Untimely Movie Review: Harry Potter

Harry Potter sceneAs I move forward through the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection, the set affords me an opportunity to take a much-delayed detour into a vast cinematic universe.

After plowing through the 90s, I got to The Matrix, which inspired me to watch the whole series (for the first time!) so that I could see the fourth in a theater.  As it so happens, the film immediately following The Matrix in the collection is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone.

I knew it was coming, so, last year, when I saw a flash sale on the 4K UHD Harry Potter collection—none of which I had seen—for $50 on Amazon, I jumped at it.  And, over the course of just a few days, I experienced the eight-film series.

Rather than reviewing only the single film that occupies a slot in the collection, I’m providing quick takes on each movie from the perspective of a first-time viewer.  Here goes.

Sorcerer’s Stone: First, it’s idiotic they changed the title for American audiences, but that’s a tangent.  A few random thoughts about this one.  I think it probably helps a lot to be about ten years old when you see it.  Quidditch rules make no sense: if there’s one ball that’s worth 150 points and ends the game, what’s the point of the rest of it?  There sure were a lot of owls in this movie.  Harry’s foster family, the DURRRRRRRsleys, are beyond cartoonish, setting a trend of annoying minor characters in this franchise.  Overall, I guess it was fine, but, my goodness, there couldn’t be more parallels to Star Wars if they tried, up to and including the John Williams score.  At least Luke’s uncle wasn’t a nightmare—and had the decency to die with dignity.  The only thing this was missing was a Jar-Jar Binks.  I didn’t hate it.

Chamber of Secrets: Ah, Dobby!  There’s our Jar-Jar!  I’m starting to get the formula, here: A conflict with Harry’s campy foster family, an appearance by the comically large Weasley brood, an eventful journey to Hogwarts, a little bit of franchise mythology with undertones of class warfare, some kind of vaguely menacing mystery, teamwork among the three main characters to try to solve the mystery, a Quidditch match, false suspicion on someone innocent, and a revelation of Voldemort’s involvement with a final battle that Harry wins solo, followed by a brief threat of school discipline somehow reversed into an award.  Ok.  Let’s see if this pattern holds.  Oh, as for this one, the first half was better than the first one, the second half not so much.

Prisoner of Azkaban: Yep!  The pattern holds!  This one checks most of the boxes above, with the added bonus of it being pretty important that the audience not know the meaning of the word “Lupin” (or notice that Professor Lupin’s greatest fear is a full moon) to avoid anticipating the plot twist.  And I won’t belabor the point about my concerns regarding time travel as a plot device.  This one is fine.

Goblet of Fire: Probably the best of the first four, events take a more mature turn (including some actual stakes that can’t be easily undone, not even with magic).  I still picked up on the plot twists, but they’re slightly more subtle this time around.  Both of those shifts likely owe to the aging of the series’ core audience, which is a shrewd business strategy.  Still, I really could have done without that cringeworthy band at the dance singing music with wizard-centric lyrics.  Shudder.

Order of the Phoenix: Despite the name, we don’t find out all that much about the titular Order, and this one raises far more questions than it answers.  I did appreciate the strong anti-government-meddling theme that was present throughout, however.  Overall, I don’t think this one was as strong as the previous entry, although I did appreciate the return of Gary Oldman in a more prominent role.  There was no quidditch in this one, one of several signals that the franchise is shifting into more mature themes as its audience ages.

Half-Blood Prince: This one felt a bit like treading water until the grand finale.  We do get one very significant piece of plot development in the form of “horcruxes.”  As I write this, I haven’t watched the final two, but I assume they’ll largely be some kind of fetch-quest to find all of the horcruxes and destroy them.  As a side-note, it was very helpful of young Riddle to specify exactly how many horcruxes he planned on creating.  Half-Blood Prince is a bit of a hodge-podge, though, because, despite the continued darker shift, the story still tries to mix in some lighter elements, including the return of quidditch, as well as a million references to “snogging.”  At least there was no Myrtle and no foster family!

Deathly Hallows, Part 1: This might be my least-favorite.  It’s really half a movie, as the title indicates.  Yet, at the same time, things get increasingly confusing.  The confusion stems in part from intentional mysteries yet to be revealed, but also to a large extent from Harry Potter falling prey to the same, enduring challenge that plagues many films based on books.  Specifically, a “glossing-over” effect necessary for the sake of time, when it becomes readily apparent to the viewer that details painstakingly explored in print do not survive the transition to the silver screen, or, if they do, they remain in a condensed or hurried form.  Also, this one had a surprising amount of camping, and a bizarre dancing scene.

Deathly Hallows, Part 2: This one does its best to wrap everything up, complete with a last-minute jump to the next generation of wizards at the very end.  I appreciate the effort, and this is certainly a stronger film than Part 1, but the fact remains that the transition to film leaves a lot of small-but-noticeable gaps in the story.  Oddly, this has the effect of making the large number of character deaths in this film seem less consequential, as we sort-of have to rush through them all for the sake of getting to the end.  This is also the book where the Christian influence on Rowling’s writing is most apparent, except if Jesus decided to settle down and have a family instead of ascending to heaven after the resurrection.

Bottom line: Harry Potter takes a few of the better elements of Star Wars and combines them with a hodge-podge of “prestige” British actors to hamming it up, a dash of over-the-top sensibilities straight out of 1970s UK sitcoms, and a bit of English public (i.e. private) school culture.  That is, until a marked tone shift halfway through the series blossoms fully in the final two movies.  All in all, it’s decent entertainment, and I completely understand why the stories enthralled children 20 years ago.

However, the movies are at their best when they take their time and tell one specific story, not when they try to juggle numerous elements that (I assume) were all present in much greater detail in the books.  The result of the latter is that there seem to be not only a few holes that never get explained, but also a number of threads broached and then never resolved—or, in some cases, mentioned again.

To cite one example, there is only one post-credits scene in this series, and it deals with a character who is never heard from again—at least not in the films.  And that speaks to my ultimate takeaway from Harry Potter: The books must be better than the films.  I’m quite confident of that.  Not because the movies are bad (they aren’t), but because they hint at the larger world whose surface is, astonishingly, barely scratched, despite there being eight of these things.

Having said that, I’ll never read them, so I can’t be sure.  But, in any event, at least I can now say I’ve watched the movies.

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