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“Beastly”: Can Magic Be Modern?

"Beastly": Can Magic Be Modern?

“Beastly,” quality aside, is nothing if not an interesting film. How do you effectively take a fairy tale, modernize it, and throw it up onto the big screen? It’s one thing to take one of these classic stories and lushly illustrate it, à la Disney, but it’s entirely another to make a full-on modern live-action version. The new film, based on the novel by Alex Finn and starring Vanessa Hudgens and Alex Pettyfer as the young beauty and her beast, is a testament to the difficulty of this kind of project. Some parts of the film work, and marvelously. But for the most part, the adaptation just doesn’t pan out. What tries to be a hip urban refurbishing of timeless classic tale turns into an extended magical episode of “Gossip Girl.”

Though in a way, it’s not completely the fault of the filmmakers. “Beastly” is a wonderful example of just what can go wrong in any “update,” and its problems are perhaps more interesting than its successes. Is it possible to take such an old, defined and uncomplicated genre of storytelling and turn out a compelling work of contemporary fiction?

Fairy tales are simple, and they deal in character archetypes. The witch, the princess in the tower, the friendly but one-dimensional supporting staff (often just that, domestic servants), all of these tropes populate the Disney classics and seem totally in tune with the style of the film. When you take one of these stories and move it to live action 21st century New York City, suddenly the typical fairy tale cast members turn into uninspired and badly written tropes.

Magda the maid (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and Will the tutor (Neil Patrick Harris) were clearly written as creative ways to riff on the classic supporting cast of the film. She’s an immigrant, with a husband and kids back home in the Caribbean; he’s blind. See what the problem is here? You can’t make stock characters interesting by adding a single, equally simple attribute, no matter how talented or charismatic the actors may be. The same is true for the distant father, an unfortunately misused Peter Krause.

Even Beauty herself, Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), is an example of this struggle of definition. There’s certainly a concerted effort to make the character more independent and self-actualized, but this effort doesn’t actually extend to taking her out of the attic. There she sits, loudly independent in speech but condemned to fall for the guy keeping her up there, held hostage for reasons that seem dubious even though we see things completely from his perspective. It seems that there’s just no way out of this conundrum for “Beastly”; by even maintaining the very basic skeleton of the story and the characters, the film is condemned to stay one-dimensional.

Thankfully, there’s Mary-Kate Olsen (and yes, I am fully aware of the unexpected nature of the sentence). The one thing that writer/director Daniel Barnz gets absolutely right is how to update the magic itself. Olsen’s witch is stellar. The costumes are wonderfully over the top. From her enormous and ridiculous hairstyles down to her ornately strapped shoes, not only does she grab the eye of the audience on her own but is also intentionally placed in an otherwise completely normal aesthetic. The magic itself also works, and the make-up work on the “beast” is quite good. The curling branches that cover his body in a dark stranglehold are almost as successful a depiction of modernized magic as the portrayal of the witch herself. She and her spell move around in Kyle’s mind in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the club scene in “Black Swan.” She also plays the creepy and intentionally out-of-place character to the fullest potential for delightful absurdity; there’s no mistaking the fire in her eyes, and watching this actress have a great time going for the outrageous is probably the most fun to be had in the film.

Sadly, fairy tales are not just about magic. The best of these stories are simple narratives, with a moral that shouldn’t seem trite and a style that shouldn’t seem forced. (Though the words “embrace” and “suck” tattooed to poor Pettyfer’s head fall into the forced category, a single major problem with the portrayal of his visual curse.) Adapting one of these stories, tales so old, well-known and uncomplicated into a modern setting is a mine field of potential screenwriting pitfalls. Is success possible?

I don’t know, you tell me. What are your favorite “updates” of classic fairy tales? Which films have succeeded? In a way “Beastly” presents a challenge, even in its failure: can it be done? How would you do it?

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