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The surprising Catholic message in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 03/25/17

My wife and I went to see the film Thursday night—we liked it—and picked up on something that writer Jacob Popcak also noticed and appreciated:

I want to draw attention to an incredibly beautiful “exclusively Catholic moment” that many of us have missed as we argued about a clip that barely made it into the film. The scene is this: during the memorable opening number of the 1991 animated classic, the titular “Beauty” walks down the thoroughfares of her “provincial” village on her way to her regular place of refuge: a book shop, where even the cruelest and most small minded of the villagers can’t distract her from the solace of her books. The live-action adaptation’s opening proceeds similarly, with Belle purposely making her way through the town as her neighbors go about their excessively predictable daily lives. But that’s where the live action veers from its animated counterpart: instead of finding her way to the local bookshop (admittedly something of an oddity in an otherwise illiterate town), Belle arrives at the local Catholic Church. She’s there, in her own words, to see “Père Robert” (Father Robert). In lieu of a photo or clip (I’d rather not link you to any pirated copies of the film), I’ll let the film’s novelization take it away: “Finally, Belle arrived at her destination — the vestry of the church. Pushing open the doors, she breathed a sigh of relief as the quiet and serenity of the building enveloped her. The hubbub and noise of outside faded away, and for the first time that morning, Belle felt at peace. Hearing her enter, a kind man in a long black robe looked up from his book. The man was tall and slender, with warm eyes that crinkled as he smiled at Belle. While standing in front of a truly massive Crucifix, the man – revealed to be Père Robert, the parish priest – discuss their mutual fondness of Shakespeare. Then, the scene continues: “The well-read priest was one of two people in the entire village Belle felt she could talk to. ‘Thank you,’ [Belle] said softly. ‘Your library makes our small corner of the world almost feel big.'” Some people I respect have already pointed out that the scene may merely be “a nod to the idea that the religious caste was the literate caste in the period portrayed.” But regardless of the meaning intended, I think we as Catholics can – and should – draw a greater meaning from the picture painted.

Read on to find what that is—and it’s enlightening and heartening.

Something else that is easily overlooked in the film is its profound Christian message of conversion.

The prince in the story is transformed into a Beast because of his lack of charity toward the poor; he refuses to help an old beggar woman. He only recovers his humanity through learning to love and be loved. (Looking for a modern parallel, I think “Groundhog Day” is another story about a “beast” who undergoes a conversion through the transformative power of love.)  The moral of this “tale as old as time”: love redeems.

Sound familiar?

As for that “exclusively gay moment” that has elicited so much hand-wringing: it’s sound and fury signifying nothing. Jacob Popcak notes:

I can say objectively that the “exclusively gay moment” is virtually a non-entity. I can summarize the much-argued scene as follows: approximately 4.5 frames of film in which the side character in question briefly, awkwardly, and bewilderedly begins to dance with another man in a crowded ballroom scene.

The movie also offers, I think, a timely civics lesson. When the animated film was released in 1991, a few people saw parallels to the AIDS crisis. Today, we might see it differently. Who are the “beasts” in today’s world that many of the mob want to destroy, eradicate, ban from the village?

There’s a lot to question about the film—including whether making it was even necessary—but there’s also much to appreciate. Amid the lavish sets, lush costumes and familiar show tunes, the viewer will also find some timeless lessons about faith, fortitude, and love.


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