Fairy tales have always had a smallness about them that makes it feel possible to hold one in the palm of your hands. They offer more than Mother Goose and The Poky Little Puppy, but without the eons of detailed histories that seem to inform the world of high fantasy. They feel complete and whole, dispensing some nugget of worldly truth in a wrapping of romance and magic.
Jean Cocteau understood this when he made his version of Beauty and the Beast. He even inserts a plea to the audience amid his opening credits, asking them to approach his film with the same sense of wonder and the same innocent trust as a child. This was a reminder I was grateful for, one that pushed me to let my barriers (Is this story sexist? Do the sets feel too small?) fall so that the very experience of watching it began to feel exactly like walking through a dream, only one more perfect and enchanting than any I’ve ever actually dreamed up.
At its core, though, Beauty and the Beast is pure simplicity. There are no bells or whistles. Its effects are simple by design and by necessity. With no high-tech graphics to assist him, Cocteau manages to create a world that is utterly dreamlike with only trick shots, drool-worthy costuming, and imagination.
Initially, the film feels small—so much so that I was shocked by the smallness of it. It’s not filmed in the panoramic widescreen we’ve become so accustomed to, but rather the early Hollywood standard aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (for comparison, Hollywood widescreen features today are regularly filmed in 2.35:1). The camera feels almost unnaturally close to its subjects, the sets they move through almost unnaturally small. And yet, despite this (or is it because of it?) the moment we enter the Beast’s castle, my discomfort and uncertainty about the look of the film evaporated.
Once Belle’s father steps inside, the details of the set became the details of a new world. He enters a long, black hallway where human arms protrude from the walls, holding up intricate candelabras that light by themselves. The busts above the fireplace have eyes that watch all corners of the room. A hand emerges from the center of the table to pour a glass of wine.
It takes no great skill to guess at how all of this was done—a hole in the table, an actor’s face painted to match the stonework, a wall of black fabric with room enough for an arm—but none of that matters. These simple, practical effects make Cocteau’s fantasy world feel real in a way that 100 talking candlesticks or a CGI sky full of dancing stars cannot.
The 2010s saw a resurgence of the fairy tale in popular cinema that seemed to kick off with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and was followed by Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014). All three films rely heavily on CGI for their effects, creating a world on film that feels expansive, yet hollow. Where Cocteau keeps his audience close, filling the frame with tactile imagery, these modern tales can never truly allow their audiences to shake the knowledge that the world the characters inhabit is an empty one. They are alone in a warehouse in front of a green screen and nothing more. That knowledge makes it harder if not impossible to follow a request like Cocteau’s to surrender oneself to childlike wonder. When actors have nothing physical to interact with, the spell is broken.
On top of this, Burton’s films, Snow White, and Maleficent all seem eager to shake their fairy tale roots in favor of capitalizing on the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. They skew darker in a way that pays no homage to the original tales, but instead riffs on the current obsession with fantastical epics, inserting battles of hoards and unnecessary realms to beef up stories that don’t actually need the help. It can’t even be argued that tastes have simply changed because all three of the films above hover around a measly 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. They didn’t so much as sweep their audiences away as lead them to offer up a resigned shrug.
Cocteau, on the other hand, created something timeless. Watching Belle glide down a hallway toward the camera without moving her feet or seeing her elegant jewels turn to trash at her evil sister’s touch, I was swept away. When it ends with Belle and her Beast (now a prince) floating up into the sky, her dress billowing in the wind, I found myself longing for a world as magical. Without even intending to—I began my watch full of reservation and uncertainty, unconvinced it would appeal to me—I had fulfilled Cocteau’s wishes: I was a child again, if only for an hour or so and no amount of gaudy CGI has ever done that.