A Tale as Old as Time

by Victoria Stoia

“Once upon a time …” The short four-worded phrase, essential in Disney’s recipe for animation film success, evokes wonder and suspends disbelief. Building an empire on full-length animation films, the Walt Disney company has been labeled as integral, family-friendly entertainment. Disney has created films that have defined generations, and in the 1990s some of their greatest films were produced. Notably, in 1991, Disney released Beauty and the Beast; acclaimed for its animation and message to children about inner beauty, the film remains a classic today. 

Regardless of its high praise, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, like many of Disney’s films, contains multiple hidden meanings and allusions. While Beauty and the Beast is viewed and posed to children as a movie about female empowerment and inner beauty, under the surface it is a retelling of classic Catholic teachings —namely the process of justification. While elements of Catholic values and beliefs are present throughout the film, children would most likely never notice them. Nevertheless, the key components to the Catholic teaching of justification are present: original sin, grace, baptism, good works, faith and, ultimately, righteousness.

To notice the film’s allusion, a basic understanding of the Catholic teaching of justification is needed. In 1547, implemented by the members of the Council of Trent, a decree meant to explain how one could be justified in the eye of God, solidified the Catholic perspective.  This decree states that because of Adam’s original sin, humans are born sinners without the holiness to unite with God. Under God’s grace, a human can become justified, and through baptism, sin is taken away and God’s grace is further given. However, humans can reject God’s grace, only after it is first given, and choose to remain sinners. Those who accept grace, under its further influence, will grow in faith and go on to do good works. Ultimately, if humans stay with grace throughout their lives, they will become righteous, and be gifted eternal life and God’s merit (Leith 408-420). This definition of the Catholic decree concerning justification highlights six points —original sin, grace, baptism, faith, good works, and righteousness— all of which are present in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

In the opening sequence, the audience is shown Beast’s backstory. Beast —at the time a handsome, young, human prince— is shown refusing to shelter an old woman in his castle during a storm. Because of his refusal, the young prince transforms into a monstrous beast, his servants become enchanted objects, and his beautiful castle turns bleak. The brief backstory of Beast —a prince living in paradise and refusing to be empathetic and hospitable causing him to be cursed— alludes to Genesis’ story of original sin. 

The biblical story of Genesis tells of Adam’s disobedience and exile from the paradisiacal Garden of Eden (About Catholics). With this reference in mind, the film begins with a panoramic view through a lush green countryside, taking the audience into a beautiful castle. Instantly, the audience is placed in a not-so-subtle allusion of the Garden of Eden where the original sin takes place. Reinforcing this allusion is the Beast’s real name, which is Adam. While Beast’s name is not confirmed directly in the film, Disney, in their merchandise, refers to the Beast in his human form as “Prince Adam” (ToysRUs).

Lastly, to complete the original sin allusion, Adam must sin to cause his fall. In Genesis, Adam disobeys God’s rule by eating from the tree of knowledge. Adam, choosing to eat an apple from the forbidden tree, causes his banishment from Eden (About Catholics). In Beauty and the Beast, Disney reimagines Adam’s fateful sin by having Beast unmannerly send away the old woman. Disney’s sin of behaving inhospitably secures Adam’s fall from Paradise, causing him to become a hideous beast who symbolizes the sinner. By establishing an allusion to the original sin at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, Disney sets up the rest of the film, animating the process of redemption by which a sinner becomes righteous.

Since Beast is a sinner, he must now follow the process of justification to become righteous. However, in order for Beast to even begin the steps towards righteousness, he must first be offered God’s grace. According to Catholicism, without the initial presence of grace a sinner will continue on as a sinner; never to reach righteousness (Leith 410). In Beauty and the Beast, God’s grace is reimagined through the film’s main protagonist, Belle. 

Her name not only refers to her physically, but alludes to her role in Beast’s story. Being a synonym of “belle”, beauty can be defined as having grace (Dictionary.com). In the film, the arrival of Belle at Beast’s castle is what allows the Beast to change from sinful to righteous. Her presence makes it possible for Beast to break his curse; her kindness and open heart gives him the power to change. 

On the other hand, the film also shows what happens if a sinner rejects grace after it has been offered through the use of the character Gaston. Gaston, unlike Beast, only wants Belle because of her physical beauty. He simplifies the beauty of Belle by valuing her only externally and overlooking her inner grace. Additionally, Gaston furthers his sinfulness by knowingly committing sins. 

According to St. Paul in Ephesians, a man who is deliberately deceptive will never enter the kingdom of God (Ephesians 331-332). In the film, Gaston sings about how no one, “takes cheap shots like Gaston” referring to his plan of blackmailing Belle into marrying him (Ashman and Menken). Representing both paths, Beast and Gaston show what happens when you choose to either accept or reject grace. Beast, by accepting Belle’s inner beauty, becomes human once again whereas Gaston rejects Belle’s grace, deliberately sins, and ultimately ends up dead —symbolizing the fate of a sinner who will never reach righteousness.

Continuing Beast’s process towards justification after accepting grace, his next step is to be baptized. In Catholicism, baptism is a religious act showing one’s faith in justification (O’Callaghan 196-197). The sacramental act removes sin and allows for a new life to begin (Levering 102-103). In the film, Beast is hurt while rescuing Belle from a pack of wolves. After fainting from exhaustion and his injuries, Belle brings Beast back to his castle, and she tends to his wounds. The scene when Belle soaks Beast’s wound represents Beast being baptized. Belle, by cleansing Beast, washes away his original sin, allowing him to continue towards righteousness or, in Disney’s allusion, become human again. 

After Belle tends to Beast, there is a clear shift between them and their relationship. From his baptism onward, Beast thinks only of Belle and what is best for her. He gifts Belle his library, hosts a ball in her honor, and, most importantly, sets her free; though by doing so, he is risking his only chance of becoming human again. Beast, at this point in the film, has grown to love Belle. 

According to Catholicism, the righteousness of a man does not pertain to what he believes or what he hopes for, but instead to what he loves (Peebles et al. 468). By setting Belle free, Beast proves his love for her, no longer behaving selfishly. He sacrifices his sole chance of becoming human again for the sake of Belle’s happiness. All the actions Beast performs further symbolize his faith in Belle and allude to the Catholic belief in good works. According to religious teachings, once a person is baptized and his original sin is removed, good works are inspired in a person of faith by his love for others (Peters 455). Beast’s love for Belle inspires him to want to do good works for the sole reason of making Belle happy, which continues his path towards justification.

Throughout the film, Beast has proven himself no longer a sinner, able to be redeemed righteous. A key point, however, is that in Catholicism when one is justified they experience an actual transformation. In the ending scene, as Beast dies and takes his final breath, Belle confesses her love for him just as the last rose petal falls. All of a sudden, Beast’s body begins to rise into the air and slowly transforms back into a human. According to the Catholic doctrine on justification, God actually and physically makes people just; renewing their spirit of mind and declaring them righteous from within their soul (Leith 412). 

When Beast rises, Belle watches as Beast’s monstrous features are transformed. Because of Belle, representing grace, Beast was able to follow the process of justification towards righteousness. Beast dies as the beast but is changed because of grace; resurrecting him in his original human body, which symbolizes his righteousness and acceptance into his reward of eternal life.

Concluding Catholicism’s process of justification, the end of Beauty and the Beast represents Beast reaching righteousness and becoming justified. Catholicism states that those who work well and have faith in God will ultimately, through God’s grace, be rewarded. Beast, after accepting and learning to love Belle, who allows him to change and reach righteousness, symbolizes a devout Christian earning God’s merit of justification. By following the Catholic process of justification, Beast was able to transform back not only into a human but a perfected and righteous version of his original self. 

In spite of all the evidence to the allusions present Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, there is the possibility that the references are a result of reading too much into the film. However, Christian allusions and symbolism are found in many other Disney films; some of which need little to no prior knowledge to notice. For example, in 1937, Disney’s first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, briefly shows the film’s main protagonist, Snow White, praying. With her head bowed and hands clasped together, she asks for God to bless the seven dwarfs for helping her (Disney and Hand). Additionally, in 1957, Disney released Sleeping Beauty, which is full of Christian symbolism. The villain is referred to as having the powers of Hell, while at the climax of the film, a good knight fights against a diabolical dragon, symbolizing the classic story of good versus evil (Disney and Geronimi). The Catholic references in other Disney films enforces the likelihood of Beauty and the Beast also containing Catholic references not impossible; considering it is a “tale as old as time.”

All things considered, Disney’s confirmation of Catholicism embedded in their animated films is not needed. The presence of Christianity’s process of justification in Beauty and the Beast is quite clear.  With all the allusions and symbolism referring to Catholicism’s view on justification —from original sin to righteousness— Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has too much evidence to be considered a simple coincidence. Disney hides allusions and symbols of Catholic justification in the film, and this influences its target audience of children.

Works Cited

About Catholics Team. (2012, -06-10T11:53:02-05:00). The original sin. Retrieved from
http://www.aboutcatholics.com/beliefs/the-original-sin/

Ashman, Howard., Menken, Alan. (1991). Gaston (Reprise). [Recorded by Richard White]. On Beauty and the Beat [CD]. United States: Walt Disney Records.

Beauty | define beauty at dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/beauty

Disney Princess Fairytale Wedding Gift Set   Retrieved from https://www.toysrus.com/buy/princess-fairy-dolls/disney-princess-fairytale-wedding-gift-set-x5365-18894926

Disney, Walt. (Producer), & Geronimi, Clyde (Director). (1959). Sleeping Beauty [Motion picture]. United States: Buena Vista Distribution

Disney, Walt. (Producer), & Hand, David (Director). (1937). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [Motion picture]. United States: Buena Vista Distribution

Ephesians. (2010). Common english bible. new testament : A fresh translation to touch the heart and mind (pp. 331-332). Nashville: Common English Bible.

Leith, J. (1982). Creeds of the churches : A reader in Christian doctrine, from the Bible to the present (3rd ed., pp. 408-420) Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Levering, M. (2014). Baptism. Paul in the summa theologiae (pp. 102-103) Catholic University of America Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.bc.edu/stable/j.ctt7zswbz.7

O’Callaghan, P. (2016). Grace and justification in luther and the council of trent. Children of god in the world (pp. 196-197) Catholic University of America Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.bc.edu/stable/j.ctt1hrdn0m.14

Peebles, B. M., Gavigan, J. J., Murray, J. C., & Russell, R. P. (1947). Faith, hope and charity. Christian instruction; admonition and grace; the christian combat; faith, hope and charity (the fathers of the church, volume 2) (pp. 468) Catholic University of America Press.

Peters, T. (2015). The gift of justification. God–the world’s future (3rd ed., pp. 455) Augsburg Fortress, Publishers.