It’s almost impressive how far Beastly bends over backward to bring the “Beauty And The Beast” story into the modern world. While forcibly incorporating cell phones, social media, texting, and Google into the action, it still keeps the beats of the original fairy tale, even up to the caring father whose poor decisions condemn his daughter to life in a monster’s castle. But while the film has a few ideas in its miserly playbook, it commits to none of them for more than a ham-fisted line of dialogue or two. In every aspect, from story to tone to characterization to visual aesthetic, it’s laughably perfunctory, as though everyone involved were too embarrassed to give it more than a half-ironic token effort.
I Am Number Four’s Alex Pettyfer stars as the smug rich kid whose inner ugliness magically becomes outer ugliness: In an early warning sign of just how apathetically shallow Beastly plans to be, he starts off the film baldly informing an enthusiastically cheering crowd of voters at his prep school that he has no interest in the environment, but still deserves to be president of the Green Committee (whatever that is), since he’s attractive, and the credit will look good on his résumé. Once he wins, he’s equally cartoonish about insulting his glam-goth witch classmate Mary-Kate Olsen, so she curses him with glistening scars and bad-ass tattoos, and tells him they’ll become permanent if he can’t get someone—for instance, soft-hearted, doe-eyed High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens—to profess love for him within a year. The story progression from there is obvious, but writer-director Daniel Barnz (working from Alex Flinn’s YA novel) makes the mistake of treating it as though it’s obvious, and as though none of its characters or scenes are worth the slightest exploration.
Instead, the film whisks across plot points and drags across time-wasting business, like Neil Patrick Harris’ role as a blind tutor who serves no story function whatsoever. Harris imbues his scenes with a little wry, self-aware comedy, but seems to be in an entirely different (and no better) film. Meanwhile, Lisa Gay Hamilton (as a saintly magical-Negro maid) acts as if this is an indie drama, while Hudgens plays her role for tender romance, Olsen embraces the camp, and Pettyfer delivers his lines with a thuddingly strained casualness that suggests he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. The whole film is choppy, rushed, and confused, except in the one muddled action scene, where it becomes downright incompetent. Say what you will about Twilight—whose look and supernatural-romance tone Beastly occasionally tries to copy—but at least its endless angsty wallowing finds an emotion and dives in deep. Beastly has no idea what human emotion even looks like.