John Mark Reynolds wrote a critique of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast here, and here. Dr. Reynolds has been tremendously influential in my own intellectual formation, and I am nearly always in agreement with him. So I was somewhat surprised by his critique of Disney’s Beauty and Beast.
That being said, I have not seen the 2017 live action version so I cannot speak about it. (Although, my suspicion is that it is not as good as the 1991 animated version.)
Reynolds compares the 1991 Disney film to the ancient fairy tale, and points out how the film turns the message of the original story on its head. So when you’re comparing the Disney version to the ancient one, Disney’s film omits essential aspects, and in that way is defective. Fair enough.
But maybe the two stories are trying to teach us two different but equally important truths.
It’s probably because I was not familiar with the original fairy tale when I watched the Disney film, but I think Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a story in its own right and should be evaluated on its own terms.
In the story, Belle wants more “than this provincial life.” This is a classic trait found in the heroes of some our greatest stories. Consider Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress who yearns for more than the city around him, and this innate sense drives him to go on the adventure and satisfy this inexplicable longing, found ultimately in the Celestial City. Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace know that there is more than their world, and long to return to the enchanted Narnia. A number of Disney characters possess this sense of unsatisfied longing as well: Aladdin, Hercules, Simba. Rather than this being a matter of pride or superiority, Belle is attune to the fact that there must be more to life than the world she experiences. Her eyes see past the shadows around her, and she senses a life beyond the one she has been living. A number of great thinkers have called attention to this human condition, from Plato to C.S. Lewis. As Lewis points out, “If I find in myself a desire which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Many of these thinkers point out that this earthly and material world must not be all there is; there must be something beyond the natural: the magical.
Which brings me to my second point: the story is decisively anti-naturalistic. When the townspeople hear of the monstrous beast, they merely laugh it off as insanity. They cannot fathom what they have not seen or experienced. As the viewers, we know the truth: there is magic in this world. While magic is unusual for the people of the town, it does not surprise those who dwell in the castle, as there are some things that are simply inexplicable, like talking furniture, enchanted roses, and a man who rises from the dead.
The prince is a monster because he is ugly on the inside. Distortion and evil enter through one’s worship of oneself, i.e. making yourself like god. His soul was unfit to rule the royal kingdom. In order to be the rightful prince, he has to learn to die to himself. So he learns how to love another sacrificially, and in this way regain his own humanity. Here we find a great image of marriage as well. Marriage can be a means of grace as it is a microcosm of God’s love for His people. Husbands ought to love their wives and lay down their lives for them as Christ died for his church.
And this is where Belle’s (and our) desires are satisfied: union with the Prince, the one who loves us. We anticipate the royal prince to come and rescue us from all that seeks to ensnare us. Although there was nothing in his appearance that we saw desirable, Jesus is the true Prince. He did not act like an entitled and arrogant ruler, but instead humbled himself. This Prince invites his bride out to be united with Him and fulfill our deepest longings. And when the spell is broken, all things are restored.
God’s mission is the restoration of all creation. Although humanity bears the image of God, we bear it poorly. We are fractured, and many of us have only faint glimpses of what it means to be truly human. We need to be what we were made for, not inanimate talking and moving objects, but wholly human. We need to be restored back unto our true selves. This is only done through true love.
Of course, the point of Beauty and the Beast is that things are not always as they look. Gaston, although handsome and strong, is in fact a brute. He is a beast, no longer truly human. Belle sees this while others do not – an ability that God shares with Samuel when he says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
*Read John Mark Reynolds’ response to this post here.
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