Witty, well-cast 'Beastly' offers laughs, life lessons

One of the first good movies of the new year happens to be a “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.”

“Beastly” is a high school nonmusical 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-perfect playing handsome, vain and cruel Kyle, the son of a rich TV anchor, and the arrogant king of Buckston Academy. But he’s playing with fire when he taunts the school’s resident witch.

Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen, awesome) may be “Frankenskank” to Kyle. But she’s not just dressing like Stevie Nicks and living “Rhiannon.” She can actually cast a spell, and she does. Kyle loses his hair, 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 Alex Flinn’s novel into a showcase of glib dialogue and scene-stealing supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris shows up and lands 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.

“Beastly” sags into trite melodrama at times, and Barnz can’t keep the wish fulfillment fantasy at bay (he may be ugly, but this Beast is still richer than Midas) in the third act. But there are great life lessons about superficiality and overcoming your parents’ prejudices here.

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 be a niche CBS can fill — smart, well-directed teen fantasies cast with lots of TV stars.