It’s just a fun thing to noodle Disney movies and story-telling tricks, especially where Disney’s concerned. Because Disney and Pixar are fantastic story-tellers.
I’ve done it with The Little Mermaid (“Is Triton the protagonist of The Little Mermaid?“) a few times (actually I’ve made a lot of posts about Disney). This time I was thinking about Beauty and the Beast. Gonna do it the other way this time.
So the movie frames Beast as the deuteragonist (or relationship character), Gaston as the antagonist, and Belle as the protagonist. She’s the first character we meet (if you don’t count the prologue). We spend the most time with her. She’s even dressed in a color no other character wears. We’re meant to identify with her. She’s the one who wants something.
“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere. I want it more than I can tell.”-Belle (Beauty & the Beast – “Belle (Reprise)”)
Nothing subtle about that.
The protagonist should be the one who faces the central conflict. The one who has to accomplish a goal set at the beginning and sticks to it until the end. The antagonist is the person who puts obstacles in front of the protagonist. That’s Gaston–he wants to marry her and turn her into a domestic popping out kids.
The relationship character helps the main character on their journey, maybe imparting some wisdom on the way. This character embodies the theme. Clearly, the theme of Beauty and the Beast is “true beauty comes from within”. This is where these roles start to fall apart.
The way I identify a protagonist is I ask myself “who’s the one that changes the most from beginning to end?” In The Hunger Games, Katniss was content to live under the Capitol’s thumb, never caring for anyone but her family. But when they come for her sister, it gets personal. She grows more rebellious and more compassionate through the novels. Harry Potter gains confidence and maturity as he accepts his place in the big chess game everyone’s set out for him. And some PTSD as the trauma of each book embeds in his adolescence.
Beast is the one that changes the most, both literally and figuratively. And that’s his story goal besides. Beast doesn’t want to change, but he knows he has to or he’ll stay ugly forever. But, in the way, you’ve got years of solitude and telling himself that “they’re right about me, why should I prove them wrong”.
Belle has the vague goal of “wanting more”… like every Disney Princess in that time period–Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, Aurora, Alice.
Does Belle change? A little. When Beast saves her, Belle is about to turn around and ride back home, leaving him to die in the snow and be eaten by wolves. Why shouldn’t she? He was a monster toward her. He kidnapped her father. But she changes her mind.
She realizes he could have let her go, but he put his neck on the line to save her from the wolves. It would have been quite “beastly” to leave her to die–no skin off his nose–but he reflected on his reaction, regretted it, and came back to make amends. So he can’t be that much of a monster. Not totally. So she takes him back to the castle and tends to his wounds
The problem is we don’t know whether she would have left him in the dirt before. She doesn’t seem the type to kill the spider to save the butterfly.
Her willingness to compromise is demonstrated when she sips the oatmeal from the bowl after seeing Beast having trouble with the silverware. Did she ever show an unwillingness to compromise before? No, I don’t think so. She was always presented as selfless and sympathetic and logical and fearless.
So she changes a little. Does that mean she’s the relationship character? I think so. To Beast, at least. Does that make Beast the protagonist? I think so. And that makes Gaston the antagonist to… Beast? Not really. At least not until the ending.
This is why Beauty and the Beast is a great movie. Gaston is Belle’s antagonist at first. Then Beast is Belle’s antagonist. And Belle is Beast’s antagonist. It’s a fantastic triangle.
Another possibility–Belle’s a pinball protagonist, like Charlie Bucket and Bilbo Baggins. She raises her hand to “accept the call”, but she’s basically bounced around from one perilous situation to another. She doesn’t start the story or move it along, she just reacts and gets dragged along by others. In the game of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is not a player, she’s the ball.
Does that make her like Applejack in The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000) (basically a “John Henry” pastiche)? This is a story where two flim-flam artists (their names are literally Flim and Flam) throw down the gauntlet of their mass-produced cider against Applejack’s hand-crafted (but low in supply) cider. What Flim and Flam produce tastes like crap and they’re run out of town. And Applejack’s friendship lesson?
But Belle’s not a deuteragonist and not a sidekick. She’s not supporting the protagonist, although it may look like it. It looks like she’s helping Beast towards his goal, but she doesn’t know it. She has a story and she has an arc. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be crying at the end, clinging to Beast’s body. The problem is her end doesn’t match her beginning. She starts with “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” and ends up imprisoned in a castle with a monstrous beast. I guess she gets adventure, but not like she asked for. So if she doesn’t get her “I want”, maybe she gets her “I need?”
But the movie never demonstrates that what she needs is to “look beneath the surface” or “learn to love someone for what they do, not what they look like”. It’s never apparent that this is a fatal flaw or personal obstacle to be overcome. (In fact, it’s Gaston’s flaw.) Nonetheless, this is a lesson she needed to learn and she learns it.
It’s not like Ariel or Aladdin or Simba who go through some profound changes. For the most part, she’s the same Belle that started the movie. Whereas Beast has gone through some profound differences. In fact, he’s learned traits from Belle–like selflessness and sympathy (or at least eliminating the un-Belle-like traits, like anger and brooding and cynicism and self-loathing).
So I don’t know if Beast is the protagonist in Beauty and the Beast. But I’m pretty sure that Belle is not. And I’m quite certain that neither of them is the antagonist. They might be each other’s for a brief time in the story, but Gaston is definitely the bad guy.