Wealthy, handsome and popular, high school student Kyle Kingson (Alex Pettyfer) has it all but is also vain, arrogant and nasty. During his campaign for high school president, Kyle humiliates goth witch Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen), little realising she has actual magical powers. She casts a spell on Kyle that leaves him disfigured, forced to withdraw from public life and stay secluded in a dingy apartment, shunned by his similarly superficial TV news anchor dad (Peter Krause). His only chance to break the spell is to find someone who will love him, within the space of one year, or else stay ugly forever.
As you can probably guess, Beastly is a modern take on Beauty and the Beast, courting the Twilight (2008) crowd with its fantasy romance but equally part of an agreeable tradition of high school spins on classic tales, from Clueless (1995) to 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and She’s All That (1999). Based on a novel by Alex Flinn, the timeless fairytale - whose earliest version is credited to 18th century French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve - adapts quite credibly to the present day, as Kyle finds a chance for love with Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), a winsome wallflower who once adored him from afar. When Lindy’s troubled father kills a loan shark threatening their lives, Kyle offers to shelter her from possible retribution. He soon tries to woo her with expensive gifts, but discovers kindness and friendship work rather better and finds his own attitude to people and the world at large changes as a consequence.
The most popular psychological interpretation of Beauty and the Beast is as an allegory for that aspect of the female psyche that believes love can draw the innate goodness out of an outwardly “beastly” man. Which somewhat insultingly implies nice girls fall for jerks because its all down to their own narcissism. Armchair psychologists aside, there is a lack of tension to the central romance in Beastly, leaving it something of a foregone conclusion Kyle and Lindy will get together and thus break the curse. Writer-director Daniel Barnz, who made the engaging fantasy drama Phoebe in Wonderland (2008), deftly handles the romance but proves less sure-footed with the thriller subplot that motivates Lindy’s hiding out at Kyle’s place that is soon forgotten and left looking tacked on.
Snappy dialogue counterbalances the heavy-handed moralising that is somewhat muddled given the pre-transformed Kyle comes across like an embittered outsider’s caricature of what a popular kid is like. His opening scene, where he rallies a high school crowd to vote for him because he is rich, handsome and doesn’t care about social issues, strains credibility. Even the most brazenly self-centred sociopath would not be so openly amoral when running for office. Also problematic is an early scene when Lindy admits she grudgingly admired the “old” Kyle for “calling things as he saw them”, which is an odd thing to say given the plot is supposedly there to teach him the error of his ways. By the fadeout, Kyle has certainly suffered and found love but there is no one scene where we sense his attitude has really changed for the better.
The film is foremost a love story but, while tenderly drawn and capably played by the leads, its plodding courtship will prove less compelling for grownups than young girls. Neil Patrick Harris snags all the best lines as Kyle’s blind tutor despite being somewhat underused. Equally Mary-Kate Olsen is surprisingly good in a wildly atypical role, though one can’t help wondering why such an all-powerful witch bothers with high school? Bonus points for a gag reference to Fifties B-movie Devil Girl from Mars (1954).