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Josh Reviews The New Mutants

The New Mutants film, directed by Josh Boone and written by Mr. Boone and Knate Lee, was originally filmed back in 2017.  It was meant to be a spin-off of Fox’s X-Men film series, telling the story of a group of teenagers trapped in a hospital for young mutants whose powers are out of control.  But the film’s release date was rescheduled multiple times, and there were lots of rumors in the press about plans for reshoots to adjust the direction and tone of the film.  (To the best of my understanding, those reshoots never happened.)  Then the X-Men series flamed out (with the very bad Dark Phoenix film).  Then Disney bought Fox.  Then the pandemic happened.  The film was finally released to theaters last summer, at the end of August, 2020.  I certainly wasn’t going to a movie theater during a pandemic, but a few months back I caught up with the film on streaming.

I wish I could report that this was a misunderstood film whose release was bungled, but I’m afraid I found it as mediocre as I’d expected it to be.  At the same time, the film isn’t the catastrophe one might have expected for a major studio movie that was buried for several years.  Josh Boone & co. clearly had a very specific vision for this film: to take these superhero characters and put them into a horror movie setting.  While the X-Men movies tended to be large-scale big-budget spectacles, The New Mutants was designed to be a very small-scale story, with a small cast in a confined setting, set very much in a real-world environment (with no super-hero costumes to be found).  I can understand the appeal of those ideas.  And it’s not impossible that this could have worked.

But as executed, I found The New Mutants to be underwhelming.  It’s disappointing to see these great comic book characters brought to the screen in this small-scale, low-budget way.  I might have been happy with this interpretation twenty years ago.  But now, after twenty-plus amazing MCU movies, it bums me out to see great super-hero characters depicted in this manner.  It feels as if the filmmakers didn’t have faith in the original characters and concepts, and so they felt they had to strip away all the super-hero, comic-book trappings.  That’s a disappointment.

But it still could have worked, if the character dramas were compelling and interesting.  Unfortunately, while I loved the cast (more on this in a moment), I didn’t find too much to grab hold of in the film.  The characters felt thinly sketched to me.  I didn’t lock into any of their stories or arcs nearly as deeply as I’d hoped.

It’s a shame, because the cast is pretty great.  Blu Hunt is a strong movie-star presence as Dani Moonstar, a Native American young woman who is the main audience surrogate character.  Ms. Hunt is naturalistic and compelling.  She does a great job with what she’s given.  Maisie Williams (Arya from Game of Thrones) is perfect casting as Rahne Sincalir, a Scottish girl who can turn into a wolf.  I always loved Rahne in the comics, and Ms. Williams is the perfect balance of sweet/innocent and also dangerous, just as Rahne should be.  Speaking of perfect casting, Anya Taylor-Joy (years before The Queen’s Gambit) was an inspired choice to play Illyana Rasputin.  While I wasn’t 100% sold by her Russian accent, Ms. Taylor-Joy was great at depicting Illyana’s scary persona, and also the good heart underneath.  And, wow, does she look exactly like Illyana from the comics!  The boys weren’t as great as the girls, but they were solid too.  I’ve loved Charlie Heaton on Stranger Things, and he does good work as Sam Guthrie.  This is a very different version of Sam than from the comics; this Sam is far more beaten down; but Mr. Heaton brings a lot of gravitas and feeling to the character.  Henry Zaga, meanwhile nails Bobby da Costa’s good-natured arrogance.  I really enjoyed the time the movie spent developing the friendship between Sam and Bobby (an important relationship in the comics).

That’s basically the entire cast of the film!  (Did I mention this was a small-scale movie?)  The only other two significant speaking roles are Adam Beach as Dani’s father, and Alice Braga (City of God, Redbelt, Predators, Elysium) as Dr. Cecilia Reyes, the doctor overseeing our young characters in the creepy hospital.  I’ve always loved Ms. Braga, and she’s great here, shifting from tender to menacing on a dime.  She’s a great antagonist.  (Although this character is nothing like Cecilia Reyes from the comics.  They just used the name, and little else.)

That’s a terrific ensemble!  I’d have loved to have seen them in a stronger film.

On the other hand, if I can put aside everything I’d wished this movie was, and judged it purely on what it is, I freely admit that there’s a decent small-scale horror story here.  The cast is great and I enjoyed spending time with these characters.  The film’s story is adapted from The Demon Bear Saga by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, which is a great choice, as that’s probably the best New Mutants storyline from the original comic book series.  It’s great fun to see elements from this story brought to the screen.  Even if you’re not familiar with the source material, the idea of the characters’ fears being manifested by Dani’s burgeoning mutant powers is a great hook for the story.

Some other thoughts:

* Ilyanna’s powers have often been somewhat confusing in the comics; I can’t imagine what a newbie would make of their depiction here.  I loved seeing her soulsword!!  But I wonder if the movie couldn’t have better explained her powers and history.  (Also: why couldn’t Ilyanna teleport out through the shield around the hospital??)

* Since I was a little kid, I have always loved Lockheed.  When we finally get to see the real Lockheed in the film, it’s terrific.  But, oy, I’m annoyed they wasted Lockheed in this movie!!  The whole puppet thing seemed silly and didn’t make any character or plot sense.  (Why is Lockheed a puppet?  Why does Ilyyana carry him around??)

* I could have done without the two Rahne shower scenes, which felt exploitative to me.  As I commented above, this feels like a movie from twenty years ago.  This didn’t play well for me in 2021.

* I was pleasantly surprised by the Rahne-Dani love story!  I wasn’t expecting that.  Ms. Hunt and Ms. Williams had great chemistry together.

And so, with a whimper, Fox’s X-Men series is now done.  There was a lot that I enjoyed in those movies, but the series never quite came together as I’d hoped.  I’m very eager to see Marvel Studio’s take on these characters.  As for The New Mutants, I’m happy to have finally seen it.  If you keep your expectations moderated, there are elements that work that you might enjoy.  As I’ve described, the cast is great.  But I doubt this is a film I will revisit any time soon.

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