One could say that the story of Beauty and the Beast is a “Tale as old as time” as it has been told in varying degrees many times over the years from live-action theatrical releases to television shows to animated juggernauts. Today we will take a look at the two most notable versions of this classic fairy tale, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 haunting version entitled La Belle et la Bête and Disney’s robust musical Beauty and the Beast released in 1991, and see how they’ve both held up over time.
Both movies are based on Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont timeless tale but Jean Cocteau’s version is easily the closest to original with it only veering from it for clearer storytelling and added magical wonderment while Disney’s version takes the premise of a girl named Belle, a beast and a magical curse and pretty much jettisons everything else. Though both thought the story could use a villain which de Beaumont’s story certainly lacked.
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête 1946 version begins with Belle (Josette Day) as one of four children; she has two wicked sisters, Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon) who seem like they stepped right out of Cinderella and Ludovic (Michel Auclair) her brother a bit of a wastrel who spends much of his time hanging out with his friend and fellow scoundrel Avenant (Jean Marais) who has made his designs on Belle clear. The family has fallen on hard times due to ships belonging to Belle’s father (Marcel André) being lost at sea, but word finally arrives that one of the ships has made it to port and so the family’s prospect may be on the rise.
When Belle’s father readies to depart Félicie and Adélaïde bombard him with request for dresses, jewels, and even a monkey but when he asks Belle what she would like all she wishes for is a simple rose as none grow in the area. Unfortunately when he arrives at the port city creditors have seized his goods and he must return home through the dark foggy forest at night as he cannot even afford a single nights lodging. He is soon lost as high winds besiege him along the haunted pathways, but just when the end seems at hand for the poor man the forest magically parts revealing a large castle. The gate and doors of the castle open as if operated by invisible servants and the hallway is lit by candelabras that are held by what look like living arms.
Belle’s father spends the night never meeting the master of this enchanted castle but upon leaving he spots some roses and remembering Belle’s wish he picks one. This was a mistake. The Beast appears and tells him he was free to take anything he liked but that the roses are his most cherished possession and for this crime he must die. Note: If he felt that strongly about those roses you’d think it would have been a good idea to maybe post a sign or something. With no fairy tale lawyer in sight he begs for his life mentioning that he has three daughters to care for. The Beast offers him a way out, he will spare him and let him leave if he in turn sends one of his daughters back to take his place, but if none want to die in his stead he must return on his own.
That the guy didn’t just immediately turn down that offer seemed a bit odd to me and would certainly have removed him from any contention for Father of the Year but upon reaching home it becomes clear that he never intended to send one of his daughters, he just wanted the chance to say goodbye. Lucky for him he becomes feverish and Belle volunteers to take his place. Her cruel sisters are fine with this as they blame her for the whole wishing for a rose in the first place.
Belle mounts the magical horse and rides to the castle of the Beast but instead of being killed and eaten she is made mistress of the house and any whim she has will be fulfilled. She is provided a lavish room with a magical mirror that allows her to see anything she wishes with the only stipulation being that every night at 7:00 she will dine with the Beast. Each night he joins her and on each night he asks, “Belle, will you marry me?” she of course declines the offer but slowly her feelings towards the horrible looking creature turns from fear to pity to a deep caring.
Upon finding out her father is ill through her viewings of the magic mirror the Beast grants her permission to leave for a week but tells her that if she doesn’t return in a weeks’ time he will die from grief. He gives Belle two magical items; a glove that will instantly transport her to anywhere she wishes and a golden key that unlocks Diana’s Pavilion, the source of the Beast’s true riches.
She bids the Beast adieu, puts on the glove, is transported back home (she comes through the wall of her bedroom in a rather cool in-camera affect) and then places the key and glove on her nightstand. Of course not all are glad of her return and upon seeing the bejeweled gown and tiara that Belle is sporting the sisters instantly start plotting against her and tricking her into staying past the allotted weeks’ time. They manage to steal the golden key but unfortunately the hiccup in their plans is that none of them know how to get to the Beast’s castle, but lucky for them the lonely Beast has grown despondent for his missing Belle and has sent the magical horse to retrieve her which her brother and Avenant confiscate.
The movie ends with Belle finding the Beast as he lies dying of a broken heart while unbeknownst to her Avenant and her brother try and break into the Beast’s treasure trove. Avenant catches an arrow in the back from an animated statue of the goddess Diana and as he dies he transforms into a beast while the Beast suddenly turns into a handsome prince. The Beast, the now handsome prince, tells of how his parents ticked off some fairy folk and cursed him.
At first she is quite taken aback by this change and comments, “You remind me of a friend of my brother” and not as if that is a good thing. Belle has realized that the beauty within is much more important than any outward appearance. The Beast then tells Belle that he will now take her to his home, and they ascend into the clouds. Where they are going is left to the imagination.
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête is a stunningly beautiful film with its haunting black and white photography capturing the viewer’s imagination. From the spooky forest to the haunted halls of the castle, the look of the film never ceases to be anything but a perfect fairy tale come to life and a must-see for fans of the Disney version. Which of course brings us to…
Disney had been trying to get an animated feature based on Beauty and the Beast since the 1930s only getting finally greenlit as a musical after the success of The Little Mermaid. As I mentioned before there are very few similarities between the original tale and this Disney version but in no way does that make it a bad adaptation, in fact I thoroughly enjoy this movie with its clean animated lines and catchy songs but it does have some structural flaws which are probably due to its many attempts and revisions over the years.
The movie opens with narration explaining the history of the Beast and his curse via cool stain glass imagery but even though this kind of fairy tale opening has been a standard Disney trope since the beginning of the company that doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good thing. We find out that a young and selfish prince answered the door to a haggard-looking beggar woman carrying a rose and he refused her shelter from the storm, but it turns out that she was actually a beautiful enchantress who then curses the kid and all the occupants of the castle.
So not only does she transform a ten year old into a beast for the crime of being a little shit but the entire castle staff gets cursed as well. I’ve come to the conclusion that Fairy tale justice is kind of messed up. We are also given the ticking clock that if he doesn’t learn to love another and her to love him in return by his 21st birthday, and the last petal of the rose falls, he will remain a beast for all time. Once again screwing the maids and butlers over completely. Of course none of this would have happened if one of the staff was doing their damn job and opened the door instead of letting the stupid kid do it.
Opening narrated prologues are info-dumps to help convey important information about the story that would be hard to work in otherwise and gets the audience up to speed with the world they are about to enter but in the case of Beauty and the Beast this could actually be considered a spoiler as we really don’t need that much information at the top. In La Belle et la Bête we don’t learn about the curse until the last few minutes of the film so as far as the audience was concerned the Beast had always been a beast until the surprising reveal when he changes to human at the end. I’m not saying going with an opening narration is a mistake but in this case the information it revealed could have been worked in more organically.
Belle (Paige O’Hara) may exist in old-timey France but she has certain modern sensibilities that make her stand apart from the people in her village; two key examples of this is that she likes to read and isn’t falling over in love with the town hunk like the rest of the girls. This and the fact that her dad is a bit of a kook make her an outsider, but some of this could be her fault as her comment “Little town full of little people” does come off as a tad elitist. Then again these people side with Gaston (Richard White) when it came to blackmailing Belle into marrying the big oaf.
Belle’s father (Rex Everhart) is your typical movie inventor as he is a bit kooky but hopeful that one day an invention of his will be a big success. It’s while traveling to the fair to show off his latest invention that Maurice gets lost and finds himself at the castle of the Beast (Robbie Benson). Ten years of relative isolation have taken their toll on the once spoilt prince now turned beast and he tosses poor old man into a cell in the castle’s tower. In Jean Cocteau’s version Belle’s father is more than welcome in the Beast’s castle, he just crosses an imaginary line by taking a rose and gets the death penalty while Disney’s Beast just goes completely ballistic at there being an intruder in his home and gives the guy a life sentence. We’ll call this one a tie.
Belle freaks out when her father’s horse returns without him and she quickly rides to the Beast’s castle to find out what happened to him. She finds her sick father freezing to death in the cold cell and offers herself in exchange for her father’s freedom. The Beast agrees and tosses Maurice out without even giving Belle a chance to say good-bye to her father. She is then told to join the Beast for dinner but she refuses. So we have Disney’s Belle being a strong-willed brave independent woman who stands up to the Beast versus Jean Cocteau’s Belle who is a brave woman who politely accepts the conditions of her stay in the castle. We’ll call that one a tie as well.
Eventually, the strained relationship between Belle and the Beast begins to melt away aided by such actions as him rescuing her from a pack of ravenous wolves and giving her access to a gigantic library. The enchanted staff sees the curse that keeps them dinnerware about to finally be lifted when Belle looks in the magic mirror and sees her father dying out in the cold as he searchers for her. Because the Beast has finally learned to love he frees her.
The reason Maurice was out all alone looking for Belle is because the jerks back in town all laughed at his story about his daughter being imprisoned by a horrible beast. No one offered to help, instead, they all get behind Gaston’s plan to commit Maurice to an insane asylum if she won’t marry him. When Belle uses the magic mirror to show the villagers that the Beast is real and her father isn’t crazy they go from being a group of assholes to a torch and pitchfork-toting mob. Gaston is able to whip them up into a frenzy, “We’re not safe ’til his head is mounted on my wall!” They all then storm the castle.
Question: Where in the hell is Beast’s castle located? Belle and Maurice go back and forth between it and the village rather quickly and the mob seems to reach it in a matter of minutes. Did everyone just forget about this castle that was apparently just down the road?
While the magical objects of the castle do their best to fend off the attacking villagers Gaston finds the very morose Beast and proceeds to hunt him across the castle rooftops. That the Beast went to pieces that fast shows that he was a more crumbly cookie centered than a hardened beast even to the point of not defending himself from Gaston’s attacks. Lucky for him then that Belle shows up in time to shake him out of his stupor. Now the movie clearly depicted Gaston as a more brains than brawn kind of guy but when after being soundly beaten by the Beast he decides to stabs his rival in the back from a very precarious position showing us that he was actually even dumber than we thought.
Mortally wounded the Beast lays dying but just as the last petal of the magic rose falls Belle proclaims her love for him and the spell is lifted and he is human again. All the enchanted objects in the castle are also returned to their human form and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for those asshole villagers, a pox on all their houses!
• The torn portrait of the Beast in human form was clearly not that of a ten year old boy.
• This is France but only one character has a French accent.
• The village book seller had a terrible business model as he lent and gave away books to his only apparent customer.
• How did Maurice’s horse take Belle to the Beast’s castle when it had never been there?
• After the big “Be Our Guest” number Belle is sent to bed without actually getting dinner.
• Why was Chip allowed to be out and about but his brothers and sisters are stuck in the cupboard?
• The library and ballroom were the only two rooms apparently not curse redecorated.
• When the villagers attack and the enchanted items do battle I have one final question…
Sure you can poke holes in the story structure of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast but what you can’t do is deny that it had some fantastic songs. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken put together one fantastic score, one so good that it went on to make Beauty and the Beast a Broadway hit. From the opening strains of the operetta-like “Belle” to the Oscar-winning title song “Beauty and the Beast” this soundtrack has it all. I particularly loved “Gaston” and its rousing beer hall comedy.
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast are both great films, each with charms of their own, but if I had to choose which one I preferred I’d have to go with the 1946 classic as it is one of the most purely enchanting films I’ve ever seen. Its dreamlike qualities draw the viewer into a world of magic and wonder with images that will haunt me forever. Talking candlesticks and singing teapots are great but Jean Cocteau’s castle is truly magical.