West Side Story is a Surprisingly Endearing Remake

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Steven Spielberg has done just about everything in his five-decade career, from horror to comedy, science-fiction to historical drama. Yet until now, there is one genre that Spielberg has not ventured into, and after seeing the final product, viewers will be left scratching their heads as to why the legendary director waited so long to do so.

In the late Fifties, amidst a period of gentrification in New York City, tensions between working-class communities are at their peak – principally the Italian-American adolescents, known collectively as the Jets, and the Puerto Rican youths called the Sharks. Caught between this feud are two star-crossed lovers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) whose adoration for one another risks causing an even greater rift between these warring factions.

Originating as a Broadway production, Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) is the second motion-picture adaptation of the celebrated musical, the first having originated in 1961 under the direction of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The 2021 version contains plenty of homages to its film and stage forebears, the costuming being such an example – colours help to distinguish where the loyalties of the characters lie, with the Sharks being dressed in warmer colours like reds and oranges, while the Jets typically wear blue clothing.

Another, more obvious link is the soundtrack, originally composed by Leonard Bernstein with Stephen Sondheim, and re-arranged here by David Newman. None of the songs contained within have lost their charm nor their infectiousness, so even those who’ve never seen West Side Story before are bound to recognise iconic numbers like “Maria”, “Tonight” and “America”. And further connection is made through Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Anita, who in Spielberg’s version plays the role of Valentina, a gender-swapped Doc – the shopkeeper who mentors Tony.

Although adapting a six-decade-old musical may seem a retrograde step for a legend like Spielberg, the director does plenty to keep the material fresh. For one, it atones for the lack of representation in Wise & Robbins’ production by casting actors with Puerto Rican, Latin-American and Hispanic heritage as the Sharks – actors like Rachel Zegler, who shines in her film debut as Maria; David Alvarez as Maria’s hot-headed brother Bernardo; and Ariana DeBose, rightfully tipped as the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor gong at this month’s Academy Awards.

In recent months, much of the criticism surrounding West Side Story has involved Ansel Elgort in the lead role of Tony. Although not as insufferable as some commentators are suggesting him to be – his performance isn’t half bad, and his singing is rather impressive – Elgort’s presence is something of a sore-point for the film, given the allegations of assault and grooming of a minor that linger over him. But even if said allegations can be ignored, the fact remains that Elgort doesn’t possess the natural charisma of, say, a young Hugh Jackman or Ryan Gosling to carry the role of Tony.

The Jets face-off against the Sharks in West Side Story

Such a casting decision speaks to Spielberg’s lack of experience when it comes to directing musicals, which is evident elsewhere in his West Side Story too. Although there is a flamboyance to proceedings, it’s not consistent, with some scenes possessing a level of dourness that is endemic of Spielberg’s recent output; additionally, the film has a weird placement of songs – for instance, one upbeat number sung by Maria and her fellow Sharks takes place immediately following the death of a major character.

Problems like this may explain why West Side Story wasn’t the hit that 20th Century Studios hoped it would be. The Omicron wave has undeniably had an impact as well, yet in this reviewer’s eyes, Musical Fatigue is the reason for this picture’s shunning by the masses. Recently, there’s been a saturation of musicals not witnessed since the genre’s heyday, with Spielberg’s film arriving within months of films such as Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen, Disney’s Encanto, Sony’s Vivo, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! and John M. Chu’s In the Heights.

Talking of the latter, one of the more pointed traits Spielberg’s West Side Story shares with Chu’s In the Heights is a substantial amount of Spanish dialogue, none of which is translated by text – the normal practice in this medium. Such an approach is fine in the United States, where Spanish is spoken or at least learnt by most of its inhabitants; but in a country like Australia – where most people don’t speak Spanish, nor are exposed to it in their everyday life – most viewers would benefit from the so-called barrier of subtitles to understand what is being said.

Yet even with the lack of English translations, and other gripes besides, West Side Story easily ranks as the best musical of 2021. There’s a vibrancy to the choreography and visuals that is lacking in most contemporary live-action musicals, the decades-old numbers barely need updating, and the story remains as charged, moving and timely as it was all those years ago. More importantly, the film is comforting proof that Steven Spielberg still has that magic touch, even as he enters his sixth decade working in the industry.

What’s here is more than remake of a renowned musical. With a terrific cast and welcome throwbacks, this is a vibrant adaptation that pays tribute to its originators whilst doing more than enough to differentiate itself for the better. And of course, it boasts the direction of a venerable artist who rarely ever falters – one can only hope that West Side Story isn’t the last musical to be directed by the Great Man.

West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+.

Celebrating The Adventures of Tintin, The Dream Collaboration

The adventure serial was once a staple of cinema, with theatregoers each and every week treated to fresh takes of heroes in exotic, faraway lands. After a decades-long period of dormancy, the genre saw a brief revival in the 1980s, only to fade into obscurity once again; but for a brief moment in the early 2010s, it looked as though adventure films were here to stay, all thanks to a pair of the medium’s modern-day pioneers.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a famed investigative reporter whose journeys and discoveries have enraptured millions across Europe, and whose latest mystery involves the model of a sailing ship – bought by him at a flea market for a minimal sum – which no less than two men are willing to pay a substantial amount of money for. As it happens, the seemingly innocuous model is of a naval vessel known as the Unicorn, fabled to have sunk with countless riches.

One of the men seeking to acquire the model from Tintin’s possession is Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who believes it holds the key to the real ship’s final resting place, and therefore the treasure sunken with it. So dogged is Sakharine in his pursuit of the plunder that he’s even kidnapped Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), a descendant of the Unicorn’s captain, to prevent him from laying claim to the ship’s fortune – by which he has rights to.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) was a long-gestating project for veteran director Steven Spielberg, who first took an interest in the character thirty years prior. Whilst promoting his film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in Europe, Spielberg noted that many French reviews repeated the phrase “Tintin”, unaware what was being referred to. He soon learned that critics were referencing the Tintin comics, written and drawn by Belgian artist Hergé, which they claimed bore a similarity to the escapades of Indiana Jones.

The antagonistic Sakharine, as he appear in The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg initially envisaged the film as a feature-length animation, then as a live-action production, procuring the services of Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, to create a computer-generated version of Tintin’s faithful dog, Snowy. Being a long-time fan of Hergé’s work, Jackson took a keen interest in the project, eventually convincing Spielberg to utilise motion-capture technology for the final product, resulting in visuals that fused photorealism with the “traditional” look of Tintin.

This imagery proved rather polarising upon the film’s release, with some viewers unsettled by the not-quite-human looks of the protagonists; yet for others, including this author, the 3D representations of Tintin and his associates are quite charming, striking a perfect balance between the cutesy drawings of Hergé’s work and the lifelike renderings of other motion-capture projects, such as The Polar Express (2004) – and just like said project, the faintest hint of an actor’s likeness can be seen in the characters they portray.

The character designs are certainly the most talked-about element of The Adventures of Tintin, but they are far from the most notable; in actuality, the most enthralling aspect is the animation, which is masterfully rendered and quite fluid. The high quality of the illustrations allows for some exciting sequences, including a flashback scene of a piratical raid on the Unicorn; a one-shot motorcycle chase through a Moroccan city; and a climactic battle in a dockyard featuring all manner of destruction.

Also appreciable is the orchestral score, composed by musical legend and Spielberg’s favoured collaborator, John Williams. Although not as perpetually hummable as his work for other franchises (think Star Wars, Harry Potter), Williams’ compositions here provide a sense of whimsy and grandeur that fits perfectly with the adventurous tone of the story. So impressive was The Adventures of Tintin’s soundtrackthat it earned John Williams his 46th nomination at the Academy Awards, breaking the record of fellow composer Alfred Newman.

A naval battle, one of the many astonishing scenes in The Adventures of Tintin

A less commendable element of The Adventures of Tintin is the screenplay – it’s certainly captivating enough, with a strong mystery element and decent gags, but is also blemished by the occasional cliché; and there’s further irritation to be had at the characterisation of Captain Haddock, who is way too buffoonish for him to be taken seriously. These faults aside though, The Secret of the Unicorn is a rousing adventure, and an ideal entry point for children too young to witness the exploits of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.

Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin generated plenty of buzz upon its initial release in 2011, with foreign markets taking a particular interest. Even before earning decent reviews from critics and becoming a modest box-office success, discussion of a sequel was fervent, with both directors expressing their interest in a potential Tintin trilogy and Jackson even confirmed to helm the second instalment. And yet, despite the picture’s critical and financial triumphs, audiences are still waiting for a sequel.

It would seem that neither director is in a hurry to make the next Tintin film. On the verge of Unicorn’s tenth anniversary, Spielberg is currently directing an autobiographical film about his childhood, while Jackson is promoting his latest documentary project Get Back (2021); but beyond that, the former is consigned only to production duties, and the latter has no other projects planned, so there’s every possibility that a new movie from the pair is just around the corner – and we all sorely hope that’s the case.

In the meantime though, there’s immense pleasure to be had in rewatching the original collaboration. Lovingly woven together by two giants of cinema, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a picture that encapsulates the qualities of both Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, its enjoyment solidified by fantastic animation, unceasing thrills and a majestic soundtrack.

The Adventures of Tintin is currently streaming on Netflix, Prime Video, and Stan.