A Look Back at HARRY POTTER

     July 11, 2011

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With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 only four days away, Warner Bros. has released a five-minute retrospective that looks at the previous seven films in the franchise.  It won’t catch you up but for fans of the series, it’s nice to see how the actors have grown and how the visual style and tone has changed over the years.  I re-watched all seven movies this past weekend and after the jump you can check out the retrospective as well as my brief thoughts on the films.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 opens in 3D this Friday.

Here are my brief thoughts on the films.  Hopefully when the Blu-ray box set comes out, I can do full-length reviews for each of the movies.

[Spoilers ahead]

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-movie-poster-01Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

It’s tough to give director Chris Columbus credit for anything, but he deserves praise for the following: laying the foundation for the franchise.  The art direction, the costumes, and everything that J.K. Rowling described in her book first came to life with Columbus’ oversight.  He also did a fantastic job casting the adult actors.  I can’t imagine anyone other than Alan Rickman playing Snape, or Maggie Smith playing McGonagall, or Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, or the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore.  Where Columbus hit a snag was with his casting of the child actors, or rather, his direction of them.  Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint are just bad in this movie and when I first saw the film in 2001, I had serious doubts about whether or not this franchise could thrive with these actors as the leads.  Thankfully, my doubts were put to rest one film later.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Chamber of Secrets is an improvement over Sorcerer’s Stone in just about every way, but most notably of all is with the performances from the young actors.  In the first five minutes, Radcliffe is twenty times better than he was in all of Sorcerer’s Stone.  Columbus also got a better handle on the series.  Once again, it’s almost too faithful, but he lets the movie actually be scary for a young audience.  Crappy CGI centaurs are out in favor of the magnificent practical work of giant spider Aragog, and Columbus stages a far more exciting Quidditch match than he did in the previous film.  But it wasn’t until a new director came along that the movies began to exist as movies and not just live-action transfers of the book.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director Alfonso Cuarón finally provided the series with some style.  You can argue whether or not that style is effective (I believe that it is for the most part; the closing shot still makes me cringe), its mere presence finally pushed the series from trying to faithfully copy as much from the books as possible and instead found ways to make strong additions to the mythos.  I love that Sirius has Russian-gang-style prison tattoos or that Hogwarts suddenly has a giant clock tower as a nice visual backdrop for the use of the time-turner at the end.  Gambon took over the role of Dumbledore after Richard Harris passed away, and his work here isn’t too much of a distraction.  Unfortunately, in the next film his performance started to undermine the character and new director Mike Newell reigned in some of the eccentricities and daring Cuarón attempted with Azkaban.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Screenwriter Steve Kloves faced his most difficult task in trying to condense the 700+ page novel into a single film.  Large portions of the book, such as S.P.E.W. and the character of Ludo Bagman were excised, and the narrative manages to work well enough without them.  Unfortunately, Newell doesn’t bring much to the table other than having his young actors sport 1970s style haircuts, making Barty Crouch look almost like Hitler for some reason, and failing to understand the character of Dumbledore.  What makes Albus Dumbledore an interesting character is that he’s so powerful, he seems bemused with the world.  He commands respect not through intimidation, but through kindness.  He does get angry, but that anger almost always stems from a defensiveness of his students, particularly Harry.  Gambon understands none of this and while he adds mischievousness to the character, he lacks the playfulness and warmth that Harris brought to the role.  Instead, he shouts down his students and bizarrely is made the announcer of the Triwizard Tournament.

But the series has one of its most powerful moments when Amos Diggory cries over the body of his son Cedric.  Cedric Diggory is the first causality of the second war with Voldemort and the anguished cries of Cedric’s father is where the series is forced to truly grow up.  However, as the series grows darker, the desire to always leave audiences on a positive note makes the endings of the film more inappropriate as deaths shadow the final acts but Harry, Ron, and Hermoine always gaze out over Hogwarts to a brighter tomorrow.

harry-potter-order-of-the-phoenix-poster-01Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

David Yates was the final director to come to the franchise and he was also its best.  He brought the style and creativity that Cuarón introduced in Azkaban, but never to the point where it overshadows the story.  Yates showed he could do it all: he balanced the humor and hope of the characters with thrilling set pieces, genuinely scary moments, and taking the time to let as many of the lead actors have their time to shine.  Once again, the screenplay (this time by Michael Goldenberg) is a masterful job of condensing the story down to its essentials while never shortchanging what made the novel so special.  Of all the Harry Potter films to date, it’s tough to decide whether Order of the Phoenix or Half-Blood Prince is my favorite.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The first three Harry Potter stories are mysteries, Goblet of Fire is built around the structure of the Triwizard Games coupled with some neat twists at the end, but perhaps Yates’ biggest contribution, more than his style and talent, is always putting character first.  I haven’t seen Deathly Hallows – Part 2 yet, but films 5, 6, and 7 aren’t plot driven.  There is a plot that runs throughout each movie, but all of the films are really more about spending time in the magical world of Hogwarts and letting these characters interact with each other.  The actors have built up so much chemistry over the years and Yates harnesses that for the magic of Half-Blood Prince.  Not only does the story let Tom Felton have a performance beyond cartoonish sneering and cowardice, but the film is the calm before the storm.  There’s time for Quidditch.  We see the awkwardness and innocence of young romance.  It’s a loving ode to Hogwarts and the comfort and protection it provided our heroes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

We’ll see if splitting the films paid off once Part 2 arrives, but on its own, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is surprisingly bold film that moves slowly (but doesn’t feel long), puts a great deal of tension and pain between Harry, Heromine, and Ron.  However, it still manages to find time for humor, a great trip inside the Ministry of Magic, and a heartbreaking conclusion not only because of Dobby’s death, but also from Bellatrix carving “Mudblood” into Hermoine’s arm.  It’s tough to judge Part 1 without Part 2, and even though I’ve read the book, I can’t wait to see how it all comes together and how it all ends.

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