In "New Moon," a new character joins the "Twilight" family of nuzzly PG-13 creatures. It's the Invisible Man. Not far into the picture, the undead Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) fades out of the action for a bit, and is replaced by wolf boy Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Edward eventually returns, but he never really comes back. Last year's sensitive hunk, with his pasty face and glum, mopey demeanor, is no match for this year's actual hunk; and Jacob — much more vibrant, and madly muscular — romps off with the picture.

It's a very silly picture, of course: Given the series' source material — Stephenie Meyer's blathery teen novels — what else could it be? But thanks to Lautner and newly-recruited director Chris Weitz, "New Moon" is a notable improvement over "Twilight." There's not quite so much moony young-adult yearning (although Lord knows there's enough of it); and there's a little more action; and with cheery Anna Kendrick and Ashley Greene back on board, and Michael Sheen (really!) camping it up as some sort of lord of the vampires, the movie approaches the outskirts of liveliness. It never gets there — no surprise — and if the picture were at least 15 minutes shorter maybe that wouldn't matter so much. In any case, one assumes that fans won't care.

The story is once again nominally centered on Bella Swan, now 18 and once again played by Kristen Stewart, an actress of real talent who's once again wasted in this wooden role. Bella is still hot — no, that's not the word: "warm," maybe — for Edward, and wants him to turn her into a vampire, too, so they can be together for, like, ever. Edward, up to his rouged lips in gooey emotional torment, refuses to do this; and after much po-faced dithering, he informs her that he's going away and she'll never see him again. This struck me as an excellent development, but Bella is distraught.

Enter Jacob, the young werewolf, who wastes little time in stripping off his shirt, which stays off for much of the rest of the film. In a giddy mood, Bella buys a pair of junked-out motorcycles so she and Jacob can spend time together repairing them. Soon they're flirting, sort of, and Bella tells Jacob that she really needs him — although not in the way he might think. Whatever that might mean is entirely unclear. She is, after all, still carrying a torch — well, maybe a lighter — for Edward, who keeps popping up in ghosty little inserts to prove that he's ... still in the picture, so to speak.

The boldly gaunt Cullen family is on hand again, with clairvoyant Alice (Greene) clocking the most screen time. Bella's barely-distinguishable school friends put in occasional appearances, too, with best pal Jessica (Kendrick) bringing spurts of welcome energy to her few scenes. And lurking in the woods around the town of Forks are the outlaw vampires Laurent (Edi Gathegi) and Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre), still more interesting than most of the rest of the movie's characters, although Jacob and his werewolf clan — all similarly hunky, and similarly shirtless — do have their CGI-assisted feral moments.

But then the story drags us back to Edward, who's decided to kill himself. (An odd plan for a guy who's already dead.) To do this, he's relocated to Italy to petition the Volturi — vampire royalty — to put him out of his endless friggin' misery. Bella gets word of this and flies off to Italy, too. There's much yakking in the royal court, presided over by the mincing Aro (Sheen), and attended by a pain-dealing bloodsucker named Jane (Dakota Fanning!). Around about here, Pattinson gets to bare his own chest — a bad idea in a movie that also features Taylor Lautner — and we notice that while his face is heavily pancaked, his torso is of a normal human hue. Whatever, I suppose.

The movie ends — just stops, really — with a question. I assume it'll be answered in the next "Twilight" film, "Eclipse." That one's due out next year — meaning another year of fervent anticipation for fans. Unbelievers, however, may have a question of their own for the producers: Must you rush?

Check out everything we've got on "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."

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