It’s a tale as old as time, girl meets beast, beast locks girl up, both fall in love and beast becomes a man again. It may sound slightly dubious summed up like that, but Beauty and the Beast is perhaps one of Disney’s most beloved animations, hence why this year the tale has been given the live-action treatment in a new adaptation. But Disney’s not stopping there, having already adapted several other animated classics into live-action movies in a trend started by 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Disney has a whole host of live-action remakes in the pipeline. In the future, we can expect a live-action Mulan, a new Mary Poppins, and even a completely CGI Lion King. But what is it about these stories that makes them worth retelling? And is Disney up to the task of updating these classics for a modern audience which is much more aware of the need for better representation across all aspects of society?
Life may not always be a fairy tale, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn somethings from our favourite Disney stories. Even in Beauty and the Beast, a story criticised by many to be a case of Stockholm-Syndrome, there are some lessons that we can gain from the story and some positive representations too.
In both the new adaptation starring Emma Watson and its animated predecessor, Belle is always presented as an avid reader. It might only be a small detail, but for all of us who grew up with the ‘nerdy bookworm’ stereotype it was nice to have a Disney princess who we could relate to – a Disney princess who wasn’t royalty and had more substance to her character. Apparently, Disney’s retelling of the tale develops Belle’s character, casting her as the inventor rather than her father. Amidst this challenging of stereotypes is the moral message that we should never judge by outward appearances. In Belle’s unconventional character we find a heroine, and in the Beast we find a hero. The theme continues with a reinterpretation of LeFou’s character, who is said to be Disney’s first explicitly gay character, hopefully heralding an improvement in LGBT representation. Although, some critics have pointed out how LeFou was initially a villain in the original movie, and he is still a minor character playing a sidekick role to Gaston.
So there still is a long way to go in terms of getting equal representation, but hopefully we’re on the way now.
Speaking of representation, Frozen, despite being a nuisance to parents everywhere, is a brilliant film that explores feminism and the bond between sisters. Not only did it teach us to ‘let it go’, it subverted the fairy tale trope of true love. The two heroines, Anna and Elsa are the ones to save their kingdom; Anna is the one to set out on the film’s quest and she saves herself and her sister through an act of true, sisterly love. Interestingly, Elsa is one of very few Disney princesses not to have a love interest, sparking discussions on how her coming to terms with her ice-related powers could be a metaphor for coming out in the LGBT community.
Perpetual renditions of Let It Go in family homes around the world seem a small price to pay when what is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time promotes feminism and inclusivity, whilst teaching a generation of young girls the value of female friendship. Futhermore, Disney gets a lot of criticism for its lack of racial diversity, although developments have been seen in Tiana’s character from The Princess and the Frog, who became Disney’s first African-American princess. Similarly, Mulan, Jasmine and Pocahontas have become pivotal Disney princesses introducing many of our generation to cultures other than that of white European ones.
In these characters, we appreciate different ways of life, but at the same time Disney emphasises the commonalities between these independent, determined and brave characters. Rather than highlighting divisions, Disney stresses the importance of these qualities in their protagonists, giving us role models not only to look up to, but role models that we can see ourselves in.
Perhaps these live action remakes lack originality, but these films are being revamped in the context of a more modern worldview, and we can’t just look to classics that aren’t diverse or representative.
Disney is undoubtedly a huge part of many people’s lives (so much so that I can imagine that the Frozen soundtrack will continue to haunt us many years down the line – I bet parents shudder at the thought of the sequel), so it’s only right that their stories should do their best to reflect and interpret society now. Surely with a little magic and the power of Disney, they’ll all end happily ever after.