By Michael Sragow
Sun Movie Critic
May 20, 2004
With trailers rampant and the movies themselves unseen, every question mark registers as a come-on.
Around the World in 80 Days, with hip British actor Steve Coogan in the David Niven role of Phileas Fogg and Jackie Chan (Jackie Chan!) in the Cantinflas role of Passepartout?
Count me in.
The third Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, with a fresh director (Alfonso Cuaron, of A Little Princess) and tip-top adult support like Emma Thompson and Gary Oldman?
Spider-Man 2, with all key names returning (including Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and director Sam Raimi) and Alfred Molina's multi-tentacled Dr. Octopus in place of Willem Dafoe's boring Green Goblin?
I'll be there.
Of course, familiarity in movies often does breed contempt. But familiarity can breed affection when moviemakers try to top past work or re-invigorate old tricks with new talent.
To watch an otherwise smart news anchor like Keith Olbermann needle Mel Brooks for planning to film the Broadway musical of his earlier movie, The Producers, is to realize that "the original was better" has become almost as empty a cliche as "the book was better."
After all, how much originality has there ever been in movies?
When Errol Flynn played Robin Hood in the 1930s, die-hard Douglas Fairbanks fans predicted he could never match their hero's swashbuckling from the 1920s.
With movies based on pop fiction or time-tested fables, the first big-screen version of a story can gather a nostalgic glow that unfairly overpowers any new version.
Remaking the 1933 King Kong, the director of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, recently dissed the 1976 King Kong. But can't we give it credit for introducing Jessica Lange? Her "fast yet dreamy comic style" inspired Pauline Kael to hail the '76 super-ape movie as "an absurdist love story," saying Lange "humanizes [Kong], as Streisand humanized Redford in The Way We Were - she makes you love him."
In 2001, when Jackson premiered his first LOTR movie and Chris Columbus his first Harry Potter, reviewers who anticipated overkill dreaded facing later entries one year after another. But Jackson proved as deft at deepening and varying his new chapters as Coppola did in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. And Columbus was at least enough of a showman to keep hopes up for his saga with casting coups like Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Since Cuaron takes over at the helm for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the young wizard's saga may at last achieve the poetic fullness it deserves on screen. The Potter characters will roar into adolescence under the guidance of a director who proved himself a master of teen jolts and japeries in Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Of course, comic-book "franchise" movies are even more ripe for attack than remakes or sequels. But the first Spider-Man picture captured the tear-streaked farce of youthful insecurity. The best adventure franchises, from comic books and "higher" forms of popular fiction, succeed for the same reason. They put vivid personalities on varying notions of super-intelligence or super-strength, whether the heroes are called Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes, X-Men - or Spider-Man. This summer it should be a gas to see self-doubt afflict the web-slinger well into young adulthood.
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