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'Beauty and the Beast': The Fairy Tale as Civics Lesson
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
06:12PM / Wednesday, March 22, 2017
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"Beauty and the Beast" is much more than "escapist entertainment," a term I rail at. I couldn't slip into a theater for a few thrills, spills and worse yet, laughter, when I know outside Rome is burning. That's just the kind of hairpin I am. I believe society should be fashioned in a manner so enlightened that there is nothing from which to escape. OK, this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. I like to say it to irk the cynics who not only deride my view as unfeasible but who, I suspect, would prefer the current Sturm und Drang to peace and harmony. Why else would they have invited it?

That paints a rather grim picture, and so here's where the latest Disney permutation of "Beauty and the Beast," the traditional fairy tale generally attributed to French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot Villeneuve, rides to the rescue, to at least ameliorate if not save the day. Using the 1991 award-winning animated film and the subsequent Broadway musical as its template, Bill Condon's live-action version is a bountiful, colorful reminder of this genre's nobly intended purpose. It teaches age-old truths.

Being reminded of how the originally arrogant and uncharitable prince is cursed for his selfishness and destined to spend the rest of his days as a beast, it all clicks into place. Though the story may ultimately lighten the hearts of both the young target audience and their caring, significant elders, this is not escapism, but rather, a proactive attack leveled at the very concept of evil. Its moral lessons are our direct link to a heritage which holds that man is inherently good, as opposed to the belief he is innately bad and must, therefore, be controlled by tyrants.

The allegory is older than Aesop, bred of humankind's attempt to differentiate itself from the dog-eat-dog animal kingdom it aspired to rise above. Thus, in good form, all the players of the human drama are represented in "Beauty and the Beast," readily comparable to our current crop of actors playing on the stage of world affairs. Mom and Dad will recognize them: i.e. "Yeah, that's that idiot in the cabinet," and so on. But more importantly, little Meghan and Max, just now learning about the forces of light, dark and gray, get their uncluttered intuition confirmed.

Folkloric treatises like "Beauty and the Beast," our pre-constitutional primers in fairness, are among the very earliest of a child's civics lessons. Too bad ardent followup has lost favor in our homes and schools. Considering the invasively powerful persuasion of the mass media, the lack of a solid underpinning that educates our children to separate knowledge and truth from the opportunistic chaff that would con them for both sport and profit is an egregious error that has, I fear, come home to roost. The less informed the electorate, the greater the despot's chances.

Hence, while in the course of reviewing kiddie flicks I generally let parents know whether they can pass off accompanying Junior to willing grandparents and other trusted surrogates, here I'd say don't be so quick to skip this one. Oh, the kids already know most of the answers. Out of the mouths of babes and all that, y'know. But they trust you most, and they'd doubtlessly like to share this celebration of right and wrong with you, their first supreme court. A little après theater rap about it at McDonald's might go a long way to providing the ethical security they seek.

Don't worry. This isn't that dance recital or early morning soccer game. In the mode of an especially talented and dedicated teacher, the lessons are entertainingly delivered. Stunning landscapes, cute, picture-perfect villages, a huge, haunting castle where the Beast resides and all the storybook appurtenances computer magic can conjure provide a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

What's more, so as not to exasperate the gray matter, the characters and their motivations are easily recognizable, the exception being Luke Evans's Gaston, the handsome soldier who relentlessly seeks the hand of Belle, the title beauty played by Emma Watson. While we, of course, know, as does Belle, that the dude is just no good, his unraveling through statement and deed proves a tutorial in duplicity for your Aiden or Olivia. A lesson in tolerance is added as the kids discover the true nature of the initially frightening Beast, portrayed by Dan Stevens.

It seems so simple. Make sure kids learn to discern between the snake oil salesmen and the benevolent, and to be apprised of the various behavioral gradations that exist between those opposites. Yes, it's idealistic. But it's also a pragmatic necessity, whether you aim to prepare our heirs with the mental tools necessary to buying a car or picking a president. All of which makes me wonder, considering the current state of affairs, whether a whole raft of our electorate just wasn't taken to the right movies when they were little.

"Beauty and the Beast," rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Bill Condon and stars Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans. Running time: 129 minutes

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