Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (2001)

Rating: B

Dir: Chris Columbus
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane

Having never read one page of the books before seeing the film, I proclaim my immunity, both to the hype and any potential disappointment. For a blockbuster, it’s pretty good, with more emotional depth than the eye-candy usually offered on such a budget – would it be chauvinistic to suggest the total lack of overpaid American actors perhaps helped? [For a laugh, try recasting the film that way – then shudder…] It’s certainly a delight to see the likes of Alan Rickman, the fabulous Maggie Smith and Richard Harris, even if the parade of Great British Actors (Look! It’s Julie Walters) can be a distraction sometimes. Visually, it’s great, though the lengthy Quidditch match seems a pointless luxury in a movie clocking in on the far side of 150 minutes, and is largely unconnected to the rest of the plot.

Radcliffe plays Harry well, both he and his schoolmates coming across as natural, rather than being the obvious “actors” that poisons so many child thespians, and which could have wrecked the entire show. Instead, I confess it got me interested in reading the books – from what I’ve now seen, they have a dry verbal wit that’s a little missing from the film, but the conversion is generally solid and well-executed. On course perhaps to surpass Titanic in all-time box-office: you certainly won’t find me arguing it’s any less worthy as a movie.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Rating: C-

Dir: Chris Columbus
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Kenneth Branagh

At 163 minutes, this is either far too short, or far too long, I’m not quite sure which. The task of adapting the book has left a large number of awkward plots sticking out unfulfilled, and yet there are any number of scenes whose point totally escapes me. For example, there’s another quidditch match of close to zero plot importance, and a whole sequence where Potter and his henchmen transform into other students to discover…well, nothing of significance. The talent is of much the same calibre as last time, but they get precious little to do: Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman are woefully underused, but come off well in comparison to Robert Hardy and John Cleese, who get about three lines each.

The look is still as cool as ever, and the effects are seamless, though CGI creation Dobbie is almost at a Jar Jar Binks level of irritating idiocy. Radcliffe is at an awkward age, but he, Grint and Watson do just about enough to keep you from thinking about your aching bladder as the movie cruises past the two and a half hour mark. At that length, exchanges such as the following:
 – Dumbledore: Voldemort transferred some of his powers into you
 – Harry: Voldemort transferred some of his powers into me?
become painful in the extreme. The scary thing is, if the same minutes-per-page transition occurs for the remaining books, part four will be six hours long. We will not be present for that one, unless the next episode is a great improvement.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Rating: C

Dir: Alfonso CuarĂ³n
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, David Thewlis, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

The third episode is decent enough; a little darker than previous, maybe, but while the Dementors are very cool, no-one older than seven should expect nightmares. I found Harry a bland hero this time out, and wish they’d do a spinoff focused on the teachers – the likes of Alan Rickman are again underused, with poor Dame Maggie Smith getting barely two lines. The best scene has Rickman, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall and Thewlis in the same room, and really exposes the gulf between them and Radcliffe. Oldman is Sirius Black, a murderer who escapes from prison with vengeance on Harry in mind; or is everything quite what it seems?

It is not a great adaptation; unlike Lord of the Rings, which worked fine even if you’ve never read the books, this required substantial explanation from our son, and much of what they left out seems kinda important [such as the identity of the Marauders’ Map creators]. Nor does it really seem a great book: fantasy genre or not, the device critical to the film’s climax is dangerously close to “It was all a dream” territory, although its execution here is quite nice. Much like 007, this franchise seems to have settled for meeting audience expectations rather than challenging them. With Rowling’s doorstops to adapt, and her eagle eye of oversight, perhaps one can hardly blame them.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Rating: C+

Dir: Mike Newell
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Brendan Gleeson, Rupert Grint

I still haven’t read the books, but suspect this suffers from ‘middle volume’-itis – the climax is more anti-climatic than anything, though we get to see uber-villain Voldemort in full for the first time, after he’s been much discussed [surprisingly much discussed, in fact, for someone called “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”…] It is certainly too long, rambling on for more that two and a half hours, with the Tri-Wizard tournament at the center of proceedings massively mishandled. The most exciting sequence, in which Harry faces a very miffed dragon, is too early, with everything after it paling by comparison. I mean, running through a maze – even an ominous one where the walls close in – seems like a light pastime beside that. [The book, apparently, had a more ominous set of challenges for Harry and the other entrants to face]

However, there’s still a fair bit to enjoy, not least the look of the film, which I loved, with CGI being used to enhance atmosphere not just for needless show. The trio of young characters are maturing, and much of Harry and Ron’s nervousness around the opposite sex brought back memories of my own. And, as ever, a sterling cast of British actors fill in the background, effortlessly stealing just about any scene in which they appear. Gleeson is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and is just as strange as the previous incumbents. The overall tone is certainly darker and less ‘cute’, as Voldemort prepares to make his move, and death is really brought into sharp focus for perhaps the first time. Though I must confess both of us dozed off on initial viewing, I enjoyed this more than any film since the series opener, and it restored my interest in seeing how the rest of them unfold.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Rating: B-

Dir: David Yates
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Imelda Staunton, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

The fourth? Fifth? Whatever! movie based on the series of books continues the darkening in tone, which has become increasingly apparent as the saga progresses. Harry, Dumbledore and their allies find themselves increasingly ostracized for their claim that Voldemort has returned. A new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (Staunton – yes…another one!) is at Hogwarts, though she is as much intent on preventing education as promoting it, and it’s up to Harry to fill in the gaps in his schoolmates’ education. However, matters are complicated by an increasingly-close psychic link between our hero and Voldemort, who is massing forces to his side, and is after an artifact that might give him a crucial edge in the looming war. The titular group, along with Harry, must stop him. Yes, plenty going on there, and if you haven’t seen the previous entries, you might be at something of a loss.

You may also miss out on the development of the characters, with Harry gradually turning from an adolescent towards an adult, prepared to take action rather than be simply reactive. Basically: he’s growing up, and the loss of innocence is a major theme, in ways both good – Harry’s first kiss – and bad, as he has to deal with death, in a more personal way than previously. There’s also an odd subtext, almost political yet interesting, with echoes of Stalinist Russia in the ruthless suppression of dissent. The main appeal, however, remains a parade of just about every Great British Thespian, from Gary Oldman to Helena Bonham-Carter, though Alan Rickman steals ever scene he’s in, with such a lack of effort that it’s awe-inspiring. Yates, mostly a director of British TV, adapts nicely to the spectacle, even though some of the CGI work is surprisingly ropey [the giant?]. The climax is among the best of the series though, with a sense of danger, that’s a good appetizer for the battles certainly to come.

Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince (2009)

Rating: C

Dir: David Yates
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Emma Watson

Storm clouds are gathering around Harry and Hogwarts, and this is significantly different from the previous films in a number of ways. It’s certainly the darkest of the series so far, both in tone and content [a lot of the time, I was peering into the darkness to figure out what was going on – though I suspect a contributing factor was not realizing my TV had reset itself from cinema mode due to a power outage…], and what’s also worth noting is, it’s much more our hero vs. the world, with less help from Ron and Hermione. The focus here, is on trying to figure out a puzzle from the early life of Tom Riddle, who’d go on to become Voldemort. To do that, Dumbledore (Gambon) asks Harry to get into the confidence of Prof. Slughorn (Broadbent), who was once close to Riddle, but has suppressed a memory of the pupil asking him about some particularly black magic. Harry has also found a book which previously belonged to the “Half-blood Prince”, and the knowledge it contains is having a disturbing effect on his personality.

Man, more than five years since I watched part five? Maybe that’s why this film does seem to suffer from its length: at 153 minutes, it’s not the longest in the series (all eight are cinematic doorstops, at 130 minutes or more), but to me, it felt like it was. There isn’t very much sense of progression, in that when we reach the end, I didn’t feel like we were nearer a resolution, in any significant way. Despite an obviously shocking moment toward the end, it feels more like the participants are largely marking time, in a holding pattern and hanging around as they wait for something more interesting to happen. There are just about enough momemts of interest to tide things over, and the look of the film is probably close to the best it has been, definitely capturing the sense of foreboding doom which is increasingly present, and borders on the overwhelming. However, this makes the light-hearted moments, e.g. Ron’s keeping goal in Quidditch, feel inconsistent and out of place. Can we get on with fighting Voldemort now, please?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010)

Rating: C

Dir: David Yates
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Helena Bonham-Carter

After I read the sixth film had a budget of $250 million, I was surprised to read that the final two combined for a smaller cost. But after seeing part one, this makes more sense, because what you have here is largely Harry, Hermione and Ron sitting around a forest for two and a half hours. It’s actually not as bad as that makes it sound: the reason is that Voldemort’s disciples make their bit for power, taking over the Ministry of Magic and beginning a reign of terror more than slightly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Our heroic trio are driven on the run, as they try to track down the Horcruxes which hold Voldemort’s soul, and figure out the significant of objects bequeathed to each of them by Dumbledore. Oh, yeah. And they find out what the “Deathly Hallows” are: a wand, a cloak and a stone, which would more or less give their owner the ability to defeat even Death himself.

It’s certainly very different from the previous entries, with Hogwarts barely mentioned at all. To be honest, that comes as something of a refreshing change, though I still get the distinct sense that there’s only half a movie here, and that it was split in two, purely for mercenary purposes. There’s absolutely no sense of closure to be found: the whole thing climaxes at what’s little more than an extended commercial break – fortunately, we have Part 2 queued up, so just need to find a three-hour gap for that. The best sequence is the back story to the Hallows, told in animated form with no shortage of style. Beyond that, there’s a fair amount of stuff which is almost inexplicable to those who haven’t read the book, which would include myself: I only realized one character had died when I read the Wikipedia synopsis! Other chunks appears to have been nicked from Lord of the Rings, e.g. the locket which corrupts its wearer, and if Dobbie isn’t a low-rent Gollum knock-off with heroic tendencies, I don’t know what he is. While things are now clearly in place for an unstoppable finale, I can’t rate this as being any better than an appetizer.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)

Rating: B

Dir: David Yates
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes

Ah, here we go. It took a long time to get there – and, frankly, none of the intervening five movies were exactly what I’d call indispensable – but we finally have a worthy and rousing finale to the saga, which does just about everything one could want. Harry and his allies face-off against Voldemort (Fiennes) and his forces of darkness, in the biggest fantasy battle since The Return of the King, though first, have to destroy the remaining Horcruxes (Horcrii?), which contain fragments of Voldemort’s soul, in order to render him mortal and vulnerable. However, there are also a number of unexpected surprises, not the least of which is one that will require a supreme sacrifice from Harry, if Voldemort is to be defeated.

If previous entries in the series were long on plot and required too much knowledge of the books in order to be fully appreciated, that’s much less the case here, in what is a relatively straightforward tale, pitting good against evil. And it’s all the better for it, with Yates delivering a film’s that fairly gallops along. While still over two hours long, unlike some of the earlier entries, you won’t find yourself checking your watch during the slower parts – largely because, there aren’t many. It hids the ground running, with Potter and pals breaking into Bellatrix Lestrange’s bank vault, and then escalates steadily up, climaxing with a hellacious battle in and around Hogwarts which leaves the place looking like Dresden, mid-1945.

There are still some unanswered questions, such as why Harry finds one of the Deathly Hallows, only to dump it after a single use; there’s also a resurrection that isn’t well-explained, at least in the movie, and other deaths appear glossed over. Still, these are things that are easy to forgive, as we see our hero complete his journey and transformation from the innocent and shy geek we met in the first film, a decade earlier. All the loose ends are tied up (except for the issue of Dumbledore’s sexuality, which oddly, isn’t mentioned…) in a satisfying manner, and we’re left assured that everyone does indeed live happily ever after. I’ll miss the parade of great British characters actors with whom we’ve got to spend time: it’ll probably be a long while until we see something like this again.