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Is Belle the Protagonist of Beauty & the Beast?

belle beauty and the beast profile

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.

“I WAAAAAANT!”

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

How did she get him back on the horse? He must weigh as much as two football linebackers.

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.

And kind to animals. Here she is, feeding a sheep.

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?

“Dear Princess Celestia. I wanted to share my thoughts with you… I didn’t learn anythin’! Ha! I was right all along!”

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?”

disney princess warriors belle kickboxer
And what she needs is to KICK SOME ASS!

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.

Who is the Protagonist in The Little Mermaid? (Follow-up)

the little mermaid logo

So I got my kids to watch “The Little Mermaid”, and honestly, I hadn’t seen the full film for quite some time. In the context of my last article about who the central figure of this movie is, I began to wonder, what if Prince Eric is the protagonist?

Let’s think about this. For one, he’s the first person we see, usually a giveaway. Ariel doesn’t appear until eight minutes in, after two other scenes. Also, Eric is the one who finally defeats the antagonist, not Ariel. Even though he doesn’t know Ursula from Adam, maybe she represents the Mrs. Wrong he’s been trying to avoid — a bride with bad motivations.

Like all good protagonists, there is something he wants and forces that act as obstacles to it. The kingdom wants to see him “happily settled down with the right girl”. Why the kingdom’s full of gossipy yentes, I don’t know. I always figured it had something to do with royal inheritance or power shifts. Prince Eric must have a real close relationship with his people if they’re so nosy. There’s a great unwritten fan fiction about the Princess of Glowerhaven somewhere.

Anyway, Eric tells his sidekick that he’s not interested in a marriage of convenience or power or arrangement or wealth. This contrasts his role in the original fairy tale where the prince is actually kind of a bad guy. The titular (pun intended) mermaid falls in love with him, sleeps outside his door, follows wherever he goes. The prince ignores her and marries someone else. (Not for love, if I recall.) She’s so devastated, she almost kills them, but chooses to end her own life instead.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Another factor is that he has a change. His quest is to accept the reality, rather than the dream. Sir Grimsby’s worried that he’s too picky or searching for something he’ll never find. He astutely notices Eric’s affections for the mute girl, and advises him that “far better than any dream girl is one of flesh and blood. One warm and caring and right before your eyes.”

When he throws his flute into the ocean, that symbolizes his capitulation of finding the mystery maiden. Life’s full of tough choices, in’nit? One could argue that this demonstrates a lack of change. But the dramatic irony is that it’s the same girl. So, if Vanessa hadn’t come along, he would have gotten what he wanted all along. Reminds me of an O. Henry story.

And last, we learn a moral from his quest — if you accept reality instead of the dream, the dream might become your reality. And from what I’ve learned in my personal life, I think that’s true.

Love you, honey.

Who is the Protagonist in Willy Wonka?

willy wonka

I’m listening to some classic Roald Dahl books in my car for my commute, and it got me wondering, who is the protagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?  Does it even have one?  Stop and think.

Your first guess, of course, would be Charlie.  He gains the most, he suffers the most.  He started from the bottom and now he’s here.  However, he doesn’t change.  The protagonist is supposed to change via the story.  Charlie starts with an optimistic and cheerful attitude and maintains that disposition throughout.  He never accepts charity or complains about a thing.  Even among the craziness and dying children left and right, his faith that Willy Wonka is the greatest thing since sliced bread never wavers.

Maybe you could say that the moral of the story is that faith and perseverance pays off in the end.  But Charlie doesn’t learn that in the end.  We do.  Charlie knew that all along.  Like in “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” the ends simply unravel from the means.

Okay, let’s take a different angle.  What does Charlie want?  To win the chocolate factory?  No, Wonka never reveals his ultimate purpose until the end.  Chocolate?  No, too simple.  He wants to stop living in such squalor.  Poverty is the antagonist here — forcing his grandparents into a single bed, his father at a toothpaste factory, and cabbage soup for dinner every night.  But Charlie is generous to his family to a fault, offering his birthday gift of a chocolate bar to everyone in his family.  He just wants a little bit of happiness.

So I find it disturbingly ironic that the turning point comes as a result of a moment of weakness.  Charlie finds a single dollar in the gutter and, rather than bring it back to his parents so maybe they could have a bit of protein with their dinner, or wisely invest it in the futures market, he spends it on candy.  The result of this bit of luck is even more luck as he finds the last golden ticket — a one in a million billion chance.  As much as I love the subversive nature of Roald Dahl, I gotta ask — what message does this teach.  Fortune favors those who give into greed and indulgence?  Even if you can’t put food on the table?  I’m sure I’m overanalyzing here.

Even besides the story’s big bang, Charlie isn’t changed by the end.  He still retains his family values, he suffers no obstacles in his quest to complete the chocolate factory tour, and all the secrets of Wonka’s lair are given freely.  Even in the movie, the Slugworth/gobstopper subplot means very little.  I didn’t even know he accepted the challenge until they actually get to the point where Gene Wilder gives them out.  Perhaps it’s not a case of the protagonist’s goals driving the story, but the antagonist’s?  But the primary obstacle (poverty) isn’t very active.

Then is Wonka the protagonist?  He does have a goal (to find an heir), but he doesn’t learn anything either.  Neither is he the antagonist.  Although narcissistic and ignorant of the potential of his own inventions, he’s not preventing Charlie from getting what he wants.  He offers it freely, once the other children are out of the way.

The other children undergo the most change in all scope.  One assumes that when they trickle out of the factory, they’ve learned their lesson.  At least Wonka hopes so.  They’ve all undergone a physical change, certainly.  Gloop is slimmer, Mike Teavee is taller, Violet Beauregarde is blue, and Veruca Salt is covered in garbage.  But they’re clearly not the protagonist.  They’re in competition with Charlie for the chocolate factory (a competition he doesn’t even know he’s in).  Not to mention that they’re not more than one-dimensional archetypes.  Each has one defining characteristic and no backstory.

Is there anyone else?  Grandpa Joe?  No.  At best, he’s a deuteragonist.  A mentor, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, to provide exposition and guidance.

So I think we have to call Charlie the main hero.  The story is absurd anyway, so this kind of analysis is no more than a mind exercise.  However, IMO, this lack of a protagonist is one of the things that prevents Willy Wonka from being a great movie instead of a really good one.



Also the songs.

Is Ariel the Protagonist of The Little Mermaid?

the little mermaid logo

During my Ursula analysis, I came upon this question (also posed by Lindsay Ellis and Doug Walker). Who is the protagonist of The Little Mermaid?

Through my studies of narrative, I’ve learned that a protagonist is not necessarily the main character or the hero. Don Quixote is the main character, but Sancho Panza is the protagonist. A protagonist is the person who changes as a result of the story. The protagonist enters the story because of conflict with the antagonist. The protagonist is supposed to be the person the audience mostly identifies with.

There are many different kinds. The hero protagonist is the most basic, most common. This is when the protagonist and the force for good in the universe is the same character. They’re sympathetic because they’re who we want to be, not who we are. Supporting protagonists are usually the POV character, but not the hero. Examples are Red from The Shawshank Redemption, Watson from Sherlock Holmes, and Mary Poppins. A Pinball Protagonist is simply bounced around from one situation to the other. Always reactive, never proactive. Forrest Gump, Charlie Bucket, and Bilbo Baggins tend to this type. Sometimes a protagonist doesn’t win, or dies right away, maybe as a decoy (like in Psycho), and other horror movies.

That means Darth Vader is the true protagonist of Star Wars. He’s the one that changes the most. True, Luke Skywalker does go from farm boy to uber-ninja, but Darth goes from noble warrior to dark lord and then redeems himself. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is not Bruce Wayne’s antagonist. It’s Harvey Dent. How can you tell? Because Harvey Dent is the one getting in the way of what Bruce Wayne wants. Bruce wants to stop being Batman. Harvey’s got the skills to do it, but he needs to step up. That’s why those incidents like Harvey torturing the fake cop for information are so devastating to Wayne. That’s why, in the ending, Batman is facing Two-Face, not Joker.

So now that those terms are defined, who is the protagonist of The Little Mermaid? Well it’s clear that Ariel is our main character and hero. She’s the force for true love in the world. For pursuit of knowledge and acceptance and curiosity. She has agency — she makes the decisions that affect the plot events. She’s the one who wants something. She’s the one who overcomes obstacles. But is she the one that changes? Some say no, some say yes.

We know Triton definitely changes. He goes from hating humans to letting his daughter marry one. From staying isolationist under the sea, bigoted and unsympathetic, to letting their two worlds interact (I always wondered if the existence of mermaids becomes a “thing” after TLM). After Ursula blows up, Triton should be one happy camper. His primary threat to the throne is gone, his daughter’s back. It’s pretty much back to status quo. Nevertheless, he realizes how wrong he was, and grants her wish to be human, so she can marry a guy she barely knows at the age of sixteen be with her one true love. Parenting 101.

But how does Ariel change? Does Ariel ever stop wanting the thing she wants? From the time she sets on eyes on him, she never stops loving Prince Eric. She never stops chasing her dream of staying human. She never turns from her goal, she never gives up (except for that small part where she’s crying on the dock, but who wouldn’t be doing that). Modern criticism says that Ariel is simply a ball in Triton and Ursula’s court.

Or is she? There’s one small part where, when Ursula is dragging her back down into the depths, Triton confronts her. As Ursula shows him the contract, the eels hold Ariel back as she says “Daddy, I’m sorry, I- I didn’t mean to…” That would indicate regret — a look back at where events led and the realization that this may not have been worth it. It’s just a blip, barely a few shots, but it seems to indicate that she’s learned something. So where does that leave us? Is she a changed person? Is she as stubborn as when we got into this whole mess?

Maybe Ariel is a deuteragonist. That’s always a hard one to define. It’s not a sidekick or a supporting protagonist (neither Triton or Ariel are assisting each other or following each other around). Not a decoy protagonist, since both are in the movie for the length, and it doesn’t end in a bait-and-switch. The deuteragonist has his/her own story, own character arc. Definition-wise, he/she is simply the second most important person in the story.

Triton and Ariel revolve around each other. Each is doing something the other doesn’t like, and that causes conflict. Both have flaws, both make sacrifices to get what they want. Triton may not be the protagonist, but he is definitely Ariel’s antagonist. Not Ursula. And in the end, neither are in the same place they were before. Much like Lady & the Tramp or Frozen. It’s Lady’s story, but Tramp is the one that changes. Lady never wavers from her belief that a good home in exchange for servile guardianship is better than freedom & risk. In Frozen, both girls change. Anna learns not to jump headlong into situations. Elsa learns the consequences of rejecting love.

I think this question all depends on one thing — what is Ariel thinking when she’s on that rock?

She’s up there, gazing at her prince. Is she saying goodbye? Or is she contemplating a new way to get legs? Is she unchanged? Is she giving one last look before diving back under the depths, never to return? Have the choices and obstacles she faced changed her?

We may never know. The writers didn’t even give her a line after Ursula is dead. I guess they left that mystery up to us, to forever ponder.