It's been a few months since we last saw Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire paramour Edward (Robert Pattinson), and things are not as well as they might be. Though Edward still loves her in his icy way, Bella is having a miniature existential crisis at the thought of her 18th birthday, which means that she is older than Edward, which means that someday she will be a wrinkly grandma not up to his sparkly vampiric standard. Edward doesn't care so much about that, but he is concerned when his brother Jasper goes vampire wacko at Bella's tiny papercut, and before you can get used to the flashy new topaz contact lenses that Pattinson is sporting this time, Edward and his Cullen clan are out of Forks, Washington.
And that's when things really get going in New Moon, a follow-up to Twilight that manages both to stay true to the nature of the first film and also improve on it a bit. Director Chris Weitz sticks with the moody Pacific Northwest scenery and intense romance but also infuses a zippy, poppier sensibility, meaning the two-plus hours move along swiftly and with more humor than the first film. Plus there's a whole lot more going on here, dealing with first heartbreak and a potential new romance and the villains from the first movie, and oh yeah, that pack of handsome shirtless guys? They're werewolves.
Those who were horrified by Twilight's tweaking of vampire mythology won't quite know what to do with the wolfpack, introduced to Bella when her BFF Jacob (Taylor Lautner) discovers that, as a member of the Native American Quileute tribe, he turns into a hairy snarling beast whenever he gets angry. Jacob is the proverbial shoulder for Bella to cry on when Edward skips town, and even though Bella takes to putting her life in danger constantly for a glimpse of Edward's spirit to warn her away (no, I don't get it either), she's clearly warming up to Jacob and his rock-hard pecs as well. Jacob and his wolfy brethren-- none of whom ever wear shirts-- protect Bella from leftover evil vampire Victoria (Rachelle Lafevre), who appears so briefly hear that she'll clearly be exacting her revenge in the next movie. But when Edward mistakenly gets word that Bella has died, it's time to shrug off her hairy new friends and rush off to Italy, where there are some red-eyed vampire royals-- among them Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning--anxious to get to know her.
Though it's what has earned the book series millions of fans, the romance scenes are the worst part of New Moon-- Pattinson and Stewart recite their lines to each other with dead expressions, and all the crazy, lusty energy of the first film has been replaced with a sense that the two can't wait to get away from each other. Luckily, they do, and Stewart and Lautner establish a much more relaxed, funnier rapport, albeit one that's so friendly you can't really believe Jacob as a romantic threat. Just as in the first film, the scenes with Bella's human high school friends-- including a sharp Anna Kendrick-- are highlights, and Billy Burke returns as Bella's warm and caring father, though perhaps a guy who should pay more attention and realize that his daughter is hanging out with the undead.
Really, all of the side characters are interesting and well-cast-- the problem is that we're stuck with draggy Bella at the center of it all. Though Stewart has improved a little since the first film, relying less on stammering and flipping her hair, she's still playing the most passive heroine in the history of time. Whether she's being dumped by the love of her life or witnessing a werewolf transformation, Bella never seems remotely interested in her surroundings, and not once does she take action to protect herself or those around her. Time after time one of Bella's supernatural friends jumps in to rescue her from some new threat. She's not just a boring heroine, but given her popularity among women of all ages, an actual setback for feminism.
Pattinson, in his brief scenes, matches Stewart in his lack of interest in the surroundings, which leaves Lautner to flash his smile, crack a joke, and steal a million teenage hearts. The film's best performance, though, goes to Fanning, who in about five lines and a dozen stony glares makes more of an impact than anyone else in the two films total. While Bella mopes around like a wet noodle, Fanning's Jane is a female character who actually bothers to do-- good or bad, we don't care, so long as it's interesting.
Handling the material with less instinct than Catherine Hardwicke, Weitz still makes the wise choice of employing a lot of moody pop music and montages to move things along, and his visual style is a massive improvement-- the sparkling skin of the vampires still isn't great, but at least it's not laughable now. The same can't be said for many elements of the movie-- the constantly shirtless werewolves, Jacob's insistence that being a wolf "isn't a lifestyle choice"-- but New Moon avoids slipping into self-parody by being a little less serious as well. It's impossible to have a truly light touch with the material-- Stephenie Meyer's writing prevents that entirely-- but Weitz's efforts result in a movie that's a little less insular and self-involved, though in the end, still probably one only the true fans could love.