I’m not ashamed to admit as a 34-year-old man that I love Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It is beautifully animated, has some fantastic songs and Belle, in my humble opinion, is the best Disney princess. As the beautiful daughter of a eccentric inventor, she is more than a pretty damsel in distress but a strong, independent and intelligent woman. She refuses the advances of Gaston (the prototypical “prince” character, who is actually the villain), self-sacrifices her freedom to save her father, chooses to fall in love with the hideous Beast and in the process she saves him from himself. Disney with this film laid the groundwork to question through creative narratives the tropes of fairy tale romances, a subversive move, I believe, only now coming to fruition with two recent Disney films, Frozen and Maleficent.
However, Beauty and the Beast is not without its flaws, despite the positive trend towards a more complex and assertive female character. For instance, many have suggested that Belle is a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, falling in love with her abusive and violent captor. My own personal issue is that while the film starts to chisel away at the typical fairy tale narrative, in the end it still adheres to the idea that romantic love fixes everything. All one needs is true love’s kiss to live happily ever after. Cue music. Sprinkle pixie dust. Ride off into the sunset with your new found love. The End.
But let’s be honest here, who of us can claim any innocence when it comes to believing that finding “the one” will make our lives more fulfilled, meaningful and plain better? Isn’t that the dream we all secretly hope for? That finding love would be true for me as it was for Belle, Cinderella and Snow White? As Michael Novak, Catholic philosopher and journalist, writes at First Things:
Yankee Gospel Girl discusses the combination of grace and justice as found in Jean Valijean’s song “Who Am I?” from “Les Miserables”.
Like most of you, I recently watched and enjoyed the movie “adaptation of an adaptation” of Les Miserables. Translating the musical to the big screen was largely a success, and the decision to sing live was a brave move that bore some excellent fruit. You can read more of my thoughts on the film and the music here.
In this post, I wanted to focus on a particular number sung by Jean Valjean: the song “Who Am I?” Javert has just apologized for accusing “the mayor” of being a former convict, saying that the real Jean Valjean has been caught. After Valjean pardons Javert and sends him back to his post, he must fight an inner battle as he considers the fact that an innocent man is preparing to stand trial for a crime he didn’t commit. What choice will he make? Or is there even a choice about the matter? Here is a portion of that soliloquy, as powerfully presented in the new film by Hugh Jackman:
One day, a particular pair of lines jumped out at me as I was walking and thinking about this song. They had jumped out at me before, but only because they were poetically memorable: “This innocent who bears my face/Who goes to judgement in my place…” Suddenly, a little light bulb came on in my head. I saw what the writers were doing. And I realized that even though Valjean is typically the character emblematic of Christ-like sacrifice, he himself is actually flipping the symbolism around with this lyric. It seems that as he considers the man about to stand trial, he is also remembering another Innocent who went to judgement in his place.
Indeed, how many songs have been written to the effect that that cross should have been ours, that we were the guilty and He was the sacrifice? Except Valjean will not hear of it here. He insists on taking the blame that is rightfully his. In fact, and this is important, he is insisting that justice be served. People more often associate Valjean with mercy and Javert with justice. Yet here, Valjean takes up justice’s cause.
It’s not limited to this part of the story either. Consider the scene where Fantine is assaulted by a soldier and lashes out to tear open his cheek. By the time Javert arrives on the scene, the soldier has his account of how things went down ready to go. “This prostitute attacked me!” Javert believes the word of the soldier. But Valjean saw the entire incident as it played out in front of him. He knows Fantine was not in the wrong. Hence, Javert is (unwittingly) making an unjust decision to accuse Fantine.
The word “justice” itself is spoken by Valjean in “The Confrontation,” where Javert comes to arrest Valjean, and Valjean begs for time to make sure Cosette is provided for. “Let justice be done!” cries Valjean. Of course, Javert thinks this is very ironic. But we’re meant to believe Valjean is once again on the side of justice.
Let’s return to the case of the innocent man facing judgement in Valjean’s place. Why is the man’s sentence an injustice? It is an injustice, because the man is no more than an innocent man. But when we make the analogy to Jesus, we remember that Jesus was more. Jesus was man and God. Consequently, divine justice was still fulfilled by his stripes. Because God is at once perfectly merciful… and perfectly just.
We ask, how can God be merciful and just all at once? Yet the more we ponder the question, the more we see that the real question to ask is how can He not be? And more fully than ever, we feel the absolute necessity that Jesus be one with God Himself in order for His death to have any efficacy whatsoever.
Valjean has already accepted Christ’s sacrifice in exchange for his soul. He “made that bargain long ago.” Now, by rescuing this innocent man from a false accusation, and by caring for the weak and helpless, he is keeping his side of that bargain—to do justly and love mercy. There is a reason why the scriptures place these two injunctions side-by-side. They are inseparable. Both desires exist in the person of God. Both should exist within the human soul.
In the final scene of the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie, his Grandfather and Wonka fly over the factory as Charlie becomes the candy mogul’s successor. And like any fairytale, it ends with:
Willy Wonka: But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie Bucket: What happened?
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.
But is this really happily ever after for Charlie? The journey up to this moment was fraught with difficulty, as Charlie and four other children traversed a candy-laden world filled with the curses and blessings of on eccentric candy man. Unbeknownst to the children, Wonka is able to dole out the rewards or punishments because of the contract that each of the children signed at the beginning of their journey together. So these blessings and curses (to be honest, mostly curses) are not dispensed randomly or erratically by Wonka but are rooted in an agreement, a covenant if you will, that the children made with Wonka.
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