The first good wide-release movie of 2011 happens to be a "tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme."
Beastly is a high school non-musical updating of Beauty and the Beast. Witty, warm, well cast and often wickedly funny, it lets Vanessa Hudgens shine and Alex Pettyfer give a hint of what all the fuss over him is about.
Pettyfer is spot-on perfect playing handsome, vain and cruel Kyle, the son of a rich TV anchor (Peter Krause) who taught him that "people like people who look good." Thus, Kyle has a lifelong aversion to "hatchet faces," "guts with butts" and "fattycakes." But Kyle, the arrogant king of Buckston Academy, is playing with fire when he taunts the school's resident witch.
Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen, awesome) might be "Frankenskank" to Kyle. But she's not just dressing like Stevie Nicks and living Rhiannon. She casts a spell. Kyle loses his hair and grows scars and pustules, and his veins look like the roots of a dying tree. Shallow Kyle has a year to make somebody see past his hideous appearance. He has a year to repent and make himself worthy of someone else's love.
Hudgens (High School Musical) gives her least-mannered, most realistic performance as Lindy, a smart girl stuck with a junkie dad with violent enemies. That allows beastly Kyle, calling himself Hunter, to take her into hiding in his penthouse, to build a greenhouse to grow her roses, to win her by thinking first of her and not of himself.
Writer-director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland) turns novelist Alex Finn's tale into a showcase of glib dialogue and scene-stealing supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris shows up and lands roughly a laugh a minute as Will, the blind tutor as quick with a put-down as he is with sound advice. "Cage the rage," kid, he suggests. "Study." Will warns him, "Lose your smarts, blondes'll be making jokes about you."
Lisa Gay Hamilton (The Soloist) turns a cliché — she plays a Jamaican housekeeper who tries to help Kyle find his way to kindness — into a minor triumph. "Parents do what they do with what they know," she says.
It sags into trite melodrama at times, and Barnz can't keep the wish- fulfillment fantasy at bay in the third act (he is ugly, but this beast is still richer than Midas). But there are great life lessons about superficiality and overcoming your parents' prejudices.
And Beastly is the first movie from the year-old CBS Films to suggest that there's life in the Eye Network's movie division and that there might yet be a niche that CBS can fill: smart, well-directed teen fantasies cast with lots of TV stars.