Love's True Form: An Essay on Beauty in Animated Fairy Tales from Beauty and the Beast to Shrek
If, as Andre Gide once said, “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity,” then Walt Disney’s 1991 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is a masterpiece of well-meaning, presumably unknowing, true hypocrisy. Within the first few minutes of the film, Disney sets a theme: “[Do not] be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.” This theme is an interesting choice for Disney, considering that in its animated features, appearances are seldom deceiving. In the world of Disney, the line between good and evil is sharp, clear, and frequently illustrated in the physical representations of its characters (Bell, Gallagher). Disney’s hypocrisy however, is not limited to its general approach to animation. With regards to the aforementioned theme, Beauty and the Beast contradicts itself with stereotypical characters possessing “readable” physical features, a Beast who deserves to be judged by his appearance, and a somewhat hypocritical ending.
In contrast to this, another Beauty and the Beast story, Shrek, sets and steadfastly supports a theme of looking beyond outward appearances. A “fractured fairytale” containing numerous references to traditional folktales, Shrek is also a revision and criticism of the traditional fairytale. With an ogre as its hero and a prince as its villain, Shrek defies a number of conventional fairytale clichés and particularly calls into question the treatment of physical beauty in previous versions of Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast is, from its outset, rife with contradictions. It opens with a series of stained glass illustrations as a narrator tells us of a “spoiled, selfish, and unkind” young prince who one day refused to grant shelter to an old beggar woman, as he was “repulsed by her haggard appearance.” Though the woman cautioned him “not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within,” he ignored her, and finally she revealed herself to be a beautiful sorceress, transforming him into “a hideous beast” (Beauty and the Beast). There is justice in this conclusion, but also a degree of hypocrisy. The Beast regrets his cruelty toward the enchantress not because he misjudged her, but rather because she punished him for it. The enchantress, who initially repulsed him, does not prove to be a good person, upholding her lesson, but a wrathful one, as befits her foreboding appearance. Also, although the enchantress warns us not pass judgment based on outward appearances alone, her curse enables us to do just that, causing the Beast’s outward appearance to reflect his inner ugliness. The Beast can be and deserves to be judged by his outward appearance.
The Beast is not the only character in the movie who may be judged for his appearance. Many of the other characters fit archetypes repeatedly seen in Disney films and elsewhere in popular culture and may be assessed at a glance. Belle’s father, Maurice, is short, stout, and aged. Standing barely higher than Belle’s waist, he fits the mold of a typical Disney king or father figure, and accordingly, is bumbling and impotent (Bell 117). Gaston, with his hairy chest, prominent Adam’s apple, and “biceps to spare” is a stereotypical ignorant, self-absorbed “musclehead” (Beauty and the Beast). Even the servants, who take the form of anthropomorphized household objects, may be judged by their appearances. Mrs. Potts, with her plump, motherly appearance, serves the role of “grandmother,” while Lumiere and Cogsworth are in appearance and behavior the embodiment of the thin man, fat man comedy duo familiar from other well-known characters like Laurel and Hardy and R2-D2 and C-3PO (Bell). Cogsworth, neurotic and obsessed with order and rules, is even accordingly represented as a clock.
Belle’s appearance also fits an archetype, that of the traditional Disney princess, young and extraordinarily beautiful, and although we are told to look beyond outward appearances at the outset of the film, this extraordinary beauty is an object of constant overemphasis. In fact, it seems to be highlighted as her defining characteristic. As mentioned in the opening song, an anthem to Belle’s beauty and quirkiness, “Her name means beauty. \ Her looks have got no parallel” (Beauty and the Beast). Thus, every time Belle’s name is mentioned, we are reminded, albeit in French, that she is beautiful. The servants make note of it too, with Chip saying, “I told you she was pretty, Mama!” (Beauty and the Beast). Belle has other positive characteristics beyond her beauty, not the least of which are intelligence and bravery, but the Beast does not mention either of these as he is falling in love with her. Instead, he mentions, “She’s so beautiful, and I’m so— Well, look at me!” (Beauty and the Beast). He does not worry that she is kind while he is selfish and temperamental, that she is well-mannered while he is rude, or that she is an avid reader while he is illiterate. It would seem that the Beast falls in love with Belle largely for her beauty.
Meanwhile, though Belle does not fall in love with the Beast due to his appearance, it does not seem to be much of an obstacle, either. True, Belle is shocked when she first sees the Beast, whose enormity and hunched posture give him the appearance of a minotaur, but that is not the reason that she initially refuses to associate with him. Instead, she is hurt by his cruel treatment of her father, particularly when he abruptly throws him out of the castle without allowing them so much as a farewell. Later, when he flies into a rage after finding her in the west wing against his wishes, she even runs away. It is the Beast’s character flaws rather than his appearance that most appall Belle. They are also what most appall the audience. After all, the average person, accustomed to Disney’s anthropomorphized animal characters, does not find the Beast particularly ugly. Thus it is the Beast’s selfishness and temper that denies him Belle’s affections, rather than his appearance, which almost seems to disappear as an obstacle, somewhat changing the moral of the story. Rather than a story about Belle learning to overlook appearances, as the original folktale was, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a story about the Beast changing his character and earning Belle’s affections by becoming kind and tender.
There is an imbalance in the message sent by Beauty and the Beast. We are both led to notice and appreciate Belle’s appearance and to disregard the Beast’s animal appearance, setting a double standard in which beauty is a vital asset for a woman but unnecessary for a man. This seems to contradict the message that outward beauty is inconsequential.
Finally, the ending of Beauty and the Beast seems almost hypocritical. After the Beast has changed into a sensitive, caring figure and Belle has fallen in love with him in spite of his “hideous” appearance, the curse is lifted, and he is transformed into a handsome, blonde and blue-eyed prince (Beauty and the Beast). This raises a question: If appearances do not matter, then why must the Beast be returned to the form of a handsome prince at the end of the movie in order to have a happy ending? It would seem that the story’s message would be more powerful if the Beast had remained a beast, and the two of them had lived out the rest of their days happily ever after regardless.
This is exactly what happens in Shrek. Shrek follows the same basic storyline as Beauty and the Beast, with a “monster” falling in love with a beautiful princess, thus breaking an enchantress’ curse, but it also differs from it in several important ways. First, although Shrek is ill-tempered, like the Beast, but his bad temperament is a result of his appearance, rather than vice versa, as is the case with the cursed Beast. This is undeniably clear from an exchange between Donkey and Shrek towards the middle of the film. Donkey asks, “What's your problem, Shrek? What do you got against the whole world?” “I'm not the one with the problem, ok? It's the world that seems to have a problem with me. People take one look at me and go, 'Ahhh... help... run... a big stupid ugly ogre!' They judge me before they even know me” (Shrek). Although Shrek’s temperament is a definite problem, his appearance is the cause of that problem and a larger obstacle to his interaction with people, who at multiple points in the story attack him on the sole basis of appearance.
Also, although Fiona is beautiful, like Belle, this is clearly not why Shrek falls in love with her. Instead, Shrek and Fiona’s relationship is built on mutual admiration and common interests. Shrek first takes a real interest in Fiona when she singlehandedly fights off Robin Hood and his Merry Men on the way through the forest to Duloc. Shrek, until this point annoyed with her, is pleasantly surprised, telling her, “You know, you’re not exactly what I expected.” She replies that, “Maybe you shouldn’t judge people before you get to know them” (Shrek). This sentiment, hearkens back to Shrek’s earlier comment to Donkey and reinforces the theme that people should not be judged by their outward appearances.
As the film progresses, Shrek and Fiona discover that they have a lot in common, specifically the unladylike activities of making cotton candy from flies and a spider web, inflating an unfortunate toad and snake into balloon animals, and sharing a meal perhaps only appealing to them: rotisserie weed rat. Not only does Shrek fall in love with Fiona for herself rather than her beautiful appearance, but he seems to fall in love with her in spite of her appearance. An ogre who bathes in mud and uses his own earwax to make candles, Shrek apparently finds conventionally beautiful things unappealing. We even see him express that sentiment after picking a flower for Fiona. He nervously rehearses giving it to her, saying, “I saw this flower and thought of you because it's pretty, and, well... I don't really like it but I thought you might like it 'cause you're pretty… But I like you anyway” (Shrek). The pairing of Shrek and Fiona is clearly not a superficial one, based on physical attraction, because each likes the other in spite of their outward appearance.
Finally, the ending of Shrek differs from the ending of Beauty and the Beast in a vitally important way: the resolution of its transfiguring curse, which Fiona recites as, “By night one way, \ by day another. \ This shall be the norm, \ Until you find true love's first kiss, \ And then take love's true form” (Shrek). After Shrek and Fiona share “true love’s first kiss,” Fiona rises into the air in a shimmer of gold, obviously parodying the transformation of Disney’s Beast, beams of light radiating from her fingertips and feet. Finally, she is laid on the ground, and when we see her face again, she has taken “love’s true form” as an ogre, like Shrek. At first, she expresses confusion and dismay, saying, “I thought I was supposed to be beautiful,” to which Shrek replies, “You are beautiful” (Shrek). Apparently “love’s true form” is not necessarily that of conventional beauty but that which best represents Fiona’s strong, fun-loving, weed rat eating personality.
Released ten years after Beauty and the Beast, Shrek is, in its main storyline, a criticism and revision of Disney’s story. It deals far more directly with the issue of judgment based on appearances and does not create a double standard between the genders or send mixed messages about beauty. It encourages viewers to look beyond appearance, and by its conclusion, it clearly states that it is okay to be different and that beauty is unnecessary for a happy ending.
Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Disney, 1991.
Bell, Elizabeth. "Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women's
Animated Bodies." From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture.
Eds. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Hass and Laura Sells. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP,
Gallagher, Phil. "A Fairy Big Change." (April 2008).
Shrek. Dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Dreamworks, 2001.