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Beauty and the Beast for Tweens

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Yet another sign of the imminent cinematic apocalypse arrives in multiplexes this weekend with the release of Daniel Barnz’s (Phoebe in Wonderland, The Cutting Room) much-delayed reimagining of the oft-told, oft-filmed “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale, Beastly.

An adaptation of Alex Finn’s 2007 young adult novel set in modern-day New York City, Beastly is nothing more than (and a whole lot less) “Beauty and the Beast” for the Twilight generation.

Beastly focuses on Kyle (Alex Pettyfer), a smug, egocentric, pretty-boy, rich kid and all-around alpha male. Taking his cues from his self-centered, materialistic news anchor father, Rob (Peter Krause), Kyle rules his high school, Buckston Academy, with open contempt for the less physically attractive. Kyle makes no effort to hide his vanity or his belief in a well-ordered world for the better-looking, wealthier haves over the less-attractive, poorer have-nots.

Running for president of something called the “Green Committee” (not quite a student council, apparently), Kyle flaunts his superficiality by running on the absence of a concrete plan, his good looks, and a motto, “Best Embrace the Suck,” that somehow convinces the less physically gifted among Buckston Academy’s students to vote for Kyle.

We get the barest hint of a more likeable Kyle when he tries to share the good news with his father (Kyle’s mother is MIA), but he treats the housekeeper, Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton), with little respect. In short, Kyle’s perfectly set himself up for a major fall from grace. He gets exactly that when he twice spurns the school’s resident Goth-witch, Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen, one-half of the Olsen Twins). She has a life lesson to teach and Kyle has a life lesson to learn (i.e., about being a non-a-hole), turning him into his worst nightmare: a semi-grotesque freak (in his eyes, at least). Tattoos instantly spring up on his face, neck, and body; scars, healed, and unhealed, criss-cross his face; bumps appear on his face and body too. Kendra gives Kyle one year to fall in love (and vice versa), the curse disappearing if he hears the “L” word from his romantic partner.

Kyle’s father exiles him outside Manhattan (Brooklyn, presumably) and sends Lola to live with him. Kyle also gets a tutor, Will (Neil Patrick Harris), blind no less (the better to really “see” Kyle, all his failings, and his potential to be a better teen). The “Beauty” in this “Beauty and the Beast” reimagining appears in the shape of Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens, High School Musical), a scholarship student at Buckston.

First a friendly neighborhood stalker and later, as required by the story, Lindy’s protector (through an incredibly implausible set of circumstances), Kyle has to convince Lindy to look past his physical ugliness and see the all-around ace guy he really is (or wants to be). Suspense, what little Barnz provides the audience for Beastly’s 95-minute running time, comes in the countdown to the curse becoming permanent and Lindy’s long-in-the-planning trip to Machu Picchu that not coincidentally dovetails with Kyle’s deadline.

Not surprisingly given its origin, Beastly is pitched perfectly for a tween female audience. That’s fine if you happen to be a tween and female (or can put yourself in the mindset of one), but not if you can’t. Using broad strokes, Barnz makes little effort to make Kyle’s personal transformation persuasive, which in turn, makes the resolution of Kyle and Lindy’s already predictable romance unengaging.

That’s not to say, however, that Beastly is completely unwatchable. It’s not, due primarily to the chemistry between the leads. Pettyfer, so bland and dull in I Am Number Four (released only two weeks ago), shows modest promise as an actor. Playing cocky and self-absorbed seems to come naturally for him, but he also pulls off Kyle’s post-transformation insecurity and anxiety convincingly.

Hudgens gets little to do but emote on occasion and share long, chaste glances with Pettyfer’s Kyle, but it’s hard to judge an actor or actress when he or she is asked to do so little by a by-the-numbers, rote script. None of the preceding should be interpreted, however, as sufficient reason to lightly jog to your local multiplex this weekend or any other weekend to catch Beastly before it completes its short theatrical run.