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Google searches say something about Mormons and 'Beauty and the Beast'

SALT LAKE CITY — Disney’s $300 million remake of "Beauty and the Beast" has drawn equal parts anticipation and controversy — but nowhere has it drawn more interest in the past year than in the Intermountain West, according to Google Trends data.

Google calculates interest by taking the total number of searches for the term and dividing it by the total number of searches in the state.

And the Intermountain West is apparently very interested in "Beauty and the Beast."

Data released by the search engine shows that Utah, Idaho and Wyoming — the three states in the U.S. with the greatest share of Mormons — have googled “Beauty and the Beast” at a higher rate than any other state in the nation during the past year.

Interest for the film in West Virginia, the No. 4 state, is 37 percent less than in Utah, the No. 1 state.

That doesn’t surprise Brigham Young University family life professor Sarah Coyne in the slightest.

Last year, Coyne published a study on Disney princess movies that concluded the films may reinforce gender stereotypes for little girls.

When the story broke on the BYU Facebook page, Coyne was hit by a barrage of upset comments, she said.

“I could not believe how ugly it got so quickly... What I realized very quickly is that people have a large loyalty to Disney," she said.

Mormons have a long history of working as animators and composers for Disney dating back to 1929, when a young Mormon from rural Utah named Floyd Gottfredson showed up at the studio in Los Angeles with an armful of sketches. Gottfredson went on to produce the Mickey Mouse comic strip for the next 50 years.

But J. Michael Hunter, a Mormon historian and former chairman of the religion and family history department in the Lee Library at BYU, said the many Mormon creatives who worked for Disney over the years largely failed at their occasional attempts to introduce Christian elements into Disney films.

"They have had an influence, but not really (as far as) directing in any religious way that makes their films more appealing to LDS people,” Hunter said.

Coyne and Hunter both say the popularity of Disney among Mormons has more to do with family sizes and conservative leanings than religious themes in the movies.

People in Utah tend to have a lot of kids — and Disney "represents a safe option for many parents in these communities that they kind of turn to,” Coyne said.

There's also another angle that may be driving traffic in conservative Utah — the revelation that Gaston’s sidekick LeFou will be gay in the movie.

Google Trend shows that searches for “Beauty and the Beast gay” are highest in Alabama, where one movie theater recently refused to show the film due to the controversy.

Utah is not far behind in interest at No. 2 and Idaho at No. 8.

Still, there's evidence that Utah's interest in the movie isn't just because of the controversy.

Utah tops the list every time when it comes to search interest in terms like “Beauty and the Beast trailer,” “Beauty and the Beast cast” or “Beauty and the Beast release” over the past year.

And the same trio of states — Utah, Idaho and Wyoming — top the list when it comes to searches for "Disney movies" since 2004.

Coyne, a self-described “Disney kid,” said she's looking forward to seeing the film — along with her children ages 3 to 12.

“In terms of all the princesses out there, Belle is in my top three,” Coyne said, along with the Chinese woman warrior Mulan and the Scottish princess Merida. “I'd love to see our young women embody any of the traits they hold.”