“We want villains to be sexy, and in my mind, an animal could be very sexy in a kind of exotic way.” That’s Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur on the computer-generated star of Beast, an intelligent lion in the South African bush with a vendetta against poachers. While I’m not sure I follow the premise of sexy mammals, Kormákur certainly makes the titular beast a uniquely majestic predatory cat. The CGI lion looks marvelous, powerful, and downright menacing.
The recently divorced and widowed—a unique combination of life events—Dr. Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) takes his two daughters to their recently departed mother’s hometown in South Africa. The exact purpose of the trip is not fully clear, but it has something to do with the anti-poaching activities of Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), who appears to be a very close family friend. The elder daughter, Norah (Leah Jeffries), holds a camera tight and a grudge against her father for leaving before her mother “got sick” even tighter. The younger and more innocent Meredith (Iyana Halley) has a robust vocabulary for a child her age and loves arguing with her older sister.
Like all good creature features, the plot is mostly free from fat. In a premise that promises “Jaws in the bush,” Kormákur’s “sexy” male lion stalks and hunts our humans (and a few others). The sudden beastly turn, Uncle Martin explains, can only be explained through a newfound intelligence in the lion to resist the equally beastly poachers. Unfortunately, this answer ends up being nothing more than a convenient plot device, though it had the potential to reignite a profound new normative ethical relationship of animal-human relations within the movie: Martin, previously seen hugging a pride of lions that he raised from when they were cubs, never tries to redefine or introduce his relationship to this mad alpha predator. He never offers it a carnivorous version of the olive branch and instead resorts to shooting the lion and dropping a car on top of it.
The CGI here might be the front-runner for best visual effects, at least outside of RRR. With the exception of a single shot of Nate standing before Pride Rock at the end of the movie, the artists don’t miss a single beat. To get into specifics, in visual effects, rendering refers to the transfer of the 3D models into 2D; this is where the movement and look of the animal ultimately comport to or depart from our existing visual references. In light and dark, dry and wet, peaceful and pouncing, the critters— entirely CG from my understanding—might be the most realistically rendered animals since 2019’s Lion King.
At just over 90 minutes, the movie’s compactness weights in its favor. It’s tight enough to almost find its way to the creature feature canon, but it’s ultimately weighed down by a tasteless and recurring dream motif. In unconscious states, Nate finds a spiritual abode in a recurring, mystically busy image of his former wife walking through parts of her home village. Not only is it superfluous to the story and distracting from Daniels’ relationships with his daughters, but it also has a light stench of exotification—a problem that likely finds its origins in the insensitive hands of this Icelandic director.
Beast concludes in Jurassic Park fashion, something previously alluded to by one of the daughter’s original theme park shirt. But, if it’s not sacrilegious to say so, the convenience of the beast on beast fight works more efficiently and suspensefully here. I’m not saying it’s a better film than Park, God no. But as a horror movie, the scene is just more essential to the structure of Beast than it is to its great predecessor—and you completely feel the full import of its essentialness.
dir. Baltasar Kormákur
Opens Friday pretty much everywhere.