The worst thing about revisionist readings is not that they ruin nostalgia for old classics, or undermine the moral foundation of society—it’s that they so often miss the point.
It is fashionable nowadays to deride classic Disney movies for teaching the wrong lessons about love and life, on both sides of the political aisle. If your sympathies are left-leaning, you might complain that Cinderella’s prince was only dazzled by her gown, and his devotion to her will fizzle as quickly as it sparked. If you lean right, you might object that The Little Mermaid glorifies teenage rebellion, and rewards pig-headed disobedience.
Director Guillermo del Toro topped both of these in his rejection of Beauty and the Beast’s central premise: that breaking the Beast’s curse will set him free by returning him to human form. “The Beast doesn’t need to transform to be loved,” said del Toro. Instead of becoming a “boring” prince, he should not “renounce the essence” of himself, because “love is acceptance and understanding.”
Del Toro’s Critique Misfires
This kind of thinking is symptomatic of the “self-care” mindset that animates online communities. Instead of striving to improve ourselves, as our parents might have had it, we encourage self-acceptance. Constructive criticism has fallen out of favor; affirmation is the order of the day.
However well-intentioned, this reading does the Disney classic—and its viewers—a disservice. Irrespective of del Toro’s larger claims about love as acceptance, his critique misfires because the Beast was, in fact, beloved before his transformation. That was the point: Belle declared her love for him without knowing his true form. She laid his shaggy, tusked head to rest before weeping out her confession against his furry pelt. When the enchantment resurrected his human body, she hesitated to embrace him until she recognized him as the same person. Del Toro has mixed up the storyline at its key moment.
We must ask whether we would really show kindness to the Beast by encouraging him to remain as he is. Remember that the Beast was miserable, trapped in a form alien to his birth. He wanted to change. Does that make us compassionate, if we ignore or dismiss a person’s stated wish to improve himself? The most unselfish love, which we traditionally called “charity” after the Latin caritas, can be defined as aiming at the good of another. To will someone’s good is to actively desire his well-being: to both long for, and when possible act towards, that end. Is acceptance really loving, if it aims at no better future for the beloved than his current state of imperfection?
Love is Transforming
The Beast did not earn love by transforming—it was being loved that transformed him. This is a precious truth that points us back to the work of God in our lives. “Abide in My love,” said Christ at the Last Supper. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” Love and obedience, motive and practice, are the core of the transformative life Christians are called to lead. Love is nothing so weak or inert as a one-way validation, like hitting thumbs up on a social media post. It has enduring consequences for the beloved, offering hope and purpose as it draws us out of ourselves and into communion with another.
Disney movies have something more profound to teach us than their jaded modern-day critics would allow. Cinderella didn’t need fancy clothes to get the prince’s attention: donning the dress completed the picture of what was already true about her, that she was a queen at heart. Ariel wasn’t an ungrateful daughter: she longed for something beautiful, which even her father came to embrace as worthy.
What makes these stories fairy tales is not that their endings are unrealistic, overly optimistic, or patriarchal and oppressive. They are fairy tales because they end with good triumphing over evil. Ironically, for a generation denouncing their childhood favorites in the name of social justice, that is exactly what the Disney classics offer: stories where everyone gets what they deserve.