Friday, February 24, 2023

The Power to Transform: Looking Closely at Beauty and the Beast and Moana

The Disney renaissance was a huge transformation in the animation and entertainment world. The Little Mermaid was the breakout success Disney needed to reinvest in animation, and Beauty and the Beast confirmed that they could produce a critical and commercial powerhouse, surpassing Little Mermaid’s box office records.

This animation renaissance is considered to have ended with the nineties, but in 2013 Frozen’s commercial success and critical reviews are thought by some to have begun a second Disney renaissance. And the musical, Disney-princess film which followed Frozen was Moana.

Beauty and the Beast and Moana appeared at interestingly similar times for Disney animation. Could the studio reproduce comparable results a second time, an original story, music, and characters that could bring in audiences again in the same numbers? Moana did not break Frozen’s ridiculously high box office numbers, but it did still perform well at the year’s awards. Beauty and the Beast garnered still legendary levels of prestige and is revived again and again in its Broadway musical form (I’m intentionally ignoring the live-action remake of BatB to keep the focus on the animated version). Both of these films succeeded extremely well. How different are they, when you look at them closely?

Story Hooks: Character Growth vs. Epic Quest

BatB asks with timeless fairytale mystique, who can learn to love a beast? Implied with this question, we wonder with the film if there is any hope for the cursed and the wretched?

Moana asks, who will return the heart of Te Fiti? This quest is in the style of an Odyssey/Frodo and Sam trek to Mordor fantasy journey. The deeper question, as we learn later on this film, is what do we keep by remembering who we are?

Individual Identity

Belle is a stable, if not yet fully realized, personality. She seems to pick up the slack left by her bumbling yet brilliant father, while keeping her own inquisitive mind from decay with frequent trips to the village for books. Surrounded by dull normies and her father, she is torn between caretaking and making the most of her quickly vanishing youth. She wants more, but perhaps as the vagueness of her ‘I want song’ implies, she hasn’t gotten the time to herself to figure out what precisely it is she wants. But she sure-as-heck knows it’s not marrying Gaston, or being a crazy cat lady in her hole-in-the-wall french village. Belle seems already to have come of age, and all but bloomed as a confident woman, but finds herself bearing adult responsibilities that preclude the hope of adventure in the great wide somewhere, or finding someone who sees her as unforgivably “different from the rest of us”.

Moana’s story is about coming of age. While she has a leadership role and will inherit an island kingdom, she is being parented hard by her Father and Mother into leading in their way (gasp, Disney kids can have moms?). The island life is obviously great for everyone, including Moana, but this pesky fixation on what exists out on the sea is the worst combination of distraction and longing. Her inner conflict fits a younger profile, with the adolescent need to rebel, and interact with the real world beyond adult supervision. And we find that Moana is being chosen by otherworldly powers to do a job which presumably no one else has been capable or willing to do until now.

Cultural Identity

Belle is like her father, a tolerated oddball. Since she is easy on the eyes people are obsessed with her perplexing originality. Gaston in particular sees her as an unattainable conquest only he, or so he thinks, is capable of achieving. No wonder she is determined to go just about anywhere but there (not to subvert her sacrifice later of staying with the Beast. But heck, it seems like it should have crossed her mind at some point “I may be a hostage in this enchanted castle, but it’s honestly not much worse than that village full of bumpkins.”

Moana is the heir, and still a child, highly controlled by her parents. Her story follow a Disney pattern new for the 2000s, being that her storyline does not include any romance. Not only perhaps because of the inappropriateness for a character her age to fall in love, but also the sense that the creators wanted to show a young girl coming into her own without depending on the support of a romance B plot.

Character Arc

Belle goes from a life of upholding responsibility and enduring life as an outsider in her own hometown to being a prisoner in the beast’s house, and discovers both what she wants and needs in a hopeless place.

Moana accepts call to adventure, and faces challenges that demand she develop the confidence she needs to both become a better version of herself, but also to lead a better version of her community.

Antagonists and Villains

The Beast himself is both a villain and an antagonist to Belle’s heroine. He takes her prisoner, yells and threatens her, but after saving her from a wolf pack in the woods, and allowing her to nurse his wounds, they grow from an uneasy alliance to a deep friendship.

Gaston has a distinct character as a poster child for indulgent narcissism that an entire village supports without question. His desire to squash all resistance from Belle and basically subjugate her goes so far as a to recruit the entire village, exploit their fear of the unknown and raid a castle to KILL THE BEAST (such an amazing Disney song.)

Interestingly, the crowning moment of Beast’s transition from antagonist to hero comes from seeing Gaston’s terror when facing his own death, and then literally being stabbed in the back. Beast was ready to kill Gaston in order to save Belle from a life in his rustic hunting lodge, but instead showed mercy. This decision, and the moment when Belle realizes that losing Beast means losing the man she loves finally breaks the curse and allows him to shed the horns and the fur, and be reborn and live a new life capable of loving and being loved.

    Moana’s antagonist is a little hazier. Yes, Tamatoa that glam crab is a villain in his own right, but only deserves honorable mention here. Te Ka is the accepted villain of the movie, the final boss battle, if you will. Of course, Te Ka (spoiler alert) winds up being the heartless form of Te Fiti, the goddess of all life. She reverts back immediately once Moana returns her heart. Her transformation is a wonderful moment and a lovely twist, but doesn't ring true to me as the deepest transformative moment in terms of the underlying story. Maui is an antagonist as well, who mostly impedes Moana’s progress toward returning the heart of Te Fiti, until the final hour when he comes to his senses.

Honestly, I think the true antagonist, if not the villain, of the show is Moana’s Father. His desire to shield and herd Moana away from the ocean are the most profound obstacles to her pursuing her destiny to voyage and commence her hero’s journey. The movie gives relatively little time to Moana’s father, but we do know that he deliberately ended voyaging for the village after a terrible experience losing his friend in a boating accident. As bad as we may feel for this happening, his reaction of course stunts the growth of his people in awful ways, torturing his daughter perhaps the most of all. I don't recall a moment at the end acknowledging his overreaction the needed change back to the villages rightful ways of voyaging. This transformation and forgiveness could have made an already good movie much stronger, in my opinion.

A Brief Word about the Music

If you want to know the actual reason for me writing this article, it’s because of the music. My wife and I have a playlist with songs for driving. There is one song from Beauty and the Beast, and one song from Moana on this playlist, and both of them have this ability to give me goosebumps on command. 


The call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide,

Always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way

I am Moana

Beauty and the Beast

I was the one who had it all

I was the master of my fate

I never needed anybody in my life

I learned the truth too late

I'll never shake away the pain

I close my eyes, but she's still there

I let her steal into my melancholy heart

It's more than I can bear

Now I know she'll never leave me

Even as she runs away

She will still torment me, calm me, hurt me

Move me, come what may

Wasting in my lonely tower

Waiting by an open door

I'll fool myself, she'll walk right in

And be with me for evermore

I know, I know, the BatB song I chose wasn’t part of the animated version. But it has become a part of the story for me, and doesn’t diminish the rest of the BatB soundtrack in any way to acknowledge it as well. The article above is honestly a way of me exploring why the feelings in these songs have so much power and depth. These stories demonstrate progression through fantastical challenges that create a lovely shift in the way I perceive the challenges of my own life.

At the core of both movies is a transformative journey. For Belle, that journey is in her capacity to see the potential within other people, something there that wasn’t (to her knowledge) there before. While Belle’s journey from home does not go where she expected, Belle finds exactly the life she needs by blooming where she is planted.

For Moana, her transformation comes through finding the confidence in herself to act, and follow through on her epic task. She herself must go through an epic transformation, complete with a Gandalf-esque mentor (her grandma) and numerous trials from coconut warriors riding barges straight out of Waterworld to a bout in the underworld of epic monsters. And indeed, that confidence carries over into transforming the rest of her village after returning home from her voyages.

What inner transformation from a Disney movie most inspired you? I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for reading.

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