Romy Shiller

Beastly

In Fantasy, Film, review on November 10, 2015 at 8:40 am

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Confucius

Director:  Daniel Barnz
Writers:  Daniel Barnz (screenplay), Alex Flinn (novel)
Stars: Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens and Mary-Kate Olsen

Okay. I want to be upfront about this. I have a problem with fairytales, especially Beauty and the Beast. I also take issue with certain representations of high school in film.  I find representations of youth that are idealized, unbelievable usually. Maybe another reviewer won’t filter this film through the same sieve.

Plot: A modern-day take on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale where a New York teen is transformed into a hideous monster in order to find true love.

It’s nice for guys in fairytales because they can be ugly but the girl has to be a beauty. Imagine if the Vanessa Hudgens character in this film was ‘ugly’. I don’t think so. (and if you think that Fiona in Shrek breaks this mold think again.) In my article Ogre-Drag I say, Women are often with “less desirable” partners, especially in fairytales. Women are supposed to be good looking. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example. A beautiful woman can be with a beast. She cannot be the beast if he is good looking.”

I’m all for recognizing beauty on the inside but usual depictions of this are flawed (The transformative television show Glee challenges conventional representation). See, if the film simply focused on inner beauty that would be great but gender is at issue here. Not only that, but Vanessa Hudgens resonates with the High School Musical films where teenagers are expected to look a certain way – oh, don’t get me started.

In my book You Never Know: A Memoir I say; “Difference is something that most people avoid. Fitting in becomes a goal. Personally, I think difference is valuable. It is the “same” that irks me. Variation is not the same as inconsistency. One can be incredibly multi-tonal and consistent.” (Shiller, p. 23.)

So, Vanessa Hudgens’ character Lindy says that she prefers substance over style but she doesn’t do the cursing, a witch does.  There is a tradition here.  “Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wicked, ugly witch in Stardust on a quest for beauty and eternal youth.” I do not think that Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) is ugly but Kyle does. So, again, the “ugly” person does the apparently bad thing.

In the traditional fairytale Belle (means ‘beauty’ in French) satisfies her father’s dept by willingly living in a palace governed by a beast. At the end of the story her absence almost kills the beast and she cries upon returning. Realizing that she loves him her tears transform him into a handsome prince. She agrees to marry him.

In this film, Kyle Kingsbury is rich, handsome, and popular. He runs for the president of his high school ’green’ committee but he has no interest in the environment – it will just look good on his transcript. His slogan is ‘embrace the suck’. He says that how you look is proportional to how you are treated. He says that it sucks to be ugly. Kyle is ugly on the inside.

As a mean joke he asks this girl Kendra to a dance he already has a date for. Kendra reveals herself to be a witch and punishes him for his cruelty by condemning him to live as a beast. A girl, Lindy, he met before his transformation falls in love with the “beast.”

Two things interfered with my expectations. First, I thought that the “beast” was hot, and actually better looking than before. See preppy, clean-cut boys are not my thing. I dated someone for two years that looked very much like the beast in this film. Secondly, I identified with the beast in terms of transformation. Now each of these things is worthy of an article but I’ll stay on track – I think.

Okay, back to the first…a good-looking beast. In high-school, if you wear a long black coat, like Neo in The Matrix, you probably have a gun and want to shoot people. If you are different in any way you are shunned.  In many ways this film reinforces that it is better to be the ‘same’ – not fringe.  I wanted the beast to stay as-is but that’s not the fairytale. As in Titanic we know what to expect. The beast goes back to being the pretty-boy. But with a heart to match – he is nice now.

This Beauty and Beast theme is repeated a lot in films in different ways for example, in Titanic it is rich vs. poor. In Tootsie it is the real vs. fake. In City of Angels it is human vs angel. etc.  It might seem harsh and a woman I saw the film with asked me ‘if I could JUST watch a movie’. I guess that critical analysis will always be a part of it. I cannot put myself on hold.

It is hard for me to see this film in a different light. I looked to reviews and found the following: “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.”

There seems to be a problem with this movie. If you like fairytales you still might have an issue with this film. If you idealize high school it follows a prescription but…

Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online

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