Beast: B-Movie of Burden

When anything funny happens in an uneventful press tour for an uneventful movie, this becomes the only story. Idris Elba shared an anecdote on Charlamagne tha God’s popular radio show, The Breakfast Club, about his real-life daughter auditioning to play his daughter in Beast: “Interestingly enough, my daughter auditioned for this role. She wants to be an actress and she auditioned and it came down to chemistry in the end.” She wouldn’t talk to him for weeks. The actually hilarious result, either much to his daughter Isan Elba’s delight or consternation, is that her father has no chemistry whatsoever with the actors that did make it through the audition. That the movie is so much of nothing that even having a father-daughter pairing would be the first note, instead of this prerequisite first note about that not happening.

When our characters’ relationships are as absurd as the family in this film, and the ravenous totally digital-looking lion they face off with, isn’t it an amusing bar to put real standards on whether the human actors mean anything opposite each other? When your movie is mostly CG bullshit, it no longer matters what happens on the human side of the equation because your film is rendered in such frankly inhuman terms, even at the basest visual layer, that the absurdity of the movie overrides anything like familial chemistry. The bad news about computerized animation, as is the story going around right now, is that even the most heinous-looking examples in big blockbuster movies are the result of insultingly overbearing crunch time. There is good CG and bad CG but the difference between these is not so great that it overcomes the value of at least partial animatronics and puppetry and greater, more practical effects.

What happens in the movie is that Idris Elba’s character, recently made a widower, decides to take his two daughters to a South African game reserve to do some spiritual healing. When they get there they find the shattered infrastructure of wildlife poaching. A lion has been mangled by a bad poaching incident and has struck back, savaging a whole community and leaving it for dead. When the family arrives on the scene they too become prey. They take off in a car and it gets stuck up by where the lion likes to hang out. It’s simple and doesn’t quite have the gorgeous dramatic heft of something like the heart-breakingly underseen classic White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), and what you want is likely something between that and Crawl (that fantastic summer creature feature of 2019) but with lions in the African savannah.

Ultimately Beast has neither aim. It neither has a profound message that could not be figured out in the logline nor any fixed genre concepts it’s aiming for. It’s genuinely just a movie about a family trip gone awry, not quite a proper Dad Movie but verging on that territory more than any other. It has neither the seabound tragedy of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s terrific Adrift (2018) nor the heightened mountaineering drama of his Everest (2015). Such a shame when a director can have such varied ideas about Character Vs. Nature plotting and gets sold a bad bill of goods with their CG work. The decisions fail at the very point they have been conceived here and not along the line of the production. They also fail, to be fair, as the movie unfolds, and a camera that cannot properly block its characters tries to figure that out with a non-existent lion and largely looks staggeringly awkward doing it. There is not even an alternative where a few things may be tweaked and hurrah, the movie is saved.

Beast is fundamentally bad because the approach does not work with the technology. If the technology were better the filmmaking it has to fit inside of would still be a bad frame for good technology. If the technology and approach were good then the acting would still let them down. If the technology, the approach, the acting, and directing were better, there would still be no story. Nothing is a given and just because you have lions and Idris Elba does not mean you have a good movie. It just means you have lions and Idris Elba and one very disappointed daughter.


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