I don’t have an explicit memory of the first film I ever saw in a theatre, but it has left a lasting impact on my life like no other, and whatever reactions I may have had at the time have certainly been felt and re-felt throughout the years.
When I was about three years old, my mother took me to see Beauty and the Beast (1991). It was an incredibly special trip, since at that point my little sister would have been barely a year and a half old, and my little brother a six-month infant (if that); my mom was a busy woman with three small kids very close in age, but she took me—her oldest—to see this film alone. I have vague memories of walking through the mall with my mom, but not many of the movie itself; that’s all right, though, because Beauty and the Beast has been a constant throughout my life. I watched the VHS edition more times than I can possibly estimate; when I was five, I would recreate the scene of Belle cleaning the Beast’s wounds while in the bathtub and sing along to “Be Our Guest” as best I could. I vividly remember being utterly baffled by the lyric “there’s something there that wasn’t there before,” too young to make the logical leaps between the remembered past and the altered present. That’s right: Beauty and the Beast was a benchmark for my progress through Piaget’s stages of childhood development.
Beauty and the Beastwas something I just never stopped watching as I grew up. As a bullied, outcast kid in elementary school, I found a kindred spirit in Belle; we were both lonely, misunderstood bookworms whose intelligence was met with hostility and dismissal by our peers. Her romance with the Beast was one of many I grew up with as a child of the 1990s, but while some girls longed for a dashingly handsome prince to sweep them off their feet, I dreamed of finding the type of guy who would give me an entire library. And speaking of that library—that gorgeous, impossibly huge library—it’s one of the reasons I refuse to buy an e-reader, because I want nothing more than to live in a house filled with books. When I began singing lessons, I sang the title song as one of my standards.
As I entered adulthood and began studying film from an academic perspective, I ran into the feminist criticisms of Beauty and the Beast, which cynically painted the story as a tale of abuse and Stockholm Syndrome. It was a shock to me, for I’d always seen the relationship between Belle and the Beast as that of two lonely people who make each other better, and who learn to love truthfully. I also discovered that Beauty and the Beast was technically astounding, one of the very best animated films ever made, and the crown jewel of Disney’s Renaissance period of the 1990s. The sweeping crane shot of Belle and the Beast dancing in the ballroom was something I just accepted as a kid; as an adult, I’m floored by how well the animators managed to convey camera movement in a format that has no camera. My love of Beauty and the Beast was what made me start researching the company’s history, where I learned that the film had been a true labor of love by everyone involved—and made especially magical by the inimitable lyricist Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1991 and to whom Beauty and the Beast is dedicated. I have gotten into countless arguments with friends about this, but I believe that no Disney film was ever as good as the two Ashman helped write (Little Mermaid was the other); no matter how many people love “Be Prepared,” I’ll stick with the delightfully Shakespeare-filled “Mob Song” and the complex meter of “Belle.”
To this day, my only complaint about Beauty and the Beast is that I can’t unzip the television and curl up inside that gorgeous, lushly animated world. I still have my beat-up old clamshell VHS copy, as well as the Blu-ray release, and I watch it every time I feel sick or sad or feel the need for a little magic in my life. Beauty and the Beast was the first film I ever saw, and it’s been a fundamental piece of my development into who I am today—as a woman, as a book addict, as a helpless romantic, as a film critic, and as a music fan. So while I don’t recall exactly what happened in that theatre back in the cold winter of 1992, it was something that left a permanent mark. That’s the magic of the movies right there.