Friday, September 4, 2015

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Harry Potter

Harry Potter & the Declining Rate of Returns

It's been a long, bumpy train-ride from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to HP7.2. A lot of dropped sub-plots and dead-dropped characters And because of the voluminous nature of J.K. Rowling's writings, the movies had to give everything a quick once-over in order to fit into each 2.5 hour time-frame. You could be assured that if a character dropped out of sight from the film series, should they return, they were probably going to snuff it (Alas, poor Dobby, see ya "Mad Eye"—oh...I guess we won't). One by one, Harry's supporters and protectors were dispatched by the demon-spawn of He Who Must Not Be Named, and one wondered at what point Harry was going to man-mage up and do what a man-mage's gotta do.

After all, it only took Hamlet one play to make up his mindAnd Luke Skywalker loved his sister. Everybody's got a breaking point. When was Harry going to stop running and act? Who else had to die for him to say "This stops now, Snake-Eyes?" The series started out strong, but began to suffer from a sameness and lethargy, despite the slew of creatures and SFX fireworks, and the movies revealed the baby-steps it was taking to advance the story, free of the books' engaging detail and ephemera.

With the series complete, and emerging the highest earning film franchise of all time, its time to go back and look at the films in the series, year by year.

Averto Vicis.

Lumos Maxima...

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) (Chris Columbus, 2001) Year one at Hogwarts.11 year old orphan Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) lives in a cupboard underneath the stairs at his Aunt (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle's (Richard Griffiths). Life sucks. Then a letter in the post turns life upside down and the extended Dursley family goes into hiding—it is a personal invitation to Harry to attend the very exclusive (VERY exclusive) Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Harry, it seems, is a born wizard, quite famed in that world as an heir apparent, "The Boy Who Lived" in an encounter with the Dark Lord Vol...(shhhh) encounter that killed his parents. No wonder the Dursleys want to avoid the wizard world.

But, once the truant officer shows up (Hagrid the gamesman, played in all the films by Robbie Coltrane) and Harry gets his school supplies, he takes the train to Hogwarts where he meets his nearly constant companions for the rest of the series, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), as well as Professor Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Professor Minerva McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith), the suspect and suspicious Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, in the best performance of the series) who takes an instant dislike to Harry (for some reason...), and Ian Hart in the first of guest-starring profs who will appear and disappear. Lord Voldemort tries to make an in-road to the living at Hogwarts (why?), but is defeated by Harry. Lesson learned: There's a big world out there if it is not suppressed.

Columbus' film is loud, big and brash, with wall-to-wall music by John Williams (Williams never learned that there can be too MUCH music), but fills the screen with everyday magical effects—floating candles in the Dining Hall, passing phantoms, "alive" portraits, moving staircases—that other directors forgot or just didn't bother with.  The kids are great, but Radcliffe has the weirdest smile—like he's just learning to, which given Harry's past could be true. An amazing cast—something that would be true of all the films. A very good start.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002) Year Two at Hogwarts. New Teacher: Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh)  Harry meets Dobby the House-Elf (voiced by Toby Jones), Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who is suspected of opening the dread Chamber of Secrets, releasing an evil that has killed students in the past. Several students including Hermione are "petrified" and it's up to Harry to save them. Turns out Ginny was possessed by the diary of one Tom Marvolo Riddle, which forced her to open the Chamber and release a basilisk—the evil causing all the damage. Harry confronts the spirit of Riddle, realizing that it is Voldemort's second recent attempt at killing Harry (why?), and nearly loses his life in the process. Lesson Two: Harry has a choice in the direction he can go in life.

If the books have a weakness, it is that Harry is born to be a wizard, and everything seems to come easy for him..until somebody actively tries to stop him. With this film, that "ease" already becomes a bit too familiar, and the action is ratcheted up a notch. The attacks on Harry start to affect his friends and he begins to take a more active role in protecting them, even at the risk of himself, although he's always had a penchant for breaking rules. Columbus would move on, taking a producer's credit, and handing the director's wand to an unlikely candidate.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004) Year Three at Hogwarts and the kids are already starting to look grown up. New teachers: Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson)...and Michael Gambon replaces the deceased Richard Harris as Dumbledore  Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), rumored to have betrayed Harry's parents to Voldemort, has escaped Azkaban Prison, and so the Ministry of Magic guards Hogwarts with the soul-eating Dementors—who have a crippling effect on Harry. Initially vowing to kill Black, Harry finds out that it wasn't Black—who turns out to be his godfather—but Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) who gave the information to the Dark Lord. Lesson learned: Think before you act, and don't make hasty judgments based on rumor (and the best person to save you might be yourself).

It's immediately clear there's another director in charge. Cuarón, whose work includes Y Tu Mamá También and A Little Princess, makes short work of the Dursleys in the prologue, the film is a bit darker in tone and a manic quality exemplified by a literal "Magical Mystery Tour" is introduced. Cuaron speeds things up and fills them out, even more than Columbus did, with FX shots in nearly every frame.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005) Year Four at Hogwarts. The kids are getting scruffy looking.  New teacher: "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), and lots of new characters, as Hogwarts is visited by two other wizarding schools for the Tri-wizard Tournament, a sort of magical Olympics. For "some" reason (and that usually involves Voldemort), Harry's name is added as a fourth participant in the games, relationships get frazzled during the Christmas Ball, and Voldemort (a very snaky Ralph Fiennes) returns from the dead. One character dies. And oh! Robert Pattinson's in this one. Lesson learned: Sacrifices must be made.

The films are getting considerably darker, tonally and image gradient and color-wise, taking on a denatured quality—in fact, from here on out, I wouldn't see any of these movies at a drive-in theater, as the two levels of murk would make things pretty much unwatchable. The appearance of Voldemort (and the casting of Ralph Fiennes in the role) is a definite highlight, but there is one significant death that affects Harry and makes for an extended grieving scene that doesn't work—for the mere fact that the character is only briefly introduced in the film. This will become an increasing problem for the series as more people die in ways that underplayed dramatically. It's a little mystifying.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007) Year Five at Hogwarts, and things get political. New teacher: Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Nobody believes that Voldemort is back—especially the Press which begins a smear campaign against the young mage, and the Ministry of Magic appoints Umbredge to keep a watch on Dumbledore and Harry to make sure their "lies" don't get out of hand. In an effort to keep the "children" under control, the prim Ms. Umbredge refuses to teach practical magic and forbids its use. Things are turning decidedly fascist at Hogwarts, and so Harry and friends form a "study group"—"Dumbledore's Army"—to share spells and practice their skills. Lesson learned: a little revolt is good every now and again. 

Harry gets his first kiss (for the 'shippers), is haunted by nightmares connected to Voldemort, and given a spell to protect himself from Voldemort's influence, the learning of which leads to the knowledge that his father used to bully Snape. Big battle happens when Dumbledore's Army is captured by Voldemort's forces (including Bellatrix LeStrange, played in full crazy mode by Helena Bonham Carter—she's offset on the good side by Luna Lovegood, played spacily by Evanna Lynch), only to be rescued by Sirius, Remus and other members of The Order of the Phoenix.  Another of Harry's allies is killed, barely registersIt's the first film in the series of David Yates, who would finish them off (so to speak), and although he gets good work out of the actors, visually, the film's a little dull...with the climactic death oddly not resonant.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) Year Six at Hogwarts. New teacher: Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, and seeing how ubiquitous the actor is these days, it was only a matter of time). The sticky relationships get sorted out, and we learn about horcruxes—dastardly little things that contain a bit of Voldemort's soul for safe-keeping.  Destroy them all, and Voldemort becomes mortal and can be killed. We've seen a couple already, and Harry vows to take his last year of Hogwarts off to track down the remaining ones to dispense with Voldemort, once and for all. However...

Voldemort is also approaching his end-game, attempting to find a way into Hogwarts and dispense with the one thing standing between himself and Harry.  Lesson learned: Death is inevitable, no matter how powerful, no matter how close, no matter how needed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (David Yates, 2010) Year Seven at Hogwarts, interrupted when The Three drop out and go on the run to protect Harry and find those pesky little horcruxes. The decision to split Deathly Hallows into two films seems unnecessary, given how little really happens in this film: the Three take a look at the situation—Voldemort controls the Ministry of Magic and is even making his influence known in the Muggle World (something that just isn't done), their most powerful allies are dead, and even the Safe Harbour of Hogwarts is vulnerable. They are given three bequests (which will come in handy) and run from Voldemort and his forces, which even includes Professor Severus Snape, now in charge at Hogwarts. The Three are in charge of things that mess up their heads (not unlike the Ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and those ramifications are explored in Part 1—a final test of loyalty before The Big Battle. Will they hold it together as a team, or be splintered apart (Well, what do you think?) Meanwhile, Voldemort finds the wand he needs to accomplish his final goal—killing Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates, 2011) Given how Part 1 is one big set-up and the most lethargic and disappointing of the films, the series had nowhere to go but up for a Final Blowout.  And it delivers. Everybody still alive makes a cameo (except for Fudge played by Robert Hardy, and Julie Christie and Kenneth Branagh), and even some of the ones who died get some screen-time. Everything is explained, no magic stones left unlevitated, and no wands kept in their holsters. After a brief moment to catch breaths—the film doesn't even start with the Warner Brothers logo, but just begins where the last one left off, —the Three go undercover in a nice, dizzying episode, and end up back where it all began—Hogwarts—to make a last stand. Lesson learned: Love and family make the difference in a life, power is a worthless goal, and Sacrifice is the measure of a man. I could only smile at the final sentiment of one of the returning dead in agreement "You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man." And thus endeth the Labours and Education of Harry James Potter. Life goes on. what? Well, it was a good first attempt. As one of my fellow bloggers mentioned, there's enough material in the books that was left unused that the Potter Saga could easily be turned into an "Upstairs/Downstairs" British mini-series to flesh things out and solve the pacing/emotions problems of the films (but can you imagine the cost of such a thing?). 

But, this will do. There will be a couple films that one can skip over—there's actually a nice bridge between 3 and 7.2—but for now this will do. Give the snitches and broomsticks a rest.

The Crest of Hogwarts.  The inscription: "Never tickle a sleeping dragon."

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