It’s easy to forget—amid the kicky tap-dancing kitchenware, the twinklingly romantic score, and the swooning waltz in both Disney versions—how strange the central concept of Beauty and the Beast is. Here, presented by the foremost corporate purveyor of children’s entertainment, is essentially a story about a woman who falls in love with an animal. In the 1991 cartoon, the animated Beast’s goofy facial expressions alleviate the weirdness of it all by making him convincingly human-ish (and so endearing that his actual princely form, as Janet Maslin wrote in her review of the first film, is actually a disappointment, a “paragon of bland handsomeness”). But in the 2017 live-action movie, the Beast is unabashedly ... beastlike. His blue eyes can’t quite conquer an ovine face crowned by a majestic lion’s mane and two disturbingly Freudian horns.
In the original version of the story “Beauty and the Beast,” though, published in 1740 by the French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the Beast seems to be an awful kind of elephant-fish hybrid. Encountering Beauty’s father for the first time, the Beast greets him fiercely by laying “upon his neck a kind of trunk,” and when the Beast moves, Beauty is aware of “the enormous weight of his body, the terrible clank of the scales.” But in the most famous adaptation, a version for children abridged by the former governess Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the question of what the Beast looks like is left to the imagination. De Beaumont specifies only that he looks “dreadful,” and that Beauty trembles “at the sight of this horrible figure.” The Beast could resemble a water buffalo, or a bear, or a tiger; he could also be interpreted as just a plain old man, essentially kind at heart but extremely unfortunate to look at. That’s the point of the story.