Why Beauty and the Beast Isn’t a Great Screenplay
written by Tony DiGerolamo (Mike’s comments in BOLD)
In this first ‘Story Review’ article, we’re going to break down Disney’s Beauty & The Beast.
Keep in mind that this was the first animated film EVER to be nominated as Best Picture. It caused the Oscars to begin to acknowledge animated films. So as animators, we owe tons of the respect we get to this movie, that’s why it’s the first film in our story corner. Tony will give his input, and then I’ll reply back in BOLD.
The 1991 animated movie Beauty and the Beast grossed over $200 million worldwide and was nominated for Best Picture. Now if you’re one of those people that equates money to success, keep in mind that B&B was from a creative standpoint, like shooting fish in a barrel.
First, it was based on a popular fairy tale that’s been in the public domain since it was originally written in 1756. So you’re already dealing with a product that’s known to most people and didn’t cost the studio a dime in terms of purchasing the rights. (Not a bad way to go, if you’re looking to produce your own classic.)
Second, it was produced at Disney, an international powerhouse when it comes to movie marketing. And there was no way they were going to let the $25 million dollar budget go to waste.
So let’s not kid ourselves here. We’re dealing with a product made by hired hands. That’s not to denigrate the work, one simply must acknowledge the difference between a film created as a labor of love, by artists full of hope and one created by skilled, well-paid employees of a major studio who punched the clock.
So from a writing stand point, how well does the screenplay stack up? Act one starts with an introduction of the prince and how he became a beast. We don’t actually see the events unfold, but with narration and medieval pictures, we’re told the story of how the prince is cursed.
Narration is usually a weak choice because it distances the audience from the characters. Instead of watching the events unfold and identifying with the characters, the audience is told what they should see and feel. However, since the prince is kind of an asshole, distancing him from the audience for the “big reveal” later could pay off.
Tony is right on point here. This is Belle’s movie and the filmmakers wanted to get to her as soon as possible, BUT they needed to set the Beast’s curse up. Why? Because the world has some magic and special rules. If those aren’t set up in the first 2 minutes then you’d lose the audience.
Imagine watching a drama then halfway through they start singing, or there is a talking whale. You’d be like ‘What the f*ck is that?’ You’d HATE the movie! This is exactly what happened with an otherwise great movie ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’. Halfway through the movie an angel hows up and has magic. This wasn’t set up prior and thus completely destroys the world. There are now no stakes because the storytellers didn’t set up the rules of the world and then stick to them. So kudos to the Disney story team for setting up the magic up front!
Next up is the introduction of Belle. Belle is the Beauty and she sings a song about how odd a person she is in her little town because she likes to read. She also complains about the “provincial” life she leads. This is a choice by the writers so that little girls identify with Belle. She romanticizes her imagine future romances as little girls do. She’s the most beautiful girl in town, as little girls want to be.
But I think this song goes too far in trying to make Belle such an odd ball. Beautiful people tend not to be treated like oddballs because they are beautiful. And the design of Belle as compared to the three hot blonde chicks that also live in the village is pretty comparable. She’s not that beautiful as compared to them and actually, the blonde ones are pretty hot.
But making Belle an oddball is necessary so that she has some kind of weakness in front of the audience that they can identify with. If your main character is just perfect, no one can connect. Everyone has felt like an oddball once in a while, so almost anyone can identify with this aspect of Belle’s personality.
But if Belle is so odd because she reads books, is everyone in the village an idiot? Don’t the other villagers read? Belle mentions that she bought the book in the village, so there has to be a bookstore or someone selling books. Wouldn’t there be at least one other villager that doesn’t think literacy is so odd?
The filmmakers needed to set her apart from the others and give her an attribute that made us like her. Every good story gives the hero 1 main problem or flaw. Belle doesn’t have a flaw (making it that she’s odd isn’t a flaw). So they give her a major problem…that the whole village distances themselves from her (she has no friends, except for the sheep that eat her book – and they make her nicely smile at these annoying sheep so that we like her.) The big problem that Belle has is Gaston.
It would have been much better to give her a character flaw that she needs to overcome, but the storytellers decided to give that to the Beast (he is rude and doesn’t treat people well). I bet they gave Belle a flaw at one point but cut it out because it was a wiser choice to focus on the Beast’s flaw since that created conflict for Belle. Remember that all good stories LAYER on the conflict.
Here’s a SECRET STORY TELLING TIP:
Each story needs a protagonist. That’s the person who the story is about. Who is it in Beauty & The Beast? Belle, right? After all she’s all over act 1…we don’t even see the Beast until the beginning of act 2.
Wrong! It’s the Beast’s movie. Why? Because he is the one with the problem. He’s a jerk! He needs someone to love him or he’s going to remain cursed forever. BUT since he’s a jerk the audience won’t want to watch him for a whole movie. We don’t like ‘bad’ characters. This story would not have worked had it all been told from Beast’s perspective. So the storytellers make a very wise choice. They tell Belle’s story because she is likable and nice. Because we like her, and because she has so many external problems (a nutty dad, an aggressive suitor, no friends) we sympathize with her and want to see her overcome.
This allows the writers to ‘piggyback’ Belle’s story and help them tell the Beasts. Another great example of this is Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.
That movie is really about Cameron Fry, Ferris’ best friend. He is the character with a personal flaw, not Ferris. But Cameron is a total wimp, and wouldn’t be enjoyable to watch for 2 hours. We’d want to jump into the movie and shake some sense into him. So John Hughes (the writer/director) wisely makes the movie focus on Ferris (who has no arc- he’s just a cool guy). Because Ferris is so likable, it allows Cameron’s story to be the subplot. We get to slowly get to know him so that by the end of act 2, we understand WHY he’s such a wimp and root for him. The same storytelling device is being done here with the Beast.
Another thing to remember is that B&B is a musical, so musical numbers take the audience out of the action. (Not that the songs we’re bad, they’re now considered pretty classic.) You focus on the song and what the characters are singing about, but that is usually only one aspect off a larger hole. Essentially, a plot that is moving forward comes to a halt until the song is over, so your song better be damned entertaining.
The song here sets up her ‘WANT’. It’s all about showing what Belle yearns for (remember this is a fairy tale, which is about wish fulfillment). The storytellers try to add as much conflict into the song to keep it entertaining. That’s why Belle is narrowly avoiding danger as she reads, Gaston is running around hunting (geese and Belle!), and there’s a lot of visual activity whirling around. Had the directors not made things so active, this song would have driven the story to a halt. But they used the various filmmaking tools at hand to keep things rolling forward. A key tool in that is giving the hero a WANT (Belle wants to read her book), so all the conflict in this sequence is aimed at getting her distracted from reading. It’s a very simple story tool but it works.