Beastly, a modern high-school version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, is no match for Disney's animated feature film of 1991, or of the ethereal Jean Cocteau classic from 1946, but it earns better than a passing grade. There are moments of salty wit to its teen TV sensibility, and the story offers proof, once again, than there are few stories that can't be adapted to the theme of teenaged popularity politics.
Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is the blond, buff, rich, handsome supertwit who rules Manhattan's elite Buckston Academy, an institution distinctly reminiscent of Gossip Girl. While running for head of the academy's environmental committee, Kyle has an unusual message to the student body: "Embrace the suck."
Kyle's campaign style is based on ruthless honesty. He explains that his interest in running for office is strictly to add the item on to his college applications, which is reasonable, since life is all about winning. Existence is Darwinian, Hobbesian, Fox Newsian, or in other words profoundly unfair. The less fortunate - a.k.a. the "hatchet faces" and "fatty cakes" - should adjust themselves accordingly. For students raised in the privileged class and pleased by this honesty, they acclaim him as the new chairman.
Beastly, based on the novel by Alex Flinn, begins with a refreshing rudeness, especially for a movie that features one of the stars of High School Musical, Vanessa Hudgens, as the perky scholarship student, Lindy, and half of the Olsens, Mary-Kate, as Kendra, the Goth punk outsider with the black eye gunk and a poufy French aristocrat hairdo, who happens to be a witch.
When Kyle plays a mean trick on Kendra and calls her a "Frankenskank," she retaliates with a magic spell. Soon the suck embraces him: Kyle gets a bad case of dermatitis, including glowing veinous tattoos on his now-bald noggin, sebaceous lumps around his nose and lacerations across his face. It would be a great look for the front man of a glam-death-metal band. Instead, Kyle ignores the expensive guitars in his room and gives us emo attitude without the music.
Kyle's emotionally absent anchorman dad (Peter Krause), who believes "people like people who look good," shudders at his son's transformation and considers a life-threatening operation to be worth the risk. Finally, he gives up and ships Kyle off to a suite of apartments in Brooklyn (oh no!). In lieu of parenting, Kyle is given a homily-spouting Jamaican maid (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and a wisecracking, blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris), who says lines like: "Study or soon blonds will be making jokes about you."
Up to this point, things are ticking along agreeably - the only question is why the movie isn't just called Bitchy. Then, unfortunately, the drama starts becoming sensitive and instructive. There's the traditional out clause to Kyle's curse: All that he needs is to find someone to love him despite his repellent rock-star appearance. The leading candidate is the chipmunk-cheeked Hudgens, who ends up hiding out from bad guys in Kyle's apartment, little knowing that the buff dude who looks and sounds like a bald, tattooed Kyle is actually Kyle!
Beastly gets too soppy in the home stretch, with several scenes in a rooftop greenhouse flower garden accompanied by poetry reading or lisping ballads on the soundtrack. Yet, in retelling a story that Disney called a "tale as old as time," Beastly gets one timeless fact right: For hatchet faces, fatty cakes and Frankenskanks, high school can definitely feel like a curse.
- Written and directed by Daniel Barnz
- Starring Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens and Mary-Kate Olsen
- Classification: PG