A good fairytale starts outward and moves in. It takes something so polarized that it appears almost inhuman and whittles it down to a recognizable familiarity. The castle in Beauty and the Beast is a good example. At first it’s this gargantuan, cold fortress; but by the end Belle somehow makes it feel cozy and warm. The same logic could be applied to Rapunzel’s hair or Pongo and Perdita’s litter of Dalmatians. Outrageous and over the top upon first glance, but by the end, just another feature the audience has embraced and accepted as at home in this parallel universe.
The problem with Beastly is that there is no parallel universe. We get fairy tale characters, a jaded and bitter witch, a famous father that literally abandons his son, an altruistic poor girl that sees beyond her station, a snarky blind guy and an asshole so mean he uses a campaign speech to tell ugly kids to “embrace the suck”, but when they’re using terms like “emo”, “goth” and “douche bag” to relate to the world, it becomes impossible to see them as anything other than bizarre fish out of water. The film tries desperately to be an homage to the fairytales that came before it. In many ways, it succeeds, but this off-putting hybrid of accepting society, yet deforming it with Aesop Fable logic just doesn’t work. The characters are like viruses attacking an immune system, and as virtuously as the white blood cells fight them off, something never quite feels right.
The asshole in question is Kyle (Alex Pettyfer). He’s been reared to think beauty and power are synonymous by his largely absent newscaster father (Peter Krause). Isolated and bitter, he takes his frustrations out on his classmates at the nicest high school I have ever seen. They mostly take it, except for one creepy goth girl who openly refers to herself as a witch (Mary-Kate Olsen). She’s had enough of his hurtful behavior and casts a spell ruining his face. If he doesn’t find love within a year, he’ll remain scarred for the rest of his life. On the advice of his father, Kyle tells everyone he’s gone to rehab and moves into an apartment by himself on the outskirts of town. Days drag into weeks, and a blind tutor moves in to provide encouragement. He knows the terms of the spell and implores his student to find a girl.
That girl turns out to be Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens). She always had a thing for Kyle, but now her time is consumed by looking after her drug addicted father and dropping off sandwiches to the homeless. Kyle is consumed by looking after her. This works out well for all involved after a gun is pulled during an altercation with a dealer, and Kyle, apparently part Spider-man, saves the day. He blackmails the father into letting him take care of Lindy, and she angrily moves into Kyle’s attic. Hell hath no fury, at least until the woman is given JuJubes.
Slowly, through conversation, love letters and those JuJubes, an awkward friendship blooms, though Lindy has no idea this disfigured monster was the boy she knew. They begin gardening, spend a weekend at a lake house and most importantly, sneak into a zoo. There are several things that work about Beastly but nothing begins to rival an exchange Kyle and Lindy have during that zoo scene. Quiet in all the right moments and reservedly emotional when it counts, it would have been at home in a four or four and a half star movie. In this one, it’s a sign of missed opportunities.
In its worst moments, Beastly is a fast-paced and laughably formulaic essay on how teenagers don’t behave. All the characters speak in cleaver, screenwriter language. The mean kids are shockingly vicious. The nice girls volunteer at soup kitchens. The absentee fathers are completely absent. The lowlifes always let you down, and the angels provide only hugs. In its better moments, Beastly is a shy love story about two kids with messed up parents. Neither of them know the right words to comfort, but each is comforted that they other tries. The assholes wrack their brains wondering what gift to buy, and the virtuous betray their suitors with thoughts of another.
Beastly was never going to be a classic, but in haunting moments like the one at the zoo, it becomes clear how much better the film is when it’s not trying to be a fairytale. It’s very difficult for the outside construction of such a genre to work in modern times. All the grandiosity and all the over-the-top bells and whistles may suit the Brothers Grimm when they set the fairy tales in a land far far away, but within the city limits, it’s the blind tutor and the asshole laughing over hitting golf balls that makes us smile. I would pay to see an hour and a half of that, but as far as fairytales go, I’ll leave that to Disney.