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Han Solo, Mystique, and Other Excellent Younger “Pre-Castings”

Solo: A Star Wars Story had to recast a couple of notable characters from the Star Wars universe, which made us thinking about other times roles have been recast with younger actors. So, where do Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover rank in the pantheon of actors cast as junior iconic characters made famous by somebody else? It’s a tougher field of competition than you might expect, even when you narrow the rules down to make it a fair fight. It’s easy enough, for example, to cast an actor and their past self for the same movie, and direct them similarly, but once a character is established in the public’s mind, rolling out a younger version for prequels and/or subsequent installments is a tougher deal.

For the purposes of our exercise, they must also be in the same canon: it isn’t fair, for example, to cite Robin Lord Taylor as a younger version of Danny deVito’s Penguin when they’re clearly playing radically different versions of the character in conflicting realities. They must also be younger than the original appearance, so Emilia Clarke in Terminator Genisys doesn’t count, playing the same age as Linda Hamilton in 1984.

Let’s look at some of the most notable recastings:

Better than the original:

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse.

Rebecca Romijn was fine for the relatively one-note, angry Mystique in the original X-Men movie, but once First Class decided to make Raven Darkholme a more layered mutant, torn between two mentors and somewhat ambiguous as to whether her binds with them are romantic or fraternal, Lawrence was given the part and killed it, so that even with her contract up and her price tag skyrocketing, Fox thought it was worthwhile to pay out and bring her back for an upcoming fourth film.

Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II

Hollywood’s first numbered sequel was also about fifty percent prequel, as De Niro stepped into the role of Marlon Brando’s Godfather in his younger days. Both were great, but De Niro had the bigger challenge: while Brando had a lifetime of goodwill behind him, the younger actor had to take a role embodied by the great one, who had won an Oscar for it, and make it his own, without relying on old-man makeup to help him out. It paid off when he won an Oscar of his own for the same role.

Yukie Nakama as Sadako in Ring 0: Birthday

The original Ringu toyed with our sympathies plenty, as the malevolent, videotape-bound spirit known as Sadako is initially revealed to be the vengeful ghost of a murdered girl…but the twist is that she was evil and deserved her death. Or did she? In a nifty prequel twist that goes back to Sadako’s origins, she becomes the victim again–half of a soul cleaved in two that manifests as both evil presence and innocent schoolgirl. Nakama makes you love what you once feared, and renders the inevitable ending a heartbreaker.

Josh Brolin as Dwight in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Clive Owen is no slouch as a thespian, but asking him to do an American accent (“doddly luttle Miho”) is a mistake. So when a plastic surgery plot twist mandated recasting for an earlier adventure in Frank Miller-world, the more world-weary looking Josh Brolin took it over. It seems in this town, accents get facelifts too.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy.

Look, we’re not saying the Hobbit movies are better than The Lord of the Rings movies overall, nor that Ian Holm is in any way lacking. What we are seeing is that when it comes to the character of Bilbo himself, Freeman adds a welcome touch of comedic laziness and reluctance to an otherwise deadly earnest franchise that’s often in danger of taking itself too seriously.

Equal or Almost as Good

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse.

If there were a Mount Rushmore for perfect nerd-casting, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart would be on it; it does not get better than them, and their pedigree made X-Men the great franchise it became. Unbelievably, when it came time to go younger, we got two additional actors worthy of playing the greats.

The crew of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek (2009) and its sequels.

Okay, so technically they’re not exactly prequels–they’re altered-timeline versions. But from Chris Pine’s dramatic gestures to Simon Pegg’s flustered exasperation and John Cho’s cool head, the recasting of the classic crew was about as perfect as we could hope, and has rightly garnered the blessing of the surviving originals. Let’s not get into Khan, though.

River Phoenix as Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Before Alden Ehrenreich, the daunting task of embodying peak Harrison Ford at an early age fell to the Stand by Me star, who seemed like a totally different type of actor generally. And yet once he stepped on that speeding train and started growling his lines, he made us believe–not just that he was Indiana Jones, but that Indiana Jones could conceivably have become fully formed by one brief adventure. Poor Sean Patrick Flanery had to follow that.

Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover as Han and Lando in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Donald Glover is getting the lion’s share of early praise, but it’s not like he’s that challenged; it’s one effortlessly cool cat playing another, and he rarely has to play Lando off his game. It’s tougher for Ehrenreich to be Han Solo without being a weak imitation, but he makes Harrison Ford’s mannerisms his own, with a combination of cockiness and false bravado that feels truly human while offering echoes of the icon.

David Bradley as the First Doctor on Doctor Who.

We’re cheating a little bit here, but Doctor Who does get shown in theaters from time to time so we’ll call it a movie for now, and this was simply the most brilliant stealth way to get fans to accept a recasting ever: first, the BBC cast David Bradley in a biopic of William Hartnell, the actor who played the original Doctor. Then, once that had faded from immediate memory, he showed up in a surprise cliffhanger leading into Peter Capaldi’s final Christmas special as the original Doctor. Yes, “younger” here is relative, but if it’s pre-regeneration, it counts.

Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma in Revenge of the Sith deleted scenes and Rogue One.

Although she was the leader of the Rebel Alliance, Mon Mothma was best remembered in the original Star Wars trilogy as the person who introduces Admiral Ackbar. In younger form, however, she gets a bit more to do, radiating gentleness and goodness that nonetheless conceal a strong will. It’s a shame she and Palpatine never really get to face off, as they’re perfect opposites.

Basically Impersonations, but We Love ‘Em

Rob Lowe as Number Two in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Mike Myers got his Wayne’s World buddy a killer part in his most successful franchise when it turned out Lowe had a killer Robert Wagner impression up his sleeve. And given how idiosyncratic that is, we say kudos–anybody who’s been waiting years to impress people with his Wagner voice deserves the biggest stage possible.

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Alec Guinness was effortlessly cool in the original trilogy, making obligatory exposition sound profound and natural. By contrast, McGregor often feels a bit stiff and overly focused on imitating that specific English accent to a tee (or should that be “tea”?). Nevertheless, when he occasionally howls out a line like “You were the chosen one!” in anguish, he sounds like he means it.

Josh Brolin as Agent Kay in Men in Black 3.

It’s obvious Tommy Lee Jones didn’t have much use for the franchise any more by the third time around, and Brolin was clearly a back-up plan for a full-time replacement if necessary. But if there’s any hesitation on Brolin’s part, it doesn’t show; he hilariously leaps into his Jones mannerisms with aplomb.

Who did we miss? Be sure to let us know in comments.

Images: 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm, New Line Cinema, Paramount, BBC, Toho

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