Originally published in National Post’s Arts & Life section on March 4, 2011
When Hollywood retells fairy tales, it usually adds its own magic. Sydney White starred Amanda Bynes as a Snow White character who meets seven nerds and gets a virus on her Apple laptop. Hook starred Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan rediscovering his youth. Ever After starred Drew Barrymore as a kick-butt Cinderella type. The stories are often reimagined with a twist, with a tongue-in-cheek wink.
Beastly, directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland) is what happens when you retell Beauty and the Beast without the magic, the twist or the wink, but with a witch who used to be that cute little girl on Full House.
The beast here is played by British actor Alex Pettyfer. He’s Kyle, a rich, popular, good-looking high school student. He does push-ups and chin-ups in his undies in front of the mirror. His online profile says he “hates fattycakes.” During his campaign for green committee president — “Don’t embrace the suck,” vote for him — he admits he just wants the position for his transcript.
There’s a reason Kyle is like this. To get his father’s attention, he has to text him even when they are in the same room. And when his dad, a shallow news anchor played by Peter Krause, speaks to him, it is only to offers such pearls of wisdom as: “People like people who look good. Anyone who says otherwise is either dumb or ugly.”
For a film that harps on vanity and society’s obsession with appearances — the opening credits roll over a montage of sexy advertisements — it sends a lot of mixed messages.
For one, the film is filled with beautiful young people whose faces are often shot in extreme close-up, including the wicked witch, Kendra. Played by Mary-Kate Olsen, Kendra changes her outfit and hair styles for every scene. She struts around the school in dark clothes and soaring stilettos, which is what fashion models must look like when they go goth.
After a confrontation in school, Kyle invites her to a dance under the guise of reconciliation. Instead, he humiliates her in front of the crowd.
In Alex Flinn’s young adult novel of the same name, as punishment, Kendra turns Kyle into a beast, literally. He has claws and fangs and fur. In the film adaptation, Barnz seemingly couldn’t decide what would make Pettyfer ugly — Mike Tyson-like facial tattoos? Lumpy skin? Open wounds? No hair? Metallic puff paint from the ’80s? — so he used all of the above. The result is that Kyle looks like, in his words, “the lead in a slasher film,” or a mash-up of villains from such sci-fi films as Star Trek or I Am Number Four, which incidentally was Pettyfer’s last big blockbuster, also based on a popular teen novel.
In I Am Number Four, he played an alien masking as a high school student to hide his true identity. In Beastly, he’s a high school student with an alien mask trying to discover a new identity. Kendra tells him that he has one year to find someone to love him — a tattoo on his arm of a blooming rose bush will show him when the time is up — or he will stay disfigured forever.
Vanessa Hudgens essentially plays Vanessa Hudgens, the love interest. As Lindy, she’s the type of girl who walks the means streets of New York with a perma-smile and sings out loud, which is a slight variation of the character she plays in High School Musical, just with less singing.
This fairy tale has magic spells but no magic mirrors. So in order to spy on people, the beast must resort to stalking. Kyle is following Lindy and watching her through her window when he discovers that her father is a druggie. He channels his superhero character in I Am Number Four and attacks a gun-wielding drug dealer to protect her.
Kyle spends the rest of the film trying to woo her. He takes her to his private home out of the city (all of his classmates assume he has gone to rehab — which is the only witty remark in the film) and builds her a greenhouse, using the book Gardening for Dummies. Disney cartoons have more chemistry than these two. In fact, the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast also has more danger and dramatic climaxes than Barnz’s adaptation.
For comic relief, Barnz cast Neil Patrick Harris as Kyle’s blind tutor. The scene-stealing Harris wears his sarcasm well but even he gets preachy: “It’s not about how others look at me. It’s about how I look at myself.”
How could Barnz treat his film so seriously and have the words “embrace” and “suck” tattooed on Kyle’s face in the place of eyebrows? It is a reference to Kyle’s school campaign and the incantation that Kendra recites when she is casting her spell: “Embrace the suck.” It’s also a reference to what this film is asking audiences to do when viewing it. There’s no happy ending to this review.