Take a walk down the Teen Fiction aisle in any bookstore, and you'll see what "Twilight" has wrought. Book after book features young adults struggling with some sort of supernatural power or another, each trying to fit into the real world while dealing with all of those raging hormones. It's not too much of a leap to see that feeling like an outsider because you're cursed to turn into a werewolf, crave human blood or are forced to eat brains to survive is an effective metaphor for that awkward sense of "otherness" that all teens feel. As bad as Stephenie Meyer's novels are, she was smart enough to make this connection and build the "Twilight" franchise upon it.
In a similar vein is "Beautiful Creatures," the first novel in a four-book series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. As adapted by Richard LaGravenese, I'm intrigued enough to take a look at the other three volumes. (After the disastrous opening weekend at the box office for this film, I fear it is the only way I'll find out how everything turns out.) To be sure, there's nothing remarkably original where the film's plot is concerned as everyone from Shakespeare to Anne Rice has covered this ground. However, the likability of the movie's two leads and some fun work from two screen veterans help make this a fun if not overly original feature.
Lena (Alice Englert) is the outcast in question this time out. She's a rather powerful young witch, or "caster" as they prefer to be called, and she's recently come to live with her mysterious Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons). Seems her 16th birthday is coming up, and at that point, she'll be at her most powerful, something that has garnered the interest of her evil Aunt Sarafine (Emma Thompson), who hopes to woo her niece to the dark side so that they might realize "an age without hiding." Seems she's tired of slinking around in the shadows while we misguided humans have all the fun. Macon hopes to protect Lena from this, as well as a curse that becomes more likely to occur when the young woman falls for local Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), who can't wait to shake the dust of the southern small town of Gatlin off his feet when he sets out for college in the fall.
This is pretty standard stuff where stories such as this are concerned, but what makes this better than any of the "Twilight" films (yes, I know where "Twi-Hards" are concerned, I have just spoken heresy and will be burned in effigy in towns across central Illinois) is the chemistry between Englert and Ehrenreich. These two relative unknowns inhabit the screen like they've been making movies for years and interact with each other in such a natural way that they create the impression we're eavesdropping on two teens baring their souls to one another. Englert has the misfortune of having to deal with all the witch nonsense Lena has to contend with, and she pulls it all off with conviction.
However, the quiet moments with Ehrenreich are where she shines as she does a fine job of channeling teen angst without ever overplaying it. Her counterpart is just as good, projecting a natural, good-natured charm that has us pulling for Ethan and his desire to experience something more fulfilling than what his hometown has to offer. These two are very good and deserve watching in their future endeavors.
Irons and Thompson are slumming here, but they at least seem to be having fun throwing their arch Southern accents around. Surprisingly, the former is far more restrained while the latter leaves little in her wake after rending the screen with her hammy turn. Equally expressive is Emmy Rossum as Lena's cousin Ridley, a caster who knows that her real power lies in the way she uses her sex appeal to bend men to her will. If anything can be said about her performance, it's that she holds nothing back.
"Beautiful Creatures" is far from a perfect film, but it is an entertaining one where the teen romance genre is concerned. At the very least, its two protagonists are fully realized and alive, something the "Twilight" franchise could never claim where Edward and Bella were concerned. That's got to count for something.
3 stars out of 4
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale and Pruitt Taylor Vince.
Directed by Richard LaGravenese; produced by Broderick Johnson, Andrew Kosove, Molly Smith and Erwin Stoff; screenplay by LaGravenese, adapted from the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
A Warner Brothers release. 124 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence, scary images and some sexual material). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Bland "Escape from Planet Earth" offers nothing new. (2 stars out of 4)
One of the main criteria I have for any animated film is that it should entertain adults as much as the youngsters they're made for. Walt Disney knew that from the beginning, and in recent years, Pixar Films has succeeded in raising the narrative bar for such movies, dealing as much if not more with adult concerns than those children or teens might have to contend with. Bring any less to the table, and I'm liable to be checking my watch more than the screen.
That being said, I can tell you that while watching "Escape from Planet Earth," I knew what time it was throughout the nearly interminable 89 minutes the film ran. Bland and simplistic, this acquisition of the Weinstein Company from the small production house Blue Yonder Films sports an animation style that, while not antiquated, is far from modern as it is a flat exercise both visually and narratively.
The story takes place on the planet Baab where astronaut Scorch Supernova (voice by Brendan Fraser) is regarded as the greatest hero who ever lived. His deeds of intergalactic derring-do are known by all, and he drinks in the praise of his native Baabians like a dying man who just crossed the desert. Far in the background is his brother Gary (Rob Corddry), who is the head of mission control for the planet's space program and tells Scorch what to do during his adventures. His latest mission finds the big lug headed to the Dark Planet to answer a distress call. Turns out, that would be Earth, and before you know it, Scorch has been captured, and it's up to Gary to rescue him from the clutches of General Shanker (William Shatner), who is intent on assembling a veritable alien zoo for his own nefarious purposes.
Nothing out of the ordinary happens from here on out, and while there are a couple of laughs along the way, there's nothing to write home about. A quick documentary on the habits of humans shown to the brothers is funny but too short, while the interaction between three already captured aliens voiced by Jane Lynch, Craig Robinson and George Lopez had me wishing they were in their own movie.
In retrospect, that notion sums up the film as "Escape from Planet Earth" winds up being an exercise in missed opportunities and bland execution. To be sure, viewers under 10 years old will hardly know the difference and are likely to have a good time. As for the adults who have the misfortune of attending this with them, the good news is that you might be able to catch a quick nap as this "adventure" plays out.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.