The latest teen fantasy romance that seems to be going after Twilight’s crown – although it appears that it has already failed to capture it, its total at the US box office failing to even come close to what every one of the Twilight films has grossed on their opening days alone – Beastly is a much more classic tale at its core, one that many will be familiar with, even with the more modern approach taken to telling it here.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same by Alex Flinn, the film is essentially a modern retelling of the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast – which was first published in 1740 in the form of a rendition by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve (and has since been published in many different versions, many of which were researched by Flinn in preparation for writing her book and are playfully alluded to in the final work) and is most famous for the 1991 Disney animated film based upon the story – set in New York City although the modern aspects and teen romance style certainly bring it closer in vein to Twilight than Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s 1991 Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, something that has been particularly exemplified during the film’s pre-production by the fact that the producers released a statement that they were seeking a teen actor in the vein of Twilight’s Robert Pattinson for the leading man – a role for which Zac Efron was also considered and whose film Charlie St. Cloud holds the reason for the repeated the delays in the release of Beastly which had originally been scheduled to open way back last year directly against Efron’s film, while Efron and Beastly star Vanessa Hudgens were dating.
The film has actually been in development since December 2007 when CBS Films bought the movie rights to the book but it wasn’t until February 2009 that CBS Films President and CEO Amy Baer announced Daniel Barnz as the man who would be both writing and directing the film. According to Baer, Barnz, whose only previous feature length film is the little seen but well received 2008 release Phoebe in Wonderland, is a director whose “fresh vision makes him one of the most exciting directors of his generation”. These are certainly not words that you would necessarily expect to hear of a director making a film that is so clearly aimed at the teen moviegoing audience but Barnz’s claim that “it’s a very commercial idea that I get to tell in a highly artistic fashion” certainly seemed to suggest that he had a distinct creative vision in making the film and his inspiration by classic romance Say Anything also suggests a romance with more old fashioned sensibilities and sophisticated stylings than what we are used to seeing in modern teen romance films.
Despite these promising words ahead of the film’s release, however, the production has come under fire for seemingly de-uglifying the leading man, the prosthetics utilised differing from those in the book with the fangs and fur being removed from the equation, presumably for the purposes of keeping star Alex Pettyfer looking as a attractive as possible for the teen girls who probably make up a significant proportion of the film’s target audience. The film’s literary inspiration, while not a success on the level of Twilight, was very well received upon its release, winning a number of awards and attaining a generally positive critical reception. The film, on the other hand, has received a largely negative response from critics, the Rotten Tomatoes rating coming in at a meagre 18% positive – although the paying public have been considerably more receptive giving it a 62% fresh rating on the site. I have never been one to jump on the bandwagon though and my opinion of the film is very different to that of many other critics.
Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is the king of his school, a handsome, popular and privileged young man who cares for nothing beyond appearances and status, something that he seems to have picked up from his news anchor father Rob (Peter Krause), who never seems to have time for him. His values and ideals are shared by best friend Trey (Erik Knudsen) and girlfriend Sloan (Dakota Johnson) but classmate Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens) has a very different outlook on life, an outlook that Kyle may soon come to share. When he makes the mistake of singling out an unconventional girl named Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) for his cruel mockery, it turns out that she is a witch and she has the power the power to take away Kyle’s good looks and ruin his life in the process. Kendra curses Kyle, transforming his good looks into a grotesque and hideous facade, his face and body covered with tattoos and scars, and she gives him a year to break the spell by finding someone who will love him despite his looks or stay looking like this for the rest of his life.
Kyle’s appearance obsessed father, angered by the way his son now looks, decides to hide him away from the world, his only companionship coming in the form of housekeeper Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and blind tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris), and some harsh truths soon come to light as he realises that he was never liked at school, rather feared and hated. Looking for a way to break the spell and return to the way he was before, Kyle sets his sights on Lindy, with whom he once shared a moment despite their differing outlooks on the world. Saving her from drug dealers who are after her addict father (Roc LaFortune), Kyle takes her into his home for safety, something that she it initially none too happy about. Initially only concerned with breaking the spell so that he can return to his old life, Kyle’s relationship with Lindy gets off to a very rocky start. As they finally open up to each other, though, Kyle finds himself falling in love with her for real but can Lindy, who cares little for looks, really fall for a man who looks the way he does and, more importantly, has his ugliness become more than skin deep?
The opening credits scenes of Beastly seem to promise two things. Firstly, with the opening shots of a shirtless Alex Pettyfer doing push ups, that this is a film which will be very appealing to teen girls (who, let’s face it, are the target audience for this film). Secondly, shots of billboards featuring images of conventionally attractive people set to the tune of Lady Gaga’s Vanity seem to suggest a potential hint of satire on the way the world holds beauty in such high regard. “Beautiful people get it better. That’s just the way it is”, says Alex Pettyfer’s Kyle, a sad but very true reality of the world. The first promise is one that this film obviously delivers on, the second, however, one not so much. While this film does bring to light some sad truths about the world it’s all stuff that we are well aware of anyway and it fails to go more than skin deep, a lack of depth across the board being the major failing that really prevents this film from being as good as it so clearly could be.
There is absolutely nothing innovative about anything we see here, that much was always to be expected and could be forgivable but perhaps for the fact that the plot of the film sometimes feels underdeveloped with certain aspects of the story feeling very rushed, the first five months of Kyle’s cursed life passing by far too quickly, while others are a bit too hard to buy into, for instance the rather twisted and sinister way that Kyle and Lindy’s relationship comes into being – Kyle effectively blackmails her father into making her stay with him – and the fact that Kyle simply doesn’t look beastly enough, the prosthetic make-up effects on Pettyfer being very good but him not being ugly enough to buy as a ‘beast’, his disfigurements more like tattoos and some open wound style scars than any truly radical transformation. The film is also less effective in scenes featuring just Kyle than in ones featuring both Kyle and Lindy. That said, though, the scenes featuring Kyle and Lindy generally work pretty well, thanks significantly to a solid chemistry between Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens, and, for all the flaws that are present in the film, there are some strong points as well.
The romance, while not always the most convincing, is sweet and, while not a comedy, there are plenty of humorous moments, the dialogue sometimes proving pretty funny and there being a number of situations likely to inspire a few giggles. The cinematography is sometimes quite beautiful with some subtle but effective visual flourishes, in particular a scene in a greenhouse which features some beautiful imagery as Kyle and Lindy share a tender moment while in the background the flowers and weather changes and there are also some quite magical effects as some of his tattoos come to life although the fantasy element here is fairly minimal. In terms of the acting, the cast generally fares pretty well. Alex Pettyfer does the arrogant and condescending thing well and really convinces as a rich asshole, starting out extremely unlikable and easy to hate while also being very dashing and charismatic. His emotional reaction to the situation his character finds himself in isn’t as fully engrossing as it really should be but the transformation he goes through from rich prick to a more caring and selfless individual is decently handled.
Despite their characters starting out with very different outlooks on the world, there is a certain spark between Pettyfer and co-star Vanessa Hudgens, even before he becomes ‘ugly’ and the chemistry between them works pretty well. On her own, Vanessa Hudgens looks and acts totally cute and, playing an offbeat and very likable character, she is a delight to watch, easily convincing as a girl who has deeper values than what a person looks like. Mary-Kate Olsen makes a very believable witch, her unconventional appearance aided by some effective make-up work and a variety of unusual hairstyles while her voice and speech patterns are spot on and her eyes betray a somewhat sinister presence. With a very sultry demeanour her performance is quite excellent and shows that she really is capable of a lot more than what she has done in the past in all those films she did with her sister. And Neil Patrick Harris, while seeming slightly underused, is very entertaining here, injecting a significant amount of humour into proceedings. Additionally, he wore opaque contact lenses during filming so that he would actually be sightless and with this he completely convinces as a blind man. So, with a good message at its heart that “love is never ugly”, Beastly is an imperfect but nonetheless charming romance.
Let down somewhat by its writing and its failure to dig deeper in its exploration of the importance of beauty to the world, if you’re looking for something deep or thought provoking this film obviously won’t be for you but if it is light-hearted romance that you seek you might just find this to be very enjoyable. Sweet and heart-warming, this film isn’t quite a beauty but it’s no beast either.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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