I've long joked that I was able to ruin Disney's Beauty and the Beast merely by uttering two words: "Stockholm Syndrome." Having sampled the film in 3D over the weekend, it remains one of the just-plain weirder Disney cartoons in recent times. It is still a highly entertaining and visually impressive bit of entertainment. It's easy to see and remember (I was eleven when I saw it the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1991 as part of a double-sneak preview following Father of the Bride) how those who thought of Disney animated films as relative trifles like Robin Hood or Oliver and Company were knocked back by the sheer seriousness and scale on display. Even more than The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast was arguably the first Disney cartoon since the initial batch (think Pinocchio and Bambi) that felt like a grand-scale MOVIE. But watching it again, for the second time in two years (I bought the 2D Blu Ray over Hanukkah 2010), there are a few things that bear mentioning, both about the movie itself and the nature of how it's critiqued.
First of all, the film serves as a template for how Disney cartoons would be constructed for the next fifteen years or so, give-or-take the influence of Pixar and DreamWorks. Beauty and the Beast mixes overtly dark and serious subject matter and high drama with almost inappropriately cartoon-ish supporting characters that act as an antidote to the 'tough' moments. The picture literally bounces from one extreme to another for much of its running time, following up a dark plot-driven scene (such as Belle being imprisoned in the castle) with a light and relatively superfluous moment (Gaston's big song, which exists only for a final moment that sets up a 'Let's get Belle's father committed!' subplot that comes and goes in ten seconds). The same standard applies for the action finale, which establishes an iron-clad pattern that would be followed in countless later Disney films (The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Bug's Life, Mulan, Tarzan, etc). Namely, the climax has the colorful supporting characters (in this case the various servants/household items) fending off hordes of nameless enemies in a comical and crowd-pleasing fashion while the main protagonist (the Beast) and main antagonist (Gaston) square off in a brutally serious and eventually fatal showdown. The balancing of tone, which wasn't always perfectly successful in every given picture, was the key that allowed Disney to tell grander, more adult-pleasing stories that still entertained the younger audiences.
But twenty years later, most of the discussion of the picture focuses on the core romantic arc of Belle and her deformed and cursed prince. As I said above, I often referred to the picture as "Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie," which pretty much sums up the relationship. On the surface, the young and beautiful Belle is imprisoned by the monstrous beast and rather quickly comes to love him as he gradually begins to go from captor to protector, friend, and then finally theoretical lover. Feminist scholars have long argued that the film sends a terrible message to audiences (especially young girls) by basically showcasing an abusive and power-imbalanced relationship as some kind of ideal fairy-tale romance. While the film is no feminist triumph, it's a little more complicated than that. Looking back on the film again, the picture does a strong job in the first act setting up Belle as someone who might actually fall for said scenario even without the kind of social conditioning that exists in a captor/captive situation. Belle is shown as being so unhappy with her 'provincial life' that it stands to reason that she may be susceptible to the theoretical allure of basically partaking in the kind of harlequin romance adventures that she reads about in the opening song. Whether or not Belle indeed has Schizoid Personality Disorder, or whether she merely has the same kind of 'Gee, now I get to live out my somewhat dangerous romantic fantasies' experience as Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, Belle spends the first third of the film utterly miserable and with no plausible potential for improvement on the horizon. It doesn't seem quite as insane that she'd allow herself to fully envelop herself in the 'perils of Pauline' scenario she finds herself in.
Like Bella in the Twilight Saga films (I have not read the books), Belle eventually embraces, no matter how unhealthy it might be, circumstances that allow her to escape her current surroundings; where she doesn't fit in and doesn't feel like she belongs anyway. That the circumstance that she finds herself in is basically a captor/captive romance that is, by nature, based on a certain amount of submission, is an objective statement that doesn't necessarily make the picture 'bad.' We may choose to condemn her decisions, especially in light of the Beast's almost non-existent growth as a character (more on that below). But the only 'problem' with the character of Belle and the core relationship of the film is that it is in fact aimed at young children who are in no position to comprehend the creepy and (to certain personalities) erotic undertones of dominance, submission, the desire of some women to 'fix' damaged souls, 'animal magnetism,' etc. on display. If Beauty and the Beast were an adult erotic drama, Belle's fleshed out personality quirks and her dark romance with the Beast would be accepted without too much criticism (and, it must be said, the threat of rape would certainly be ever-present in the first half of the picture). So while on one hand I actually appreciated the film more the last two viewings than I had in a long while (it's actually borderline psycho-sexual for a Disney cartoon), it's also something I'll have to have conversations with my daughter about when she gets a little older. This demographic issue doesn't make Beauty and the Beast by itself a bad movie, but merely one that requires a bit more parental guidance than the likes of Hercules or Mulan.
But where the film really drops the ball, where it arguably merits every bit of criticism tossed its way, is in its depiction of the Beast and his servants. We can argue back and forth about whether the filmmakers intend to present Belle as a prototypical romantic heroine or whether we are supposed to notice and acknowledge her personality quirks along the way. But there is little doubt that we are supposed to truly believe in the Beast's change-of-heart, and that he has become a better man who deserves the love of a woman such as Belle. And quite frankly he does not in the least. Just going by the second act onward (since Belle is captured in the climax of act one), he goes from angry, violent, abusive, and near-psychotic in his treatment of his prisoner to... less so. The various candles and teacups and clocks all inform him that if he would just stop being such a grouch that surely this girl would quickly learn to love him. But is that all it should take? The Beast doesn't become incredibly gallant or uncommonly noble. He doesn't become fantastically romantic and, since this is a Disney film, we're not supposed to take any carnal attractions into account. Basically the Beast merely finds it within himself to treat Belle with what is generally known as 'basic human decency.'
Throughout the second act, he constantly indulges in self-pity about the fact that Belle can only see him as a monster, when in fact she's merely seeing him as the abusive asshole/jailer that he is. By the time the film reaches its climax he has merely become.... not a monster. He becomes polite, lets her roam the castle without fear, allows her access to his gigantic library, and eventually invites her to a formal dinner and dance. That's it! His most selfless moment is allowing Belle to leave the castle to look after her father, who has become lost in the woods in an effort to rescue her. But since he is directly responsible for that situation, it really doesn't mean that much that he allows her to save her own father. Not allowing a sick old man to freeze to death in the woods is what you'd think would be 'bare minimum' in terms of how humans are supposed to treat other humans. The Beast doesn't win Belle over by doing anything other than what any rational and decent-hearted human being should have damn-well done in the first place. The Beast, his various servants, and by virtue the film itself is basically teaching kids that all it takes to win the heart of the girl of your dreams is merely not acting like a borderline psychopath. And it also preaches that this formally-cruel, domineering, abusive, and hostage-taking tyrant (who, according to a newly-added to the Blu-Ray song "Human Again," is also illiterate) is absolutely a prize merely after he puts a halt to his very worst personality traits. He doesn't so much become 'good' as stop being 'bad'.
There is a lot of talk about how to prevent sexual violence and sexual harassment without explicitly/implicitly blaming and/or putting the burden of prevention on girls and women. And, as I've written before when discussing Twilight (HERE), the constant criticism that Bella Swan faces for her perhaps poor choices in boyfriends allows the male side of that equation (Edward and Jacob) apparent immunity from being rather dreadful boyfriend material in the first place. Thus it is the case here, where we've spent twenty years attacking Belle for her perhaps unimpressive choice in suitors while not bothering to attack the Beast for actually being a terrible would-be lover. The film, I would argue, doesn't present Belle as being a prototypical female role model anymore than Ariel was (Ariel also has serious issues and feelings of longing that exist long before she meets Prince Eric). But the film's explicit endorsement of the Beast as a genuine 'catch' and his presentation as a heavily romantic figure purely by his virtue of not being evil, is a disconcerting one that merits additional criticism. In the end, the rush to condemn the character of Belle (the hostage) while overlooking the Beast (the hostage taker) is a classic case of 'blame the girl first and last' when it comes to discussing the alleged feminism-related flaws in pop-entertainment. If he truly makes her happy, then Belle deserves a lifetime of happiness with the now-human prince. But on the basis of his onscreen behavior, the Beast does not deserve Belle.