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Models for Kids in 'Beauty and the Beast'

MOST political pundits haven't had a conversation in a K-mart lately, and to prove it, take a look at the movie they are obsessed about: "JFK." I haven't heard more shrieking about a film since the religious right began picketing "Hail Mary," a movie so boring it would have closed in a day if it wasn't irreverent.

I haven't seen "JFK," but whatever its implications, it's an even bet that in 10 years people will have forgotten what all the fuss was about. On the other hand, I've gone twice to see a film that is destined to be a classic. It was the first time in memory I saw a film that ends with prolonged applause from an audience.

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If you want to see a movie that will make you feel better for having gone, skip "JFK" and run to "Beauty and the Beast."

The movie is a gift to parents who have watched cartoons and wondered where the strong female heroines are to which girls can aspire. Sure, there are books with such role models, and I'm as quick as any parent to steer my child toward a book rather than TV. But kids like to watch cartoons. If the cartoons on TV don't make your hair stand on end, the commercials will.

They are dominated by dolls that cry, wet, walk, talk, drink, drool, sleep, and do everything but walk on their hands - all fawned over by cooing little girls. I'm all for the nurturing instinct, but Madison Avenue seems to think nothing has changed since the 1950s.

My three-year-old daughter, Anna, has six cousins, all boys, all aged five and under. Their parents overdose on buying Anna dolls, most blond and leggy, all toting cosmetics cases. This past Christmas Anna reacted with puzzlement when she heard, for the first time, an overtly sexist comment on the part of one of her cousins. Seeing her approach a toy GI Joe missile launcher, he exclaimed, "You can't play with that! That's only for boys!"

What's a mother to do?

Enter "Beauty and the Beast." The first scene shows Belle, the heroine, walking through a small town holding - gasp, what is that in her hand? Could it be - A Book? This has to be a cartoon first: a woman portrayed holding something other than a frying pan, lipstick, or a weapon.

It gets better. Belle is wooed by a male bimbo, a guy who is all looks but no brains and has not an ounce of class. The other women in the town fall all over him, but Belle tells her father that her handsome, brainless suitor would never understand her. "He's not the one for me," she says.

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Her father gets imprisoned in an enchanted castle, ruled by a horrible beast. Belle persuades the Beast to imprison her in the castle in exchange for releasing the old man. The Beast is huge and terrifying; Belle is stubborn, strong, and unafraid.

The Beast is really human but is under a spell, condemned to remain in animal form until he can love and be loved by another human being. So begins his attempt to change and Belle's struggle to see beyond appearances.

The high point, for me, is the only part during the movie in which Belle nearly swoons, and it isn't for all the stupid reasons women in movies usually faint. It is when the Beast, trying to think of a gift worthy of Belle and rejecting the usual - candy, flowers - gives her the perfect present: a library, with hundreds of thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling.

What most people are writing about with regard to this movie is its foot-tapping music (wonderful) or its special effects (dazzling) or the singing and dancing of the enchanted furniture (delightful).

But, hey, all that misses the point. The movie gives little boys a female to admire and respect, and shows them how NOT to impress a girl. It demonstrates to little girls that appearances aren't important, and shows them an intelligent, strong, brave woman who steals the show.

See "Beauty and the Beast." Better yet, bring a child - the more impressionable the better. For the price of a ticket you will show him or her that looks aren't important; that books are good things; that loving and being loved is the key to changing lives, all accompanied by dancing silverware and a wise, understanding teapot. What more can you ask from a movie?

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