Continuing the Disney Renaissance came my favourite Disney movie, with our protagonist whose name means “beauty”: Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This fairy tale contains the Beast, a spoiled prince under a spell after an enchantress finds that he has little to no kindness in his heart. The only way to break the curse is for him to learn how to love and be loved in return before the last petal of an enchanted rose falls. Then we’re introduced to Belle, a young woman living in a small and quiet town with her father. Belle’s considered the most beautiful girl in town, but because she’d rather stick to her books and stay in her own head than socialise and fit in with other people, people see her as odd and very different from the rest of them. Gaston, the alpha-male of the town, decide he wants to marry Belle because he believes he deserves the best, thus making Belle the best candidate for his wife. Soon, Belle’s father gets lost in the woods and encounters the Beast in his enchanted castle where he becomes a prisoner. Belle goes to the castle and offers her freedom in his place. In the castle, she gets to know the servants who have transformed into moving objects, and also gets to know the Beast who might be more than meets the eye. She might just be the one who can break the spell.
Belle is voiced by Paige O’Hara, who was in her 30s when she played Belle, making her much older than Belle and giving her a more adult-like quality to her voice despite her youth. The filmmakers wanted to have an actress who could play “a woman that was ahead of her time”, and it makes sense, because Belle is much more mature than she appears to be. In the development this character, the creators of the film also wanted to make her a stronger and braver character than the character from the original French story. The original story had Belle forced to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, but screenwriter Linda Woolverton altered it for Belle to make that sacrifice herself. Paige O’Hara was also extremely pleased with this change. O’Hara actually had a lot of input in the development of Belle’s character, including her quirkier and book-wormy side, and it succeeds on all those aspects.
While many are very divided on Ariel, most people can agree that Belle is probably everyone’s favourite. Belle used to be tied with Rapunzel as my favourite Disney Princess, although when I think about it now, I’d put her on the top of the list. I LOVE BELLE! Most people praise Belle by saying “she’s smart because she reads book”. I can sorta agree with this: reading books does develop your mind and Belle herself is a woman with a mind of her own. I interpreted this trait a bit differently, which is what I believe was the original intent of the creators of this film. I think the best way for me to talk about Belle is if I become a bit open about myself. I think she’s an amazing character, but at the same time I can also really connect to Belle in a very personal way. I consider myself an eccentric like Belle, and I also LOVE eccentric characters in fiction when done right. To me, they just stand out more. Belle in particular shows this side by reading books, especially fairy tales.
One of my greatest passions in life is writing (from creative writing to writing my blog), and I’m heavily influenced by the art of storytelling, especially in the film medium and with the fairy tale genre. So often I spend more time in the computer focusing on these kinds of projects and uni stuff compared to going outside and hang out with people, because I hope that someday I can be successful and fulfil one of my passions. It’s not that I hate going out. On the contrary, I love going outside and talking to other people. It’s just that I’m more introverted. But both my family and a few friends/classmates of mine have criticised me at least once for not doing things most uni students and people my age do, like have boyfriends or go out partying and drinking. And as a writer, I tend to live in my own head with tons of dreams and ideas: for that reason I easily become absent-minded and distracted. That’s where Belle comes in. As beautiful and friendly as she is, she shuts herself in her books and doesn’t talk much to other people. It’s similar to the Beast who shut himself in his castle (which is what they share in common), but unlike the Beast who had lost all hope in his life, Belle actually has hopes that something good will happen. She doesn’t have a problem with her surroundings, and she’s never showing a cynical attitude towards her town. It’s just that it’s too little and quiet for her taste, and wishes that she were in her own fairy tale or adventure. The other aspect that sets her apart from other women in society is that her goal isn’t to get a man or to follow the typical female roles common within this society: being a housewife, having kids, doing domestic chores, and nothing else. It’s not wrong to be a housewife if that’s your choice, but everyone in this small society assume that it’s women’s only choice if they want to fit in with them. Belle doesn’t mind the idea of getting married (Heck, she gets married in the end!), but at this point in her life she doesn’t want to marry anyone, least of all Gaston. She’s only get married when she feels she’s ready and when she finds the right one. She’s seen as different from the rest of them for not living up to the expectations society sets out for her, but Belle isn’t trying to tell people that what they’re doing is wrong: Belle’s just doing what she believe is right for herself. She minds her own business and is just being herself. This society tries to tell her otherwise. Gaston in particular says: “It’s not right for a girl to read. First they’ll start getting ideas, and… thinking…”
In the same scene, Gaston pulls away Belle’s book and observing the pages he says, ”How can you read this? There are no pictures.” (Yeah, except for that ONE DRAWING we saw in the previous musical number! I’ve always wanted to bring that up.) She says in response to this that “some people use their imagination”. This is where Belle’s mindset is at the moment. Right now Belle wants something more out of the life she’s living: adventure in the great wide somewhere, to be in a story of her own in a fantastical place, like what she had read in her books… perhaps even more grand and spectacular than she can ever imagine. And Belle won’t allow people into pressuring her to be something she’s not; she makes her own choices and is who she is. That’s what makes her such a strong and independent woman. I also get so personally attached to Belle, because I know what it’s like to stick out in a group and be considered an oddball. Belle reminds me why I’m so happy to be myself. I’m sure she has had this impact on other people or in a different way.
Something people rarely bring up is Belle’s father. Maurice is an inventor, and although he’s smart in the technical side of things, he has a bit of a bizarre mind. It’s a bit sad to find out that your horse has more common sense than you do. When you’re told that he’s Belle’s father, it makes perfect sense: although Belle is more on the “normal” side compared to her dad, she’s the kind of person who lives in her own mind just as much as he does, to be more self-aware of her life, and to make her own decisions, no matter what society tells you. He raised her that way. That’s what makes Belle so different from other girls, and that’s what leads her to become a woman who would sacrifice her freedom to save her father. She probably inherited those qualities from her father.
What’s fascinating in the story is that Belle didn’t expect to fall in love with a beast, she didn’t expect to be entrapped in an enchanted castle and away from her home… but it’s exactly what she wanted. I love stories where a main character asks for something and getting exactly what they want in the middle of the film (at the top of my head, Midnight in Paris), because although it’s what they’ve asked for, they might react differently to how they expect to react in their minds. The first time she comes to the castle, she’s terrified. It’s only later that she starts to live in the fairy tale she envisioned. She got what she wanted, but it wasn’t what she expected. It turns out that what Belle was looking for was in the last place she’d search. It fits in with the theme of deceiving appearances and finding the beauty within. Just like trying to find the beauty within the Beast, Belle needs to see through the appearance of this castle to discover that she’s in a fantastical place. I love in the song where she sings about her favourite part of the book: “Here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him ’til chapter 3.” That’s perfect foreshadowing! And it works again when she references the Prince Charming again in the song with the same musical motif, “Something There”: “New and a bit alarming. Who’d have ever thought that this could be? True that he’s no Prince Charming, but there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.” BEAUTIFUL! ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE!
Sorry, I just adore this film.
It’s so ironic that Belle finds freedom in a place where she was originally a prisoner. She was in a confined space. But to both the main character and to us the audience, the castle feels so grand and spectacular that we become immersed in this world and we almost forget we’re confined to one place.
All in all, it’s easy to love Belle, even if you don’t look into the powerful subtext of the film. This is a masterpiece of a film about finding the beauty within, the ugly within, and being able to differentiate between the two. It wouldn’t have been possible to make such a film without these amazing characters, especially Belle. It really is no wonder her name means “beauty”. She may be beautiful in and out, but she’s not perfect. Beauty is imperfect. Beauty can come in many shapes and sizes: I guess the most beautiful things in life come in what you least expect, even something out of the ordinary. But beauty is also in the eye of the beholder: that’s part of what makes all of us individuals. Still one of my favourite movies. And Belle is not just my favourite Disney Princess, but also one of my favourite fictional characters EVER.
Stay tuned, as next time we’ll be taking a looking at another Disney Princess: Jasmine.