“Who could ever learn to love a beast?” So the opening narration asks. What is remarkable about Disney’s 1991 version of the fairy tale is that it’s not about becoming a princess or a girl being rescued from an enslaved situation but it is about that very question. Belle rejects the “opportunity” to be wife to a man in high position in her village. She willingly gives herself to enslavement for the sake of her father. Her purpose isn’t to have dreams come true and to live happily ever after but instead to learn to forgive and to love the person responsible for her enslavement. She is the truest of all Disney heroes.
With the live-action remake being released this weekend, I hope that this empowering and spiritual message about the sacrificial nature of real love is retained. Belle first shows signs of being a hero just seconds after the beast releases her father. She tells him to come to the light, and he does. He lets her see the extent of his hideousness. She responds with natural fright, but we can see that in spite of her fear she is willing to look deeper beyond the exterior of both the beast’s appearance and even his actions. She is willing to look for the humanity buried deep within this hideous exterior.
During the song “Something There,” Belle sings about the difference between the past and present of how she saw the beast. She sings “but he was coarse and unrefined.” Those are pretty weak words for someone who locked up her father, repeatedly yelled at her unreasonably, and even hit her. She uses these words because there really wasn’t something there that wasn’t there before. She always saw beyond the hurt. She could tell that his beastly actions did not represent his real character long before she knew anything about the curse placed against him. She always knew that when he hurt him, he was acting out of his own pain and was not the abusive monster the rest of the world saw in him. She saw who he really is and who he is capable of becoming after receiving love.
Belle’s beauty is the beauty of a savior. In many ways, she is a Christ-figure. She gave her own freedom for the sake of others and lived toward the beast in a way very similar to Jesus’ prayer “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” She felt every bit of the pain and the shame of his fallen state but she was never controlled by it because she had the power to overcome it. She loved him, not the usual Disney princess love, but real love, unconditional love. Her love broke the curse so that just as she saw the beast as he really is instead of what his exterior showed, so he was able eventually to become that person, that prince, his actual identity. 25 years later, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remains surprising in its depth of spirituality, truth, and Biblical parallels. And just as Belle learns to love a beast, so do we every time we watch this marvelous, magical work of art.