The new film adaptation of the 1957 stage musical West Side Story has an exceptionally high "why did you feel the need to make this" bar to clear. Because it's also, in the public imagination if not in the most precisely literal sense, a remake of the 1961 film musical West Side Story, one of the handful of pre-'70s movies that remains a staple of normal people's cinema viewing diet. Which doesn't necessarily matter for this show of all shows: West Side Story is a perennial onstage, and as they tell us, people re-stage plays all the time, so why be precious about film remakes? Honestly, I don't know, but the cultural norm exists nonetheless: if a stage musical got a successful movie that people like, it's "done", we just don't really expect another one.

So again: why did director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner feel the need to make this new version of the musical originally written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim? Having now seen their West Side Story, that question is still open in my mind. Given one of our other cultural norms, that directors are the main creative voice involved in filmmaking, and given that Spielberg is one of the specific directors who has most embodied that critical commonplace, and given that most of the long-gestating hype for the film has been built around "Spielberg finally gets to make a musical, like he's been wanting to do like the '70s", it's hard not to notice that Kushner clearly has much clearer designs on the material than the director does. To be frank, I get the feeling that Spielberg's interests begin and and with how much very fun it is to stage large groups of people moving in time to music.

And that is, to be sure, an excellent thing in which to be interested; it is the life's blood of the musical as a work of entertaining spectacle. Whether or not Spielberg actually found a way into this specific story, it can hardly be denied that he knows more about composing images than almost anybody else in contemporary American filmmaking, and in particular, he has a gift for blocking people in front of an anamorphic lens that outstrips just about anyone else. So West Side Story isn't just a throwback to an older version of Hollywood in its subject matter; it's a throwback in its sturdy, stately old-school craftsmanship. To a certain extent, praising this or any film for having uncommonly good blocking is really more of a criticism of all the other films that aren't so good at it. At the same time, it would feel terribly unfair not to give West Side Story all the praise in the world for having such a gift for looking at people in three-dimensional space. It is, again, more crucial in a musical than in perhaps any other context. Thus we get scene after scene where people navigating the environment, moving around relative to each other, and the camera moving along with them (or not, as the case may be), drives scenes forward and in some cases unmistakably improves upon the 1961 film. The second song, for example, "Something's Coming", performed by bland romantic lead Tony (played here by Ansel Elgort, whose rubber-stamped features aren't doing much to help with the character's blandness, and whose scrawny singing voice is barely up to the challenge of performing the role) - it's my least-favorite part of any production of West Side Story, and that hasn't changed here, but Spielberg stages it as Tony moving though Doc's drug store, tidying up and putting things away, crisscrossing around Valentina (Rita Moreno), Doc's widow and the store's current owner, as she looks with impatient motherly concern. A drab scene has now become dynamic, establishing a location and a more active, mindful version of Tony, one who is trying very hard to fit into a new post-gang life rather than just a guy mooning around in alleys.

It's a kinetic, busy film, with the camera restlessly zipping around the detailed sets; not always to good effect. There are certainly moments where more is less: "America", which has always been a battle of wills on a rooftop, has not become a busy walk-and-talk moving out onto the streets and through crowds, and while as a purely kinetic experience it's exciting to watch - and as a purely sensory experience, it's a phenomenal way to show of the best of the many excellent costumes that designer Paul Tazewell has populated the movie with - but the actual heart of the scene (using the 1961 film's lyrics, an obvious improvement on the version in the show, but with the opening verse taken from the 1957 version) and the "men vs. women" choreography, the taunting debate between assimilationist Anita (Ariana DeBose) and ethnonationalist Bernardo (David Alvarez) over whether the trade-offs of life in these racist United States are justified by the increase in economic opportunities, has been swallowed up in all of the elaborate movement. I also find it very hard to feel all that great about how the new film handles Tony's first meeting with the virginal Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a tense multi-racial dance; between the attempts to showcase the gang rivalry in the dancing, the spectacular camera movements, and the new character-specific business for various supporting actors, there's such a chaotic crush of movement (even with the gangs color-coded) that Tony and Maria have to be shooed away behind the bleachers to have their first flirtion remain visible - ruining the dreamlike effect of having the dance seem to stop around them as they gaze at each other.

These are two examples I picked because I found them particularly disappointing, and I could have gone the other way in some cases (Spielberg's treatment of "One Hand, One Hard", and the new location Kushner has set it in, is a remarkable improvement on the '61 film; "Tonight" has been turned into a stand-off between Tony and the prison-like maze of metal stairs through which he's been framed). I think that either way, it's enough to mount the argument that the directing, as energetic and kinetic as it is, is ultimately more about "gee whillickers, fellas! I'm gettin' to make a musical!" than it is about bringing us into the world and story of West Side Story. A racially-charged story of tensions between first- and second-generation immigrants, a tragic Shakespearean love story, and, in the new treatment, a critique of gentrification are all pretty far afield from anything I'd have called Spielberg's comfort zone, and given his incredibly technical facility with working  with dancing bodies, I'd love him to get another crack at one of these, ideally with something that fits his vibe better. We need a better South Pacific movie than the one we've got, for example. Regardless, it's hard not to feel that he's kind of content just to play the highly skilled journeyman this time around.

As I said, I actually see much more thoughtful, targeted engagement with the original material from Tony Kushner. And to be clear, being thoughtful and targeted do not necessarily make it automatically good. Kushner has been taken down by a particularly bad case of "my audience is made of idiots who won't understand The Lesson", and he seems to labor under the impression that West Side Story has not, before now, been about race. At a minimum, he is indecently eager to explicitly cast this all in the terminology that a 2020s audience would able to parse with the absolute minimum amount of work on the part of the viewer, and to make sure the characters tell us very directly what they think about everything. This is annoying as hell, but at least it speaks to an attempt to do something with West Side Story other than just directly replicate it. Indeed, Kushner's new script changes a lot of the details while leaving the foundation alone; whether this actually transforms the material or just gives it a superficial new coat of paint is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. As is the question of whether it would be good to perform those transformations.

For the most part, the narrative flows more smoothly now. Probably the best thing Kushner did was to figure out what to do with "Cool", a song that doesn't work at all in the stage version and only sort of works in the '61 film; now it's a demonstration of Tony's attempt to defuse the hothead Riff (Mike Faist), tying into the film's extensive new backstory where Tony has just gotten out of prison for nearly beating a man to death in a gang battle. And I do wonder if that backstory isn't cranking things up a bit too much, but it at least gives some definition and goals to a character who has never been nearly interesting enough to live up to the amount of importance the narrative places on him. Speaking of "Cool", it's gone back to being before "Gee, Officer Krupke", though that song has been completely reconceived, and in the process totally ruined: it's a tonal disaster, goofy parody in a version of the material that has made a beeline for social realism, and stupidly staged, including the addition of a jailed prostitute who seems utterly baffled why these idiot kids are putting on a comic number in the middle of a police station.

Otherwise, this is basically just a tidier version of the script of the stage version, giving new motivations to some of the scenes but basically leaving them to do the same work. This includes abandoning changes made in '61 that were for the better, such as moving up "I Feel Pretty" to be less emotionally incongruous; now it's back to being forcibly and uninterestingly ironic (but the new setting - Maria is a maid at a department store now, and she sings it while dancing around the displays - feels much less stiff and unnatural). The main thrust of these changes all seem to be focused on making the material more realistic, and grounded in more concrete social concerns; hence the addition of the gentrification plot, which is one of several ideas that I think works better as a concept than in execution. And to be frank, I'm not sure that realism is the friend to a racial parable version of Romeo and Juliet. For one thing, it is now very much impossible not to realise that Tony and Maria only know each other for about 30 hours, and that insistence on a more detailed, present chronology makes it very hard to believe in the romantic tragedy; they just seem like moron kids getting in over their head. Not a bad way to read the material, either Laurents or Shakespeare, but Kushner and Spielberg haven't done the rest of the work they'd have to in order to sell it. For another thing, the second act (one of the many, many second acts in Broadway history that hasn't been pinned down as well as the first act) relies on some emotional sleight-of-hand that doesn't work as well now; in particular, Anita has been changed in such concrete ways through the script changes to her character, and the way Spielberg directs DeBose to conduct her emotional arc, that her behavior around the climax is just not plausible, and "A Boy Like That" has been rendered almost as broken as "Gee, Officer Krupke". Not to mention that it's all just less fun: the opening ballet, for example, is now no longer an expressive portrait of swagger and gang violence, it's just a tour of some construction sites, set to music, and sometimes they jeté instead of walking.

One of the good things about the realism is that it gives the actors more to work with, and that is, in its defense, the single area where West Side Story '21 unquestionably blows West Side Story '61 out of the water: the acting is better and the characters more clearly defined. On a head-to-head basis, I think the only performer here who doesn't trump her older equivalent is DeBose, which is less about her performance than about the new film's conception Anita, as well as the fact that Moreno's performance of the role in the original was so unbelievably damn good (Moreno once again gives the best performance this time, too, fully justifying the expansion and gender-switching of what was previously a largely functional role). And the film's cutesy attempt to join the two Anitas in place by dissolving between DeBose and Moreno at one point just seems to rub it in, after a while. Also, while Faist is giving by far my favorite non-Moreno performance this time around, Russ Tamblyn gave my favorite non-Moreno performance in 1961 in the same role, and he was a good deal more convincing as a '50s gangbanger; Faist has a nervous, agitated energy radiating out of his emaciated frame, and he is uniquely great at making some of Kushner's most on-the-nose dialogue feel like things a human person might think and then say out loud. But he's too self-aware and articulate for a cocksure midcentury lout.

Otherwise, it's just a steady stream of improvement. Elgort's not doing anything interesting, but at least he feels like there are thoughts banging around in his head, something that could not be said for Richard Beymer; Zegler gets an automatic leg up on Natalie Wood by not having to be caked in bronzer, and on top of it is just much smaller and more motivated; she's more sarcastic, more aware of how sex and the world work, her goals are clearer, her attitudes more consistent. She even makes "I Feel Pretty", which Sondheim famously believed to have unacceptably fancy and self-consciously poetic lyrics (and I pretty much agree with him), seem to be within the realm of what Maria might be able to express. The rest of the cast benefits a great deal from how much more Kushner gives every individual Jet and Shark a definite personality, though this backfires in the case of Anybodys (Iris Menas), a sullen tomboy in the original script, now explicit cast as transgender: the shift has the unfortunate side effect of making him function as a concept and signifier for the film to proclaim its good politics (there is an heroic camera push-in before another character affirms his correct gender that I find just the god-damn dumbest nonsense for a story set in the 1950s), rather substantially reducing his actual interiority as a person - and this for one of the only side characters who actually seemed to have interiority in the original versions of the story.

The point of all this being: this is now a more grounded West Side Story, a more loudly politically-minded West Side Story, a West Side Story that eschews the abstraction of the stage for the presence of, ironically, CGI recreations of midcentury New York. And Janusz Kamiński's cinematography, with distressingly shiny-looking color grading and overreliance on lens flares, doesn't help to make it look any less CGI (it's terribly disappointing cinematography, without doubt my least-favorite of all Kamiński's many collaborations with Spielberg). Whether or not this is to the benefit of West Side Story as a dance-driven musical romance, let us say that I have my doubts. But it is, at least, never a lazy retread.