"She remains curious, compassionate, and open-minded. And that's the kind of woman I would want to embody as a role model, given the choice."

The quote above is from Emma Watson, star of the upcoming live-action Beauty and the Beast, discussing why she turned down the lead role in 2015's Cinderella, but agreed to play Belle less than a year later.

In a recent interview with Total Film Magazine, Watson opened up about her feelings towards the two characters, confirming what many fans had already guessed. Watson had always felt a kinship with the bookish, self-assured heroine – a connection she just couldn't find with the sweeter, blonder star of 1950s animated Cinderella.

An outspoken feminist and ambassador for women's rights, Watson has been open about her own influence on the development of the live-action Belle. And although the film as a whole looks to be a fairly straightforward adaptation of the 1991 animated classic, the character certainly isn't.

To bring the character more in line with her own ideals as a 21st century feminist, Watson pushed to make Belle the talented inventor - not Belle's father. She also worked with costume designer Jacqueline Durran to replace Belle's ballet flats with sturdy boots, and design a ballgown that wouldn't be too restrictive or figure-altering.

The wardrobe makeover, revealed by Watson in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, was almost certainly in response to the fabulous blue ballgown worn by Lily James in Cinderella, which critics said gave the actress an impossibly tiny waist.

The dress sparked discussion about the outdated aesthetics of Disney princesses, detracting attention from the glowing reviews of the film itself.

On the surface, it looks as though 2015's Cinderella and 2017's Beauty and the Beast could not be more different. The former is a sincere retelling that abandons the details of the animated movie in favour of affectionate nods and a mostly-original script. On the other hand, the latter will be a faithful — and musical — remake that aims for a more cynical and modern undertone to the dynamics between Belle, the misunderstood beast, and the misogynistic Gaston.

Still, it is worth noting that, despite Watson's claim that she finds Belle to be a more resonant role model than Cinderella, many of her comments about Belle apply just as neatly to 2015's Cinderella.

"Curious, compassionate and open-minded," with an "independent point of view", are both applicable to James' Cinderella. Even James herself described the character as "engaged and open-minded to the world around her", with a "desire for more in life, to want to explore, and to want to daydream".

Cinderella
Lily James as Cinderella in Kenneth Branagh's live-action adaptationDisney

In fairness to Watson, Cinderella's character for the 2015 film was still being developed when she was considered for the role, and the animated Cinderella comes from a different era in compared to the animated Belle. Compassionate and unfailingly kind, the Cinderella of 1950 is nonetheless passive; a gorgeous vehicle for the fairy godmother's magic and the Prince's true love.

In the 2015 adaptation, Cinderella becomes more active and gains much-needed individuality, but her feminism is still gentle, defined by kindness, optimism and boundless belief in the innate goodness of those around her. Her final speech to Richard Madden's Prince Kit, in which she asks him, with quiet self-assurance, to accept her as the simple country girl she is happy to be, is a triumphant moment – but softly so, in keeping with the film's overall uncomplicated romanticism.

Box office receipts and critical reviews suggest that most of Disney's princesses got it right the first time, and audiences respond best to adaptations in which the originals are still very much recognisable

Belle, by contrast, comes from different stock. The princesses of Disney's 90s Renaissance came during the rise of third wave feminism, and the heroines had changed to fit the times. Ariel, Belle, Mulan and Pocahontas all went out proactively hunting their own adventure, even fighting with the men they encountered and eventually romanced.

Ariel started the trend in 1989's The Little Mermaid, but it was Belle who first really typified the type of headstrong and outspoken character who would become the backbone of the billion-dollar Disney princess franchise.

It's little surprise, then, that a modern feminist like Emma Watson would find herself most strongly drawn to Disney's first feminist princess. It's also little surprise that the changes made to the character to bring her in line with Watson's ideals are looking more superficial than the broader character re-working Cinderella received in order to be relatable to a modern audience.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that, the more Disney re-works old princesses, the less successful the adaptations tend to be.

Emma Watson Beauty and the beast
Emma Watson in the new live-action version of Disney's Beauty and the BeastDisney

In 2010's Alice in Wonderland, a surprise box office hit, Mia Wasikowska was utterly believable as an adult version of the precocious child from 1951's animated take on the same story. However, 2014's Maleficent fared far worse with its attempt to rewrite the iconic villain and princess from 1959's Sleeping Beauty, despite an outstanding performance from Angelina Jolie.

Old-fashioned as some of them might now be, box office receipts and critical reviews suggest that most of Disney's princesses got it right the first time, and audiences respond best to adaptations and updates in which the originals are still very much recognisable.

Disney's next live-action adaptation after Beauty and the Beast will be The Little Mermaid, with Mulan coming shortly afterwards, and in both cases it's too early to tell which direction the House of Mouse will choose, aside from boilerplate statements about "modern, revisionist tale[s]".

Clearly, Disney is aware that feminism and princess fantasies are no longer mutually exclusive. With each new iteration of the princess story, be it an animated original or a live-action update, they are aiming a little closer to the perfect blend of fairy tale and feminism.

If, as Disney hopes, Beauty and the Beast gets that blend just right, Belle will once again be the template for a new generation of Disney heroines, just as she was in 1991. But if Disney really wants to perfect that feminist princess formula, the answer – as always – is in their animated originals. Since handing Pixar temporary princess duties with Brave, Disney has been carefully re-writing the princess fantasy into something modern and fresh.

The smash success of Frozen in 2013, buoyed by its rejection of old-fashioned notions of "true love", set the stage for Disney's arguably most feminist princess yet, in 2016's Moana. Feistier than Belle, as compassionate as Cinderella, and with shades of Pocahontas without the accompanying cultural appropriation, Disney's first Polynesian princess might just hit that sweet spot it's been aiming for with Brave, Tangled, Frozen, and even The Princess and the Frog.

In 20 years' time, we might get to see how Moana changes in her own live-action adaptation – if Beauty and the Beast can stick the landing.


Dani Colman is a writer and teacher in San Francisco, California.