If Tim Burton had made “Twilight” on an off day, the result would have been something like this. Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl has the jokey spirit and splashy style that Burton brought to a misfire like “Dark Shadows,” but while in contrast to the deadly earnestness of the Bella-and-Edward trilogy it has a refreshingly loopy sensibility, “Beautiful Creatures” doesn’t succeed as winningly as “Warm Bodies” did in overcoming a been-there-seen-that feel.
The human half of the equation here is Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a rebellious high-school student in the provincial—read culturally backward—South Carolina town of Gatlin. He’s broken up with pretty mean girl Emily (Zoey Deutsch) and spends his time reading “banned” books like Vonnegut’s novels when not wasting time with gangly best buddy Link Lincoln (Thomas Mann) and dreaming of ditching his hopeless home town for college.
Enter Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a dark, brooding newcomer to the campus who immediately attracts the attention of Emily and her crowd. Their rudeness stops, however, when a wind comes up to shatter the classroom windows and spray the students with glass. Lena’s suspended—on the simple ground that she’s the niece of the town recluse, the mysterious Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), in whose mansion she’s now staying after incidents at her previous schools—after complaints from such religious fanatics as Link’s mother (Emma Thompson).
Ethan’s understandably attracted to the girl and makes his way to the forbidding Ravenwood Estate, where he encounters not only Emily but her guardian, as well as, eventually, the rest of the odd family, Gramma (Eileen Atkins), Aunt Del (Margo Martindale) and Cousin Larkin (Kyle Gallner). And he and Emily fall for one another. But there’s a big problem to the relationship going anywhere. That’s the fact that the girl is a witch—or, as they prefer to be called, a caster; not only that, but she’s a caster living under a family curse that will see her “turn” to either to good or the dark side on the occasion of her imminent sixteenth birthday. And her mother Sarafina (Thompson), who’s possessed Mrs. Lincoln, and sultry cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum)—both of whom are decidedly of the “dark” variety—are in town to insure she goes their way, something Macon is so determined to prevent that he enlists the help of an unlikely ally, Amma (Viola Davis), the town librarian who also happens to be a benign voodoo priestess (as well as, it seems, Ethan’s housekeeper).
If that sounds complicated, rest assured it’s only the tip of the densely plotted iceberg; there are other wrinkles, including references to Ethan’s recently-deceased mother (who, it appears, was once involved with Macon), and Ridley’s backstory, which turned her to the dark side and leads her to seduce Link for nefarious purposes. It’s all pretty silly and—at least in this telling—obscure (since the book series extended to four volumes, it probably comes across more easily there). But as LaGravenese obviously doesn’t intend it to be taken seriously, that isn’t terribly important.
What’s far more significant is the style and tone he brings to the telling, and in that respect “Beautiful Creatures” feels like recycled merchandise. There’s a Burton-like vibe to it all (or worse, something akin to the remake of “The Stepford Wives”), apparent in the strenuously clever dialogue (much of it referencing the Bukowski books Emily introduces Ethan to) and the candy-colored, comic-book look courtesy of production designer Richard Sherman, art director Lorin Flemming, set decorator Matthew Flood Ferguson and costume designer Jeffrey Kurtland.
The actors fall in with the directorial approach, with Ehrenreich going the full sassy route while Englert apes the angsty Kristen Stewart look acceptably enough and Mann (who had the misfortune also to appear in “Hansel and Gretel”) handles the obligatory goofy best-friend part amiably enough. Apart from Davis, who underplays in an apparent effort to keep to the background, it’s the adults who camp it up. Both Irons and Thompson go for broke, reminding us that he wasn’t afraid to take hammy roles in piffle like “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Eragon,” and that she fully embraced comic grotesquerie in the “Nanny McPhee” pictures. Atkins and Martindale aren’t far behind, and Rossum—while younger than them all—seems equally happy to do a caricature of the ravenous seductress.
Visually “Creatures” is indeed beautiful, with lots of voluptuous images, of both human and background variety, captured by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot; and occasionally one or another of the lines—especially Ethan’s throwaway observations—earns a chuckle. Overall, however, LaGravenese’s movie doesn’t reinvigorate the “Twilight” template they way “Warm Bodies” did, as much as remind us of how tired it feels.