So I pretty much think of Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast as a pretty perfect movie. It’s got a remarkably strong and proactive heroine who I, as a lover of books and stories, always saw myself in very strongly. It’s got some of Disney’s best animation of all time. It’s got a loveable and diverse cast of characters. And it seems like every time I watch it, I can find something new to be in awe of in the film.
Like the last time that I watched it, when I was struck by just how much the Beast suffers from depression throughout the entire film.
I think I always knew this was true to some extent, but I didn’t realize how strongly it was until my most recent viewing, when some of the Beast’s behaviour began to tie together in ways that it hadn’t before. And, I know, I know, some of you are going to be rolling your eyes and telling me that “it’s just a kid’s movie, there’s no way that they put something like that in there intentionally” – but think about it. It’s too consistent for it not to be intentional.
Think about how willing the Beast is, in multiple scenes, to just let himself give up or die. From the moment that he meets Belle, he assumes that the situation is hopeless, that she’ll never love him enough to break the spell. It’s his servants who have to talk him into actually trying. And when Gaston shows up at his castle with the clear intention of killing the Beast, he doesn’t even raise a hand to defend himself until Belle shows up and gives him reason to. He doesn’t personally care if he lives, dies, or stays a Beast forever – he only cares if other people are involved, and then he cares for them.
Think about how low the Beast’s self-esteem is. I mean, yes, I assume that low self-esteem would be common side effect of being cursed by a sorceress with the express intention of making it difficult for people to like you, but the Beast constantly refers to himself as a monster throughout the film. He doesn’t even try to be likeable for Belle at first, because he just assumes she wouldn’t like him anyway.
And I know that we’re getting into metaphor territory here, but think about the way that the characters talk about their years spent cursed. They’re described as doing nothing, as just staying in this dark and secluded castle without any hope for years at a time. On my last viewing of the film, I couldn’t help but think, “wow, what a shame that is, to lose years of your life like that”, and it was then that I realized how much it reflected the way that I tend to think about the years I spent depressed. Those years that I lost doing nothing, feeling unmotivated and disconnected from people. Those years that I spent feeling like I was an unlikable monster.
The more that I thought about it, the more that I realized just how significant the Beast’s depression is for his character. And the interesting thing about it is, I don’t think that any real resolution is reached for it.
I mean, yes, Belle confesses her love for the Beast, and he transforms into a prince and everyone lives happily ever after, but at the same time, the last time that we get any substantial dialogue from the Beast, just a few seconds before his transformation, he implies that it might be better for everyone if he did just die. “Maybe it’s better this way,” he groans through the knife wound in his back, and that makes me think that, as much as the story promises a happily ever after shortly after those words are uttered, maybe the Beast’s depression didn’t just go away with his claws and fur. I’m sure that not being a beast anymore and falling in love certainly helped, and I like to think that the happy ending promises that he’s at least on the road to recovery, but years spent in such a low mental state doesn’t just go away. It’s not as easy as all that.
And maybe I’m over-thinking it. Maybe his depression was magically cured along with his curse and his knife wound, but I sort of like the idea that it wasn’t. I like to think that the movie ends with the Beast, not completely cured, but certainly improving. I like to think that the happily-ever-after wasn’t meant for right now, right this minute, but it’ll come, and he’ll be happy and everything will turn out the way that it’s supposed to. I like to think that there are still obstacles on his path toward that happiness, but he’ll get through them, because despite what he might think, he deserves to. And if he ever forgets that, he has people by his side to remind him.
I like to think of that as the ending, because it states that there is no easy or magical cure for depression, but all the same, happiness is still possible, even for those who cannot currently imagine it.