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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Beauty and the Beast: Why the tale as old as time is still enchanting audiences

Emma Watson is the perfect role model to take on the role of Belle, arguably Disney's first feminist in a sea of ball-gowns and wispy princesses.

Tanya Sweeney

Published 18/11/2016 | 02:30

Reboot: Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as Beast in the remake of 'Beauty and the Beast'
Reboot: Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as Beast in the remake of 'Beauty and the Beast'
The Disney original released in 1991
Emma Watson as Belle in Beauty and the Beast
UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (C ) attends the HeForShe campaign launch at the United Nations
Lily James as Cinderella

Ever wondered how child actors shrug off their most iconic roles as they get older? Look no further than Emma Watson, who shrugged off Hermione Granger with a nude scene in the film 'Regression', gender equality speeches at the United Nations and spirited endorsement of the sexual pleasure research website OMGYes.

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Yet her return to the realm of fairytale fantasy - specifically, to the role of Belle in the remake of 'Beauty & The Beast' - has everyone talking and watching, as the trailer for the coming film clocked up over 124 million views in 24 hours online. The forthcoming (and rather less wholesome) Fifty Shades of Grey sequel holds the record for the second most viewed trailer.

The Disney live-action film seems every bit as sugary as its Disney predecessor. But its producers have been mindful to bring Belle bang up to 2016.

"In the 1991 film, Belle was a real breakthrough among Disney heroines," director Bill Condon told 'People' magazine. "But obviously a lot has happened in 25 years. We wanted to make sure that she remained a feminist figure and someone who looks to the future."

The Disney original released in 1991
The Disney original released in 1991

"She was this feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had all these ambitions, and was incredibly independent - wanted to see the world," Watson is quoted as saying. "She had this relationship with Beast where they were just toe-to-toe. That to me just seemed like such a dynamic and interesting relationship that I'd never seen before in a fairytale."

It's a quarter of a century since Belle's last cinematic outing, but those fairytale princesses and heroines - often wide of eye and tiny of waist - have endured. We've had the heroines that were flat-out badasses: 'Tangled' (2010) was the first notable attempt by Disney studio to debunk the stereotype that it had created: in subverting the age-old Rapunzel tale, the 'damsel in distress' becomes the heroine in her own epic adventure. Two years later, and Disney edged ever closer to Peak Deadly Disney Heroine. 'Brave' (2012) featured the unforgettable, female-haired Princess Merida, likely the first Disney heroine not to even bother with a romantic interest. And a high tide came in 2013, when 'Frozen''s Elsa and Anna turn the idea of finding romantic love in its head, with sisterhood and female friendship easily trumping the idea of finding the one (the less said about Lily James' simpering, saccharine Cinderella last year, the better).

"All these Disney heroines, the princesses, they're a product of their time," screenwriter Linda Wolverton, who wrote 'Maleficent', said recently. "The princesses that were created in the 1940s and 50s, they were the best of what a woman should be then: You're the good girl. You took abuse ... and through it all, you sang and were nice.

"But we're not like that anymore. We kick ass now."

UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (C ) attends the HeForShe campaign launch at the United Nations
UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (C ) attends the HeForShe campaign launch at the United Nations

Good on Watson, Wolverton and co for giving the fairytale a fresh, feminist twist but… how cosy, really, have fairytales and feminism been as bedfellows?

After all, these 'heroines', viewed through our modern-day lens, often seem more than a little simpering, hanging out day after day in their belltower/stepmother's attic/palace waiting to be 'rescued'. How about Snow White, as passive and impressionable as you can get, and doing housework for seven slobs to boot? Or Cinderella, whose simple, sweet nature becomes her downfall (and salvation comes not in a heroine's struggle, but a shoe size)? Or Sleeping Beauty, who lands a moneyed fella in her sleep?

According to Elaina Ryan, director of Children's Books Ireland, the 'damsel in distress' trope is a relatively newfangled one.

"Certainly in the old versions, told by the Brothers Grimm, there was quite dark versions where there wasn't a Prince Charming in waiting," she explains. "Cinderella's father went on a business trip initially, for instance, and Cinderella asked for a twig, which she grew into a magic tree in the garden, so that she wasn't a damsel in distress. One of the sisters gets her eyes pecked out by birds, and another loses a toe while putting on the glass slipper. A lot of the newer versions are the 'Disneyfication' of fairytales. They've not always been changed by Disney but many adaptations have tried to sanitise them for kids."

Lily James as Cinderella
Lily James as Cinderella

Much of their enduring power, she notes, comes from our strong oral storytelling tradition. "When these stories were told by governesses and nurses, there probably was a focus on the female protagonists," he says. "And these days, there is a huge amount of nostalgia for parents brought up with 'Snow White'.

"Fairytales are a great jumping-off point for parents to talk to their children about certain issues, like 'would you have done that, or put up with that treatment?'"

Certainly as youngsters, we were enchanted by the simple romanticism of it all, the idea that some day Snow White's prince would come and true love, in its purest and most innocent incarnation, would reign supreme in the end. We were seduced by the heady glamour of glass coffins, crystal slippers and ball-gowns.

Youngsters react especially well to broad-stroke characters; ones that are archetypically good or evil, and love it most of all when their fantastical tales end, after a whirlwind adventure, with goodness coming out on top. And in today's shaky economic climate, the warming balm of fairytales is likely to come even more into its own.

Emma Watson as Belle in Beauty and the Beast
Emma Watson as Belle in Beauty and the Beast

"The villain getting their comeuppance is a real hug of a message, especially today," says Elaina. "There's also the universal message of someone undergoing a quest of fulfilling a wish. A lot of children take strength not just from good winning out, but the fact that there can be a happy ending under the most adverse of circumstances.

"Rapunzel's tower can be any time you're stuck in an awful situation. That these characters can find a way out of it is a powerful message of positivity," she adds.

Children and adults alike are chomping at the bit for the new 'Beauty & The Beast', yet while Watson's Belle is likely to be a kick-ass heroine, props should be given to the original Belle, too, who was condemned for wanting more than a provincial life and refused to be bullied into marriage even when her father's life was threatened.

Ultimately, the beastly prince needs Belle more than she will ever need him; a message, however subtle, that any feminist - or feminist in training - can likely get behind.

'Beauty and the Beast' is out in cinemas March 2017.

Irish Independent

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