The secret to loving others, they say, is loving yourself. Unless, of course, you're Kyle, in which case loving yourself is a full-time job.
In the snooty world of Buckskin Academy High School, Kyle's the head snoot. "Beautiful people get it better," he tells the student body as he campaigns to become their president. "That's just the way it is."
Naturally, he doesn't care a hoot about being president. He just wants to pad his transcript (as he's all too eager to tell the rapturous crowd). He insults the school's heavy and pimpled low-castes from the podium, showing off his artistically tousled hair and name-dropping his famous anchorman dad. And then he punctuates his speech by calling out his main rival—a creepy goth girl named Kendra.
"Looks are important to everyone," he says to her, "except you. Clearly."
Kyle picked the wrong goth girl to pick on.
'Cause Kendra's a witch. Not a figurative witch. Not a pretend witch. A real, double-double-toil-and-trouble witch. And when Kyle insults her again at a party, she zaps him with a nasty little spell. By the time Kyle gets back to his dad's sweet city suite, he's bald, pocked and covered in scars and bizarre tattoos—a guy who'd feel right at home in Las Vegas, but painfully out of place everywhere else.
But all is not lost, Kendra says. If Kyle can get someone to fall in love with him, the spell will be broken. If not … well, he could always run away with the circus.
As you've probably gathered, Beastly is a retelling of the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast—a tale as old as time, according to Mrs. Potts. While the details change from version to version, the crux of the story stays pretty constant: A handsome, jerkish guy gets a radical lesson in humility when a witch/fairy turns him into a beast. The only way to get rid of his beastly outside is to change his beastly insides—and become a better human being.
It'd be great if Kyle could break the spell just by learning to really, truly love folks around him, à la Groundhog Day—relishing opportunities to selflessly help his fellow man and woman. Because sometimes the purest forms of love aren't always requited.
But, hey, we're talking about a fairy tale turned into a teen romance here: Love is defined by that climactic kiss, not scrubbing out pans in a soup kitchen. And with that in mind, Beastly doles out some nice lessons. Kyle does earn the love of a lady—in this case a beautiful, hard-luck girl named Lindy—and he's willing to sacrifice his own handsome hunkiness for her wellbeing. When she finally tells him that she loves him, Kyle assumes that the confession comes too late to change him back—but he's pleased as a particularly happy bowl of punch anyway. And when he magically does revert to his handsome old self again, you can see he's apprehensive … worried that Lindy might not recognize the mangled man she fell for.
Kyle learns to care for other people, too. He begins to show an interest in the kids of Zola, his housekeeper—kids Zola had to leave behind in her home country so she could work here. And he's sad that his tutor, Will, is blind (though Will doesn't seem to mind that much). In fact, he goes so far as to ask Kendra to help them. (We can't condone asking a witch for favors, of course, but we can say that Kyle's heart's in the right place.)
Beastly tells us that humility is a virtue, that true love is a nifty thing and that beauty is far more than what you see in the mirror. These values are, like the story, timeless. And in a 21st-century culture that seems at times ever more vapid, they're very much welcome.
The film also illustrates how important good role models (read: parents) are—if only because the ones Kyle has are so uniformly bad. After meeting Kyle's father, Rob, we catch a glimpse of how Kyle became such a jerk. Rob barely speaks to his son, and when the two do speak, Rob doesn't listen. The only lesson Rob successfully taught his boy appears to be that image is everything: "People like people who look good," he says. "Whoever doesn't is either dumb or ugly." So after Kyle is uglified, Rob seems more traumatized than his son. "He doesn't want to live life looking like this," Rob tells a doctor. "We'd risk everything" to get the boy looking normal again—which Kyle takes to mean that his dad would rather him die than look like a freak.
Kendra's a witch, and everyone knows it. Even before she breaks out the big-gun spells, she's referred to as such, with folks even making cracks about her coven. They clearly associate the girl with the whole neo-pagan trend … not believing, of course, that she might actually have magical powers.
But once she casts her spell, she reveals herself as a witch of an altogether different sort—a fairy tale witch germane to the core of this ancient story. Old fables often featured such witches, and often they were horribly evil ("Hansel and Gretel"). But at times ("The Princess and the Pea," "Beauty and the Beast") they unleash a strange, somewhat malignant form of vigilante justice. Kendra isn't precisely good … but the movie doesn't paint her as evil, either—just someone who shouldn't be toyed with.
That said, she's not altogether consistent with those fairy tale witches, either. Once Kyle breaks the spell, Kendra solves Zola's and Will's issues, too, just as Kyle hoped—curing Will's blindness and magically providing Zola Green Cards for her children.
Christians have navigated around the theological difficulties witches have posed in folk literature for, literally, hundreds of years. In those ancient stories, witches might teach the occasional lesson, but they were still fearsome, frightening creatures. The fact that Kendra also performs good deeds out of, apparently, the kindness of her heart, muddies the template a bit. And Kendra's association with modern-day paganism makes her character even more confusing—and more difficult to embrace.
Beastly opens with a montage suggesting just how important beauty is in our modern culture. As Lady Gaga's song "Vanity" plays ("Popular and glamorous/We love ourselves and no one else"), audiences see billboards depicting various stretches of skin and watch as Kyle goes through the first part of his day shirtless. (We see him without a shirt several times thereafter, too.) Later we see an advertisement depicting an artistically rendered, apparently nude figure.
We learn that Kyle, to go along with his many other faults, is sexually promiscuous, writing on his social network profile that he's interested in "anything that's bangable." Both he and his divorced dad talk about women's physical features, and Kyle calls Kendra a "slut" and "Frankenskank."
But the film does not laud such behavior. And when Kyle meets Lindy, he expresses his affection as you'd hope a gentleman would.
That doesn't mean, though, that marriage is ever mentioned after Lindy confesses her love and Kyle morphs back to his old self. (We see pictures of the two of them globe-trotting.) And I should note here that they move in together almost immediately after meeting … but that they do so under an incredibly outlandish premise, with them living in the same place platonically, barely speaking for, seemingly, weeks.
As she warms up to him, Kyle builds a greenhouse to impress Lindy, filling it with roses. They read poetry together. They look into each other's eyes. When Lindy stumbles off a curb, Kyle catches her before she hits the pavement and lays her down on the grass, looming over her and nearly kissing her. And, yes, before the credits roll, the two do share true love's kiss.
Elsewhere, a man nuzzles the neck of Kyle's old girlfriend. There's talk of losing one's virginity—at 15. Kyle and Lindy are never chaperoned, even in situations where they really should be. When Lindy asks why Kyle brought her to live with him, Will makes a joking reference to an old B-movie in which aliens kidnap "virginal girls for breeding stock."
Lindy sometimes wears tops that are cropped a tad too low. One of the songs we hear refers to skinny-dipping. Someone jokingly suggests that another person should become intimate with a goat.
Lindy's drug-addled father gets into a confrontation with his dealer and the dealer's brother. In the scuffle, Lindy is knocked unconscious, and someone pulls a gun. Kyle roughs up the assailant and whisks Lindy away. When he returns, he sees that Lindy's father is holding the gun; one of the other men lies dead.
Some of Kyle's deformities look like grotesque scars, and a few seem to have bits of metal embedded in them.
Crude or Profane Language
Three uses of the s-word, one acronymous "WTF" and several other bits of profanity, including "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused at least three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Lindy's father overdoses. Kyle, after his transformation, drops out of school. Classmates are told he's in "rehab."
Other Negative Elements
Lindy disobeys her father. Kyle essentially blackmails Lindy's dad into letting Lindy move in with him. Kyle's not much for schoolwork, and even after he agrees to it—with Lindy—the curricula seems to consist entirely of them reading poetry and looking into each other's eyes.
Kyle drives his motorcycle with wild abandon.
Would Disney have done it better? And where was Mrs. Potts?
Those were the two questions I found myself asking as the credits rolled.
CBS Films' Beastly isn't horrible, really. The story's nice, the characters are engaging and the beast's look is riveting, if not exactly ugly. But it falters with every step. It's a teen romance with the sort of sweetness that can be both saccharine and cynical. It sullies a charming story with scads of unnecessary language. It embraces the form, function and outrageous conceits of fairy tales without really understanding what makes them truly magical.
Which makes Beastly just a teensy bit like pre-beast Kyle: Pretty … but missing something inside.