Few questions feel as stale as the following: Is the Disney Princess feminist? It's become profoundly boring to scavenge for an answer, so common is this refrain that arises each holiday season since Peggy Orenstein’s barnstorm of an essay. It will no doubt be a talking point upon the release of Moana later this year. The "Disney Princess" has congealed into a homogenous, lumpen unit of capitalist excess, so much that each character’s particular idiosyncrasies often become obscured in such discussions.
Belle, the heroine of Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), is a headstrong bibliophile with a peripatetic mind; she spends the beginning of the film longing to be elsewhere. “There must be more than this provincial life,” she screams in the film’s opening number, which economically introduces us to the townspeople who fawn over her. Belle, voiced by Paige O’Hara, occupies a narrative wherein she’s asked to weather the furies of a gruff, abusive Beast (Robbie Benson). She is probing and skeptical by nature, but her most salient quality is that she’s exceedingly kind. It is only through her patience that the Beast, initially grouchy and short-fused, becomes a bit tamer—she’s able to see his basic humanity, and she spends the film effectively domesticating him.
Beauty and the Beast is one of those films that, to its own benefit, seems forever tethered to the context in which it appeared—at the crux of the blossoming Disney Renaissance, a fruitful period for a studio that had struggled after string of failures. Indeed, the film was responsible for helping the company regain footing after a decades-long period of financial stagnation, replete with such non-starters as The Black Cauldron (1985) and Oliver & Company (1988). The Little Mermaid (1989), with its financial and critical success, issued a course-correction to that sad trajectory; Beauty and the Beast signaled a new, lucrative chapter for the studio. The film, after critics slathered it with praise, would become the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, remaining the only one until Pete Docter’s Up (2009). When Kathleen Turner read out its name on the list of Best Picture nominations that year, the press erupted in uncharacteristic applause.
This Sunday, September 18th, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in will be screening the film at Manhattan's Alice Tully Hall for its 25th anniversary. There’s some tidy symbolism here; 25 years ago, a rough cut of the film, storyboards and pencil tests occupying a good thirty percent of its frames, first screened in that very same hall at the New York Film Festival. The response was, reportedly, rapturous, in spite of it being a work in progress, prompting a ten-minute standing ovation.
The film’s legacy has only gotten stronger in the intervening years. Even the most resistant of Disney agnostics will concede that Beauty and the Beast is the Disney Renaissance’s unimpeachable artistic apex. Watching Beauty and the Beast has thus become a exercise in nostalgia. It’s difficult to detach oneself from the potency of the particular memory of theatergoing, or home video viewing, it inspires. In earnest, I tried to dislodge with this memory with a recent rewatch. Though some crucial scenes still affect—the prologue set against stained glass, the library reveal, the ending—Beauty and the Beast has lost much of its charge, its so-called transportive qualities having a whiff of calculation. Though there are some whispers of darkness in the narrative, the film feels fragile and timid to give flesh to them.
Well, no shit, one might say; it’s a fucking kid’s movie. But the film’s genteel, soft-lined aesthetic seems to be strangling the more exciting narrative strains inside it, chief among them a more full-bodied characterization of Belle. Revisiting the production history of Beauty and the Beast in advance of this anniversary reveals a story in which a female screenwriter’s original conception of Belle as a brazen feminist had, after bitter infighting, become watered down in the film’s final product. The film starts to feel like a real missed opportunity when one considers screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s initial inspiration for Belle: Katharine Hepburn as Josephine “Jo”March in George Cukor’s Little Women (1933).
An animated Disney adaptation of the fable had been an embryonic idea as early as the late 1930s, shortly after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The main fears from Disney’s end for putting it to film were with the story’s second half, which sees Belle imprisoned in her tormentor’s castle; how could they make such narrative stasis compelling? As such, the project became stagnant after some time. The release of Jean Cocteau's wildly popular version of the story in 1946 didn't help matters much, either. Interest in mounting the film eventually waned.
Disney rescued this abandoned project in the late 1980s, when the runaway success of Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), coupled with that of The Little Mermaid (1989), reenergized the project. Yet this go-around, too, was mired in chaos. The film’s original director, Ron Purdum, resigned due to creative differences with Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. Purdum’s conception of the project was more macabre than what the studio had in mind. In Purdum’s stead, Katzenberg commissioned Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, two directors who’d never directed feature films before. The film would going through various, ultimately scrapped, rough drafts even with its directors in place.
At that point, Woolverton came on board. A former CBS Development Executive who was then 38, Woolverton had spent most of her career writing young adult novels and for television—The Berenstain Bears, My Little Pony, Chip ’n Dale Rescue Rangers—but she’d been aching for a film credit. One day, she took one of her books to Disney’s front desk and demanded they read it. The book caught the eye of Katzenberg, who had reached something of an impasse with Beauty and the Beast; after a few conversations with him, she became the sole screenwriter for the new film, a feat no other woman had achieved on an animated Disney film thus prior.
“By the time I rolled around, I’d been through the women’s movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Woolverton explained of her own politics when she entered the project. Growing up in Long Beach, California, Woolverton had observed such other Disney Princesses as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and bristled at their passivity, wanting to craft Belle as a female character in opposition to them—a true woman of the 90s. “I definitely couldn’t buy that this smart, attractive young girl, Belle, would be sitting around and waiting for her prince to come. That she was someone who suffers in silence and only wants a pure rose? That she takes all this abuse but is still good at heart?”
Upon being hired to write Beauty and the Beast, then, Woolverton vowed not to watch the Cocteau version of the story, so as not to parrot his vision and model belle after Josette Day’s performance. Instead, she derived her inspiration from Cukor’s Little Women. In Hepburn’s Jo, Woolverton felt she’d found film’s definitive portrait of womanhood, and Woolverton sought to transpose Jo’s qualities to Belle. Though Woovlerton acknowledged that Belle lacked the outwardly ‘tomboyish’ qualities of Hepburn’s Jo, both nevertheless were, in Woolverton’s eyes, “strong, active women who loved to read—and wanted more than life was offering them.” There were shades of autobiography in Woolverton’s Belle, too. She based Gaston, Belle’s brutish suitor, on insufferable exes of her own. But Hepburn was, ultimately, the root of Woolverton’s inspiration. Animator Brenda Chapman—who would later direct Pixar’s first princess film, Brave (2012), and publicly decry Disney’s sanitized depiction of its protagonist Merida as she was inhaled under the Disney Princess umbrella—also drew from Spencer Tracy and Hepburn’s onscreen dynamic for a scene in which Belle tends to Beast’s wounds. The bickering between Belle and Beast in this scene was meant to resemble the electric, flirtatious ribbing between Hepburn and Tracy from such films as Woman of the Year (1942).
Unshockingly, though, Woolverton found herself stepping onto a testosterone-heavy male team upon joining production, and encountered skeptics more often than she found women like Chapman, along with other supporters like the late lyricist Howard Ashman, ready to see her vision through. Without her consultation, members of the larger storyboarding team would routinely change crucial suggested lines of dialogue for Belle. One scene, for example, had been written by Woolverton as one in which Belle pushed pins into a map, demarcating everywhere she wanted to travel in her life. When Woolverton spoke to the storyboarders, though, she’d found that the scene had been changed to one in which Belle was decorating a cake. Eventually, they reached a compromise; Belle would be reading a book while walking in public.
“It was really hard. I felt every day I went that they didn’t want me there,” Woolverton remembered in Vanity Fair this year. “I just muscled through. I was hard and they didn’t like me at times. I was not popular.”
Watching Beauty and the Beast back-to-back with Little Women makes for a profoundly disorienting viewing experience. In theory, watching Little Women would imbue Beauty and the Beast with greater meaning, yet it does the opposite, giving credence to the suspicion that Woolverton’s initial vision went awry in the sanguine, soft-pedaling film. There are clear thematic parallels between the two films. The absence of the father, and the desire of the independent heroine to assume the role of the father in his absence, informs both narratives. Belle is thrust into a sacrificial role in Beauty and the Beast, voluntarily asking the Beast to imprison her to spare her father a crueler fate. Likewise, Hepburn’s Jo steps into the role of her invisible father, and she must contend with accusations from her own sisters that she’s not really a woman. In one scene, for example, Amy (Joan Bennett) chides Jo for being ‘unladylike.’ Hepburn’s Jo is vaguely unruly and obstreperous. Belle’s femininity is never called into question throughout her film. Beauty and the Beast puts an emphasis on Belle’s agreeability, while Little Women emphasizes Jo’s radicalism.
Indeed, the throwaway qualifiers often used to describe Belle—feisty, spunky, independent—could be applied more truthfully to Hepburn’s Jo. It is the quintessential Hepburn performance, a read she herself all but confirmed. “I would defy anyone to be as good as I was in Little Women,” she once said. “Coming from a big family, in which I had always been dramatic, this suited my exaggerated sense of things.” Hepburn’s words remind us of the differences between her and a character like Belle. Both are motivated by an innate curiosity and eagerness to be stimulated by their surroundings. Yet Jo is theatrical and thus prone to outspokenness. Belle is more introspective, and she largely plays by the rules. Further taking her away from Hepburn’s Jo was voice actress Paige O’Hara’s mellifluous voice for Belle. Production claimed it’d be reminiscent of Judy Garland (of course, this wasn’t the Judy Garland who was frequently depressed and suicidal, but the more outwardly cheerful and captivating songstress), but it nevertheless was far in texture from Hepburn’s distinctive vocal inflections.
“She is Jo,” Cukor commented of Hepburn. “Of all those characters she ever played, it is the one who is closest to Kate herself, Kate and Jo really are the same girl. There’s no doubt that this girl put a lot of herself into Jo. Everything. Lines are important, but how they are delivered tells a tale. Expressions on her face, the way she moves.”
The philosophy undergirding Hepburn’s approach to this role, as Cukor notes here, was at once both instinctual and studied—autobiographical enough to inspire a certain naturalism, but still artful. Look to the scene in which she turns down Laurie as a potential suitor. She navigates conflicting emotions of not hurting a man she clearly cares for and being faithful to her own principles; Hepburn’s splendid here. Search for a parallel scene in Beauty and the Beast. There is none. At no point in the film is Belle given such a wide-ranging possibility for expression. The film, instead, confines her to extremities of feeling—furious anger, unbearable sadness—that deny her subtlety of feeling. It’s a problem that owes itself, ultimately, to the differences between Disney’s animation capabilities of the time, incapable of rendering more careful emotion, and live action film. The limitations of Disney’s animation, circa 1991, become woefully apparent here when compared to Cukor’s camera, an instrument attentive to small, gestural shifts in emotion on Hepburn’s ultimate canvas, her face.
By the 90s, depictions of Jo on film would soften, hovering closer to Belle’s universe—sweet, gently rebellious, her radicalism subdued rather than explicit. In 1994, Gillian Armstrong would direct an adaptation of Little Women starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Ryder brought a quality of her own to the role—gamine and charismatic—and yet her whole approach seemed to lack the suggestiveness of her earlier work as a weirdo in such films as Beetlejuice (1988) and Heathers (1988), a betrayal of both Ryder’s gifts and Louisa May Alcott’s Jo. What came through in the role was a suppression of Ryder’s natural tomboyishness so that she would appear more effete. Ryder’s interpretation does not deserve to be written off entirely—she did, after all, get an Oscar nomination for her performance—but her work just didn’t have the tension and brilliance of Hepburn’s.
These days, it’s not exactly sexy to come out against Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Not lavishing this film in praise implies that you are profoundly unhappy in your personal life, or, worse, hopelessly snobbish about the potential of animation as compared to live action cinema. No doubt theIinternet will, soon, be flush with rapturous remembrances of the film in observance of its 25th anniversary. To deny the film its cultural importance would be ahistorical and critically irresponsible, but equally disingenuous is to pretend that the film embraces the nuance that one of its author, Woolverton, envisioned.
Next year, in a live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast from Disney, Belle will be played by Emma Watson, an actress who has been unapologetic about her feminist activism offscreen. Watson’s screen presence, tense and self-assured, seems a snug fit for Woolverton’s Belle, as does her public persona. It’s not terribly surprising, then, that Woolverton has found Watson a pretty perfect embodiment of her initial conception of Belle. There’s a chance that this upcoming adaptation will keep Woolverton’s initial philosophy intact, acting as a more truthful encapsulation of her aims than the 1991 version ultimately was. Perhaps this will prod those who’ve held Beauty and the Beast up to its pedestal to reconsider its aesthetic shortcomings, and acknowledge how its aims and the latent potential of Woolverton’s original script didn’t materialize in the final product.
Woolverton is now 63, and her career’s soared since the film’s success. She got a Tony for writing the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, and she claims screenwriting credits on astronomically high-grossing movies like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (2014). She has given many interviews about the film in these years, in which she politely remembers the film’s cultural import without ignoring the fact that her collaborators shortchanged her vision. What sticks out is the instance when Entertainment Weekly’s Joe McGovern asked whether she was ultimately satisfied with the way Belle had turned out. She’d been conceived, after all, as a radical character for a studio that had a storied history of regressive gender politics, but Woolverton found herself working against people who wanted to—and eventually did—dilute her vision.
“I am,” she commented, appending it with a qualification. “I mean, you can only move the needle so much.”