy… it’s subversive.
Beauty shows us the “good guy” isn’t always who you think is the good guy. Gaston only talks about conquering, no matter what the cost, whether it means putting Belle’s father in the insane asylum under false pretenses, or stirring up prejudices in order to get the townspeople to attack the castle and destroy the beast. There is a suggestively patriotic scene of the women waving goodbye to the men as they march off to battle with harvesting sickles and pitchforks. The good folk, sure they are doing what is right, have been stirred up to fight a battle against an enemy which doesn’t really exist. How like politicians today.
The beast is a lesson about reaping what we sow. (Some might call it karma.) He has brought his fate upon himself and his servants by his refusal to open his heart to strangers. But he is also a lesson in grace and love. Some have argued, usually jokingly, that Belle falls for the beast due to Stockholm Syndrome. But, at least in the Disney version of the story, it is much more than that. As screenwriter Linda Woolverton said in an interview with IGN a few months ago:
There’s been a lot of talk about Stockholm syndrome, that [Belle] fell in love with her captor. But I disagree! She was captured, but she transformed him. She didn’t become, you know, an object. [Laughs] She didn’t turn into a beast! She transformed him. So it was certainly the transformative power of love and what it can do.
Belle doesn’t fall in love with the Beast until he changes. And her kindness was the reason he changed. This is the power of light to overcome darkness. A power we much need to tap into today in order to change our world. It is not a capitulation to the darkness, but, as the scriptures put it, overcoming evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
Oh. Back to my story, for anyone interested. In January of 1992, my father passed away unexpectedly at the early age of 62. It was time to make another change and move back to Indiana to be near family. I never did fulfill my dream of vocational pastoral ministry, although I did become a licensed minister though my local church, allowing me eventually to perform the wedding ceremonies for two of my children. And I never earned a degree in accounting, although I did work a short time as a tax preparer for H&R Block. My main ministry now is as a husband, father, and grandfather. And hopefully God occasionally uses something I have to say online, and how I treat others at work – and people in general.
Tragic things happen. But if my father hadn’t died when he did, my life certainly would have been different. It is doubtful I would have ever been involved in various ministry opportunities I’ve had over the years, including here on Screenfish. The important thing isn’t what happens to you, but what happens in you. We can’t see what lies ahead, but we can be faithful in the moment.
You never know where life’s “great wide somewhere” adventures will take you. Belle craved adventure, and she got it—the good with the bad. But she made a difference in people’s lives—especially in the life of one certain beast. May the “tale as old as time” continue with us.
The 25th Anniversary Edition of Beauty and the Beast comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today. A live-action version of the story, featuring Emma Watson as Belle is due to be out in theaters March 17, 2017.