31 August 2009

Harry Potter: Films 1 thru 5

A Harry Potter Analysis
By Kristin Battestella

I must say straight off that this critique will be brief in comparison to experts and hardcore fans. I confess: I am a muggle. After recently viewing the first five films in the popular Boy Wizard franchise based J.K. Rowling’s best selling series; I wanted to express my thoughts in a quick, layman’s guide.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone – For starters, I don’t know why they go through all this trouble to change the Philosopher’s title. Oh, a wizard, not Socrates-we get it. This first film has a lot to pack in and director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting) never quite strikes the right balance between introducing Harry’s magical world and the stone chase at hand. I know it’s meant for kids, but I would rather forgo the CGI of Quidditch for a more complete story on the Philocerer’s stone. The titular task is tacked on in the latter part of the show. Despite these complaints, writer Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) has adapted the essence of Rowling’s literary world. Though light-hearted at this point and I’d prefer more on the issues with magic rather than the awe; this debut is fun for kids. The cast-from the young stars to the elder veterans- has plenty to work with. Introductory and a little too open ended, but delightfully leading you towards the next film.

Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets – Columbus returns for a second installment that has many of the same troubles as its predecessor. Again, we don’t get to the meat of this tale until late and it’s resolved a little too easy. Secrets is a little more grown up, but it’s dark in some of the wrong places-it’s tough to appreciate the fine castle locales when everything is so dim. Story and talent are again on form, but the late entering culprit is a little obvious, too. What is with the Defense Against Dark Arts department? We know that’s where all the hang-ups are going to be, and it’s given sometimes undoes Snape’s fine ambiguity. Again, we end with a little bit of an Empire Strikes Back feeling: Are these films about the adventure at hand- or are they meant to be compilations of all the neat things in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s given year? Part of me understands why some readers don’t like these quick adaptations. The rushed and stay tuned endings do give me a feeling that to know it all, you must read the books. More of the same, yes, but still entertaining enough to keep audiences going.

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban- Three years after the second picture, we finally get to some maturity and unhappiness. New director Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu Mama Tambien) focuses on confusing magic, truths, identities-and all this at an age where real life is confusing as it is. The nighttime filming is bright enough to see-even if we do figure out all the foreshadowing ahead of time. Some of the comedic touches are a bit off, trading serious, murky characters for fun. Although I did laugh at Malfoy’s ‘bloody chicken!’ cries. I do prefer the late Richard Harris’ raspy Dumbledore to Michael Gambon’s more witty debut, but the rotation of adult actors like David Thewlis and Gary Oldman is a little annoying, too. Who will be the new addition next? Will they return in the series, nudge nudge, wink wink? I like Azkaban the best so far, but a lot of it is revelations and explanations-what’s really done here beyond tiding us over until the next picture?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – In Year Five, we’re getting to some of the heavy teenager stuff at last-dancing and asking girls out, oh my! And good Lord someone give these kids a haircut! Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and A Funeral) mixes the growing up with the deadly Triwizard Tournament and loses a little bit of both. Maybe kids might shy away from the budding romances, but again that Defense Against The Dark Arts department makes things way too obvious. Normally, I don’t like the effects laden magical battles, but we don’t get to see all the competitors at the Tournament as we should. And yes, I couldn’t help myself from calling Cedric Edward Cullen. The two top dreamboat boys together, oh boy! Fine adult additions like Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson are again squeezed for kinky stuff like Harry in the bath with Moaning Myrtle. Every adult actor in Britain seems to make an appearance in this series, but his or her roles are never as meaty as I hope.

Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixNew director David Yates (helmsman of Half Blood Prince and the final duo Deathly Hallows films) and screenwriter Michael Goldberg (Contact) somehow managed to make the shortest film from the longest book. Is Fire an uneven film trying to pack in too much-or is it a fallen adaptation to begin with? I noticed straightaway that we at last don’t waste any time on Quidditch, but on the dime Phoenix drops all the joyous wonders of Hogwarts for secret battle action. So many characters-old and new- magically show up, too. How many days do you think David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith, Jason Isaacs, and Helena Bonham Carter worked on this film? (Did Emma Thompson and Bonham Carter cross paths to chat about their ex and previous Dark Arts Prof Kenneth Branagh?) We have such talent amid the old Order of the Phoenix- as well as the Death Eaters-yet we never get to the titular meat of these organizations. Again, there’s too much of ‘well the book explains it better, and so will the next movie’. When does this series stop leading up to something?

As it stands…
For all its carrot taunting the horse, to me the Harry Potter film series as is doesn’t stand out from any other juvenile fantasy. And let’s face it, the popularity of Rowling’s franchise has brought a lot of children’s fantasy books to the screen-including the dismissed The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and the more successful but in production limbo Chronicles of Narnia- how could Disney drop such fine material for Fox to claim? The market is just a tad flooded for the forthcoming Percy Jackson films and the long awaited The Hobbit adaptations, isn’t it?
Of course, Harry Potter sets the bar with magical effects and action. The movies may be linear for the most part; but the story is involved, complex, and full of fine characters upon which the pictures merely graze. The bulk of depth and joy lost for the big screen makes me wonder why Harry Potter was never considered as a television series. Yes, its popularity warrants big screen treatment, but a progressively heavy seven-year journey ala Buffy The Vampire Slayer might have served the material far better. Twenty hours a year instead of two plus every two years or so, that’s something I could really have gotten obsessed with.

Right now, there’s not enough intrigue for me to embark on the reading opus required. The last time I did that, it took me four months to read The Lord of The Rings. It was one of the best times of my life, but not all of us adults can afford to drop everything for such literary obsessions-even one so book minded as I. It’s a bit of a sad statement on American society, unfortunately. We would prefer eating fast food while working through a stressful lunch in front of a pc before spending a relaxing bath with a fine book. Though some have complained about Potteresque influences on young minds, the series is keeping long-winded books in the instantaneous and desensitized minds of the next generation.
There are charming moments of magic, fun, and great characters in J.K. Rowling’s world; but after these viewings, I’m not obsessively in love with Harry Potter. Will I watch the forthcoming pictures? Sure, I like Harry and his world enough to see how all these hours end. I don’t deny the possibility that there’s enough in this series to make an exceptional film- or enough enchantment for me to carve out a summer with my niece’s Harry Potter books. As to The Half Blood Prince, you might be asking? Well, my husband saw it in the cinema and has been in a Potter kick since, along with my niece’s countdown to the IMAX Theater. Now you know why I had to watch these!

ETA: Please see our critique of the Half Blood Prince in our Defense of Blu-ray article, here.

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