Note: If you have not seen the original film, I forbid you to read any further until you have seen it. It is on HULU. Get a free trial. Do whatever you have to. I will wait.
Seriously, go see it.
Okay, you are back. Now for the review.
This one was hitting home more than I expected.
The original West Side Story was not only the non-Disney musical I saw, but the first musical I ever saw it person (around the ripe age of 8). Suffice to say, I was worried beyond measure as to having a West Side Story remake done, even with Spielberg.
Of course, the new film is completely well made, and is wonderful to look at. The story (based off of Romeo + Juliet) is basically the same as the original. The presentation is what differs the most from the original (as well as some of the casting). The 1961 classic had more of a stage element to it, while the newer film feels more like it was meant to be a movie musical. The remake also is said to have taken more inspiration from the original book than from the original film.
The biggest talking points will come down to the casting, since the original did not entirely care about authentic ethnic casting with most of the characters, let alone the age of the actors who are playing teenagers. The biggest of these in the original would have been the late Natalie Wood, the biggest star of the film at the time, but definitely not Puerto Rican. Her acting was sublime (especially in the last five minutes), but it also did not help that she famously was not doing her own singing (overdubbed by Hollywood legend Marni Nixon).
The new film has new comer Rachel Ziegler in the role, and she is indeed a standout, to say the least. Just over five feet tall, she is actually able to do something that would have seemed impossible: outdo Natalie Wood (Ziegler does her own singing). She is also able to convey real emotion when needed, making her more than just a great voice (she is set to star in the titular role of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s upcoming live-action remake).
The same is not entirely the same for Ansel Elgort. While indeed a talented actor (and a very tall one at that), there were moments in the film where I felt like he was acting as a kid from the 21st century, not the mid 20th century. Still he has remarkable singing and dancing skills (the latter was something not done as much in the original by Richard Beymer).
In the original film, it was George Chakiris who starred as Bernado (and won an Oscar) with charm and dancing grace (which would explain why he was possibly one of my mom’s first crushes when she was a kid). Here, he is played by David Alvarez. He does not have the same amount of charm as Chakiris, but he is more physically present (in this version, Bernardo is a boxer), resulting in a rather convincing performance.
The one with the hardest job would be Ariana DeBose as Anita. She has to fill the shoes of the original films main standout performance by Rita Moreno (who stars here as Valentina, and still proves she can do no wrong even at the age of 90) and while she does not surpass Moreno, she is clearly magnificent in every scene she appears in.
The remake has one role (besides Maria) that I found to be better portrayed, and that was the role of Riff. While the original’s Russ Tamblyn had a teddy bear like quality (with impeccable dancing), Mike Faist (who I had never seen before) brings a much more authentic portrayal to the role. He owns every scene he is in, even when he isn’t the center of attention.
Parents, the film has about the same content of the original, only amped up just a tad. Of course, there is the scene where Tony and Maria sleep together, but it is all implied. The PG-13 rating is justified and is for okay for middle schoolers and up (provided, of course, they see the original first).
In case you have not gotten the hint, the remake is not at all better than the original, but maybe I am being unfair. This remake is indeed handled with love and care, surrounded by an odd sense of fun (odd when you consider the outcome of the story.)
To paraphrase The Dark Knight, West Side Story is not the remake we needed, but the one we deserved.
I mean that as a compliment.