Movies for the Resistance: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring the Voices of: Paige O’Hara, Robbie Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Odgen Stiers, Angela Lansbury and Jesse Conti
Directed by: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Running time: 84 minutes
Rating: G
Year of release: 1991


Let’s talk about Gaston for a moment.

He rarely ranks among Disney’s most beloved villains – let’s face it, evil queens are cooler – and indeed in the final measure, he’s actually considered something of a buffoon. (The House of Mouse cartoon usually treated him as such.) For most of Beauty and The Beast, he plays up that impression: a self-absorbed narcissist who can’t see what a joke he is, and who retains the support of the village despite caring about nothing but himself. Only when his supremacy is challenged does he become nasty, and then we see his cruelty unmasked: the sneering bully with hordes of minions behind him to make sure anyone different, strange or defiant is destroyed.

Sound like anyone we know?

Gaston’s narcissism – so beautifully enunciated by voice actor Richard White – marks him as an outlier in the ranks of Disney baddies, which may explain why he ranks below the likes of Maleficent or Ursula when it comes to favorites. And yet that very quality makes him unique, and helps cement Beauty’s status as the greatest animated picture of all time. He marries his narcissism to a toxic combination of charisma and demagoguery: whipping the town into a frenzy when it suits him and turning them against targets of his choice.

That sets him against Disney’s traditional ethos, which champions the reconciliation of heroic outsiders and the banishment of evil ones. Most Disney villains are unabashed outsiders: stepping in to the community to work their mischief, then slithering back to their evil lairs far away. Even Snow White’s Queen – who presumably has a whole kingdom at her beck and call – sits isolated in her castle, companion to none save her magic mirror and the vanity that eats her alive.

Not so Gaston. He’s down at the tavern every night singing and dancing with his fellow villagers, who gaze upon him with absolute adoration. And frankly, their love for him might not be entirely unjustified. He’s the town hunter, which means he probably brings meat back every winter and saves lives in the process. Plus, he’s clearly the life of the party. Who wouldn’t be insanely loyal to this guy?

The film’s creative team wanted to play that up. They patterned his look after their classic heroes: square jaw, thick chest, confidence of movement and so on. If surface impressions reflected character, he’d be the protagonist. And that, of course, was the point. A story about inner beauty needs an outwardly beautiful villain disguising his inner rot. (The new live-action version doubles down on this: Luke Evans’ Gaston mutters “hero time” right before doing something particularly awful or duplicitous.) In his way, that makes him even more terrifying than the other baddies in the Disney canon, who at least have the self-respect to make their malice clear.

For most of the film, they stress his imbecilic qualities. We (and Belle) see him for what he is, but he’s generally harmless: a doltish big fish in a little tiny pond, thinking that the world revolves around him. Certainly, he won’t take no for an answer, but Belle’s got him pretty well buffaloed, and figures that – with every other girl in town throwing themselves at him – she can outlast the bastard.

The first signs of something more sinister comes when he proposes to her. The tone shifts suddenly, incalculably, to one of active menace. He looms over her in her own home: cutting off the exit, keeping her isolated, and stressing how much bigger and stronger he is if she gets any thoughts about fighting back. He offers her a “perfect life” that sounds like a perfect nightmare, plopping his muddy feet on her open book and blithely assuming that his views would naturally be hers.

When she elegantly dispatches him, it gets worse. The heroic façade completely drops and we see the maggots in his soul. His trophy has been denied. He’s no longer interested in simply “winning” her over: he’s got to beat her. (The film actually puts him in the mud with the swine while he seethes, just so we get the point.)

That’s merely prelude, of course, for his defining moment of monstrosity: rallying the villagers to his side to launch an attack on the Beast. As a viable rival who can deny him what he wants, the Beast represents a serious threat. So he projects his needs onto that adoring crowd: stoking their fears and making them believe that meeting his selfish desires will somehow keep them safe.

And they buy it hook, line and sinker. They buy it because it’s easy, because the Beast is different, and because fearing the unknown makes more sense than challenging the status quo. In that moment, his evil becomes theirs. And terrifyingly, they’re more than happy to join him. After all, it makes them more like him, or at least their surface impressions of him. They think that they’re good people. They think they’re doing the right thing. To question his logic is as absurd to them as claiming the sun will rise at midnight. “Kill the monster? Protect our homes? Fight whatever lives in the woods? Gaston does that all the time! If he says we gotta, then who are we to question him?”

Songwriter Howard Ashman – a gay man dying from AIDS-related complications in Reagan’s America – knew the real face of the mob all too well. He knew how easily they could be swayed, and he knew they would do so without thinking twice about the morality of their actions. They let the surface impression of their “hero” blind them to the scum underneath, and in end, they become the monster they think they’re destroying.

That’s largely unprecedented in the annals of Disney villainy. And it speaks deeply to our present circumstances in ways other villains can’t. We’ve seen the power of demagoguery in terrifying ways these past few months… and it’s touched the new live-action version as well. The new film changes Gaston’s toady Le Fou (Josh Gad) into a semi-open homosexual. Naturally the anti-LGBT folks hit the roof when they caught word of it, with one theater in Alabama flat-out banning the film, and fundamentalist leaders calling for a boycott.

I wonder if they know who they sound like when they do that.

I wonder if they know that the songs they’ve been happily singing to their kids for the last 25 years were co-written by a member of the very community they’re vilifying.

I wonder if it would make any difference if they did.

And I wonder how to convey the impact of their actions to them: to get them to understand what they’re doing and how it connects to a seemingly innocuous animated classic.

Because they need to. They really, really do.

It’s why the rest of us are fighting so hard: we’re not in the mob and never will be. We’re in that castle, with the freaks they hate, barricading the doors and rallying to a common defense.

And if they can’t wake up and smell what their would-be hero is shoveling, they’d better be ready for a fight.

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