Perhaps my love for the 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons predisposed me to being biased against the 2002 made-for-TV movie. But it claimed to be based on the Orson Welles screenplay, and since his film was edited (some say butchered) without him, I hoped at least that the new movie could provide some insight into what got lost. Now, I'm not sure, but I seriously doubt that Orson Welles' grand vision included a weird birth scene filmed from an inside perspective. Nor do I think he intended to show a death scene including some inappropriate tango dancing, or an overly-dramatic car accident scene with a person flying through the air in slow motion.
The scenes in the remake that probably did get cut from the original version include a bit with George as a boy bullying his friends to make him president of their club. There's also more hints about the changing town and the family's changing fortunes, like in a scene where George objects to rental homes being built on the Amberson grounds (when Grandfather's just trying to make some much needed money). There's also some extended information about the trip George makes his mother take, and a scene where George looks through a book of the town's history and can't even find the Amberson name. It's also made clearer in the remake how the Morgans with their new money are becoming the next magnificent family in town.
What's strange is what got cut from the Welles script. For example, there's no beginning narration and setup for the times and family. Instead, the newer movie begins with the ball at the Amberson mansion and later backtracks, using flashbacks to show the history with Eugene and Isabel as well as Georgie as a wild kid. In the original, the town "prophetess" clearly, quickly, and amusingly explains how Isabel ended up with Wilbur instead of Eugene (a man any woman would like a thousand times better) and how this lack of feeling for her husband will lead to Isabel having the most spoiled children. In the remake, it is hinted that the unnaturally close bond with George and his mother comes from him being an only child, but it's not made satisfyingly clear why George is such a terror or why Isabel caves into him. The new version also shows some full mouth kisses between the two, which is just unnecessarily creepy.
Even the things that made it from the original screenplay, like a lot of the dialogue, are mangled in the remake. For example, there's a sweet scene in the original with Eugene getting teased for how things ended with Isabel, and he says there's one thing that makes him forgive how things turned out. At that moment his daughter happens to be walking by, and he says her name. In the remake, while the words remain the same, it's all delivered with everyone sitting around a piano, and everyone oohs and ahhs about how charming this sentiment is. But all the nice subtlety of the original is lost.
As far as the acting in the remake goes, for the most part it is adequate but not extraordinary. James Cromwell does a good job as Major Amberson. But Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George and Jennifer Tilly as Aunt Fanny are both pretty terrible. Yes, George is supposed to be a spoiled brat and not very likable, but Meyers plays him as a tantrum-throwing, foot stomping, growling man-child that it's pretty impossible to care about. (Tim Holt at least had a bit of innocence, humor, and idealism thrown in to temper the obnoxiousness of his character.) Tilly seems to be doing her best impression of Agnes Moorehead, but she lacks the talent to make crying and self-pity sympathetic, and when she's not being shrill and/or weepy she's pretty amazingly dull. The worst is when the two act together; the scenes are painfully long and even ridiculous, like when George is trying to calm his hysterical aunt and ends up crawling full on top of her while someone watches, crying, through the window. (What is up with the incestuous undertones in this movie?)
Also inferior in the newer movie: the music. And instead of the gorgeous deep focus photography? Extreme close-ups, and to-the-camera delivery of the contents of correspondence.
Needless to say, I don't recommend this remake. Unless of course you enjoy something so bad it's laughable at times. Or if you want to commiserate with me on how awful this was. In that case, go ahead and watch it. And hope it doesn't taint your viewing of the much superior original version of The Magnificent Ambersons.
(Even edited, and especially in comparison to the remake, this is a great movie.)
(Although I seriously considered giving it 0 wings.)
If you want more on the original movie, here's some great links my father passed along to me:
Summary and analysis of The Magnificent Ambersons at filmsite.org
Information at Wellesnet.com, includes writing on the un-making of the movie
A site with lots of images, memorabilia, and information on Ambersons