Beauty and the Beast, Da Capo

0 0 698

The following headline caught my attention today, and I thought I'd give it a semiotic treatment. 

Here it is: "Why 'Beauty and the Beast' will be the biggest box-office hit of the year so far".


I'm not interested in the reasons given for the predicted success in the article but, rather, in the larger picture that this apparently sure-fire box office bonanza presents.  It's worth looking into because it re-illustrates a number of points that I have made over the years in this blog about Hollywood semiotics.


The first, and most obvious, point to make is that this Disney live-action reprise of its own animated smash is a signifier of what could be called the "if at first you do succeed, do, do again principle." That is, with so much at stake financially in the modern movie business, commercially successful films tend to become franchises for the studios that produced them, and clone-opportunities for the studios that didn't.  Why take a creative risk when a little new technology can let you redo the animated original with real people this time around, and be pretty darned assured of a big-time box office hit?


Another fairly obvious point (though it took the movie industry a little while to get it ) could be called the "forget the fourteen-year-old boys for a moment and focus on the little girls realization."  That point has been amply made by such absolute blowouts as Titanic and all the Harry Potter films.  Heck, just to make certain, Disney has brought back Hermione Granger, I mean Emma Watson, as the Beauty.  And did I mention The Hunger Games trilogy?


Then there's what I'll call "the prince and princess paradox":  that is, in our proudly egalitarian democracy, one of the best ways to ring in the cash is to make a movie about princes and princesses—especially Nordic ones.  (Beauty is really a king's daughter in one of the early versions of the tale.)  For some reason, American middle-class desire still seems to be fixated on Old World privilege—which is a point I made on this blog when Frozen was still fresh a few years ago.


Related to "the prince and princess paradox" is the long-standing medieval revival, which has swept American popular culture ever since The Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity in the 1960s, and subsequently was given a postmodern makeover by Star Wars, a British "public school" inflection by Harry Potter, and a grand guignol do-over by Game of Thrones.  The paradox here lies in the way in which New World America, which has no actual medieval history of its own, continues to be obsessed with a fairy tale world of hereditary aristocrats, swords, and sorcerers. 

This brings me to my final point - When I cast the "new" Beauty and the Beast into a system of associated entertainments, I find in that system two somewhat similar shows that are also significantly different.  These are the 1987-90 television series Beauty and the Beast, and the DreamWorks franchise, Shrek.  The TV B & B was significant because it took the old fairy tale about what might be called a dis-enchanted prince into modern times, and turned the beast into a kind of mutant homeless person (who's actually rather handsome in his leonine way —one wonders what audience reaction would have been if Beauty was male and the beast was a female, however), who lives, literally, in the Manhattan underground.  The series was drenched in socio-political overtones, with the Beast being really a beast and not an enchanted prince who will go back to being a prince as Beauty's happily-ever-after reward.  While rather soupy and over-the-top, the series did, at least, Americanize the old story.


Then there's Shrek.  While rather cornball and over-the-top, Shrek gleefully shredded the old prince-and-princess framework entirely to give us an ogre-and-ogress happy ending, with a really creepy Prince Charming thrown into the saga just in case we didn't get the point.  Shrek, who first appeared in print form in 1990, was a creature from the Age of Attitude, the Bartman days when Bart Simpson, and not Homer, was the Simpsons star, and irreverence was a national pastime. 


So, I wonder about this back-to-the-Beauty stuff.  There's a New Yorker cartoon from Roz Chast that I'm reminded of here.  In the cartoon, entitled "Comes the Revolution Fairy Tales," "Cinderella" is retold with Cinderella ending up running away with "Henri, an idealistic student," as Prince Charming meets a gruesome end.  Now that's a fairy tale for the land of Thomas Paine.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.