Harry Potter and the Deathly Half-Blood Secret Order of the Sorcerer’s Fiery Stone Goblet Azkabanian Phoenix Chamber
Here will be our greatest challenge in our project to re-view some of our favorite series movies. You know, those rare ones where the sequels are almost as good as the originals, of which there are only a few. There is a lot of Harry Potter to watch …
This series of 8 movies is really an extraordinary achievement. If you don’t think so, just pop in the DVD of the first one and compare the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint (what an unfortunate name!) to what they look like in the last one. Such children! Babies! Of course, you can see child actors grow up all the time on series television, but I hardly watch any TV, and certainly no sitcoms with sickeningly precocious children who spout lines no child ever uttered, and that’s all such sitcoms. But I’ve never watched it happen in the movies. I suppose you could pick a child star, say, Shirley Temple, and watch her films consecutively, but she is a different character in each one, with a different story. Here, we have one story that happens over 8 long movies. Though there were two years when no Harry Potter movie came out, the ages of the kids are damn close to what they should be as the story continues. Ten years of growth. All three of those kids are rich now, as they deserve to be, as they all started out as pretty good actors and just got better as they went along.
What a phenom the Harry Potter thing is. I have no idea how much money the books made for J.K. Rowling (she is reputed to be a billionaire, but that includes the movie rights), but I just did some quick calculations of how much the movies made … not even counting all the tie-in products, which she has been very stingy with, and about which everyone agrees she could have made further billions if she had just let them make any damn Potter product they wanted to make. Control! It’s all about keeping control, and she has to approve everything.
The seven movies released to date cost about $1,400,000,000 to make, and took in $6,227,000,000 at the B.O. I think it’s a safe bet that HP&tDH2 will gross right around a billion dollars. The least popular of the seven grossed $795 million. It’s interesting to me that numbers like that no longer make one’s head spin … though I’m sure they cause a lot of ulcers in the film industry. The last three have each cost around a quarter of a billion dollars to make.
The eight movies (including an estimate from Wiki of 125 minutes for the last one; if it’s only that long, it will be the shortest of the bunch) have a running time of 17 hours and 34 minutes. That’s the biggest part of a whole day! We aren’t that crazy, we will view them over a week or more. So, here we go …
… and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone (2001) In a film series, either a continuing story or a series of sequels, the first one is, for me, always the best, pretty much by definition. The following ones may be more elaborate, with CGI techniques improving so dramatically each year, it may have more of what you liked in the first one. It may be a lot of things, but there is one thing it cannot be: NEW. It cannot ever recapture the awed delight you experience when you’ve just seen something you never saw before. Star Wars is the best example I can think of. There is just no way they can ever recapture the wonder of those opening five minutes, where the first spaceship passes over your head and you’re amazed … and then the Imperial Star Destroyer looms over you, and over you, and more and more and more of it. Can’t be done. That first time is a level of magic that can’t be recaptured.
You may disagree, you may have an example where Part Two or Part Six was better (some feel that way about Alien and Aliens; I do not), but it’s never happened to me.
So it is with HP&tPS. (I say PS instead of SS because that was Rowling’s original title. I wish I knew why the American publisher thought the Philosopher’s Stone was too heavy a concept for American kids. We may not be well educated, but we’re not that stupid. They could have just explained it.) From the very opening scenes I was mesmerized, enchanted, by a world I’d never seen. I laughed aloud at all the owls surrounding 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, and at the explosion of letters down the chimney and through the letterbox. Every tiny element of this film was designed (by Stuart Craig, who deserves a Special Oscar) to jar your senses away from the ordinary world, into the world of wizardry. Just look at the sets! The floating candles in the Main Hall of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley with its buildings leaning over the cobblestones, Flourish & Blotts bookstore, Gringotts Wizarding Bank, Ollivanders wand shop, Hogwarts itself … place after place, you just want to slow down so you can take a better look. (And I guess you can now, with the opening of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World in Orlando, also designed by Craig.)
Luckily for all of us, J.K Rowling was already a Big Deal by the time the rights to these novels were sold, and she was no fool. She knew she had the studios over a barrel, they all wanted them, so she retained a great degree of creative control. Everyone involved who has ever spoken of it has praised her, saying she didn’t interfere, that she understood that a film is not a book, but she had approval of scripts and of any changes in the story. She has professed herself delighted with how they came out, and I think she is right. Seldom have any books been so well-adapted. Only a purist who would have demanded something like 60 hours of screen time—clearly impossible, except on TV—could carp about what was changed and what was left out. I was fascinated to hear that one thing she didn’t get was her first choice of director for the first film: Terry Gilliam! Now, I am a huge Terry Gilliam fan, but I’m not sure he would have been right for these films, unless he toned down his wackiness a great deal. Maybe he would have. I don’t know if he turned it down, or was busy, or what, but Chris Colombus did a fine job, without being obtrusive. Many of the casting decisions were in line with what JK had in mind when she was writing, such as Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, one of the most beloved characters in the series. Maybe not the brightest guy who ever tamed a basilisk (“Oh, my, I shouldn’t have said that!”), but somebody you definitely want on your side.
And as I said, there is a new delight about seeing this early film after ten years, and that is seeing these actors as children. It’s like flipping through an old family album. “My, how young you look there, Jim Bob!” “Well, I was young, Aunt Betsy.”
… and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) JK Rowling has said she had the whole plot of seven books all worked out in her head from the very beginning. I believe her, but I suspect that a lot of elaboration got added as she went along. I’m sure she knew all the secrets of Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Sirius Black, and knew why Harry survived when his parents were killed, but I find it hard to believe she worked out all the details of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows during that famous 4-hour train ride from Manchester to London.
Whatever, the great complexity of the overriding story, which was really only hinted at in the first book, begins to be really elaborated here. One of the main reasons we’re seeing them all again is because by the time of the most recent one we saw, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, both Lee and I were pretty befuddled by a lot of the things that were going on. Was Sirius Black a good guy or a bad guy? Who was this, and who was that? What went on in the previous books? My memory for plots is not good at the best of times; string out eight films over ten years and I’m hopeless.
This one lives up to the promise of the first one (they all do, in my opinion). Some of the delights: Moaning Myrtle, endlessly trapped in the girl’s loo, diving into a toilet when she’s angry. The Whomping Willow, quite a dangerous plant to have around children. (But then, all of Hogwarts is a dangerous place.) Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, the teen heartthrob so full of himself, so phony, and, in the end, so cowardly, he might as well be a Bad Guy. The flying car, which I have learned is a Ford Anglia. Not so great: Dobby the house elf, who at least at first is a whining pain in the ass. But he redeems himself.
A few words about quidditch. There is a match in almost every movie, and they make for exciting action sequences (though the level of SFX in the first ones is not as great as later; you can see these aren’t real people on the brooms). But am I the only one who has noticed that it’s a stupid game? That the rules are … well, idiotic? Imagine this, if you will: The Giants and the Jets are playing football. It’s a slaughter. The score is 9000 to nothing, in favor of the Jets. Then, without warning, the ref throws a gold doubloon into the air. The Giant QB grabs it before it hits the ground. Score: Jets 9000, Giants 150. Giants win! What is the point of giving the Giants 150 points when snatching the snitch ends and wins the game? What is the point of dodging all those murderous bludger balls and sweating to throw the quaffle through the hoops (10 points)? Why bother? Just devote yourself to finding that little snitch and pointing it out to your seeker. Without the snitch, quidditch becomes a sensible game like dozens of others from soccer to lacrosse to buzkashi to horse polo to water polo to elephant polo (yes, they play that!) where the object is to get a ball into a goal, only played in the air by jet fighter pilots! That’s exciting, and it makes sense. Quidditch doesn’t.
… and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) It’s remarkable that they have gone through eight films now with very few cast changes. In fact, the only one I am aware of is that of Dumbledore, because Richard Harris had the bad taste to keel over dead from a lifetime of heavy drinking after HP&tCoS. He was replaced here by Michael Gambon, and both of them did an excellent job in the role.
They also replaced the original director with Alfonso Cuarón, best known in this country for Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth. He brings a slightly different sensibility to the movie—as in the Whomping Willow several times whomping poor innocent little birdies—and here is where the story begins to get really complicated and a lot darker. As well it should. The wizarding world has always looked irresistibly fun, but you know it’s not fun for Harry, who is facing real adult dilemmas before he’s really ready for them. The soul-eating dementors are truly scary. All three children have grown, showing the first signs of puberty. There’s definitely something under Hermione’s sweater now, and Harry’s and Ron’s faces have lost a lot of baby fat. There was a two-year gap after the last one, so the kids are actually 14, not 13, but it doesn’t matter. Harry is much more angry in the beginning, like an adolescent, but by the end his anger is more controlled and, you sense, deadly. He stands up to the vile, bullying Draco Malfoy several times, revealing him to be the coward he is. The time travel twist at the end is well done. New character: the ditsy Divination Professor Sybill Trelawny, played by Emma Thompson.
… and the Goblet of Fire (2005) I haven’t said much about the plots of these movies, as I often do not in these reviews. I figure if you want to know the plot, you can read any number of other reviewers, or go to Wikipedia. But this one is an exception, as it is really nasty. After the Quidditch World Cup is cancelled due to Death Eaters (it’s held in a really neat stadium that must have been made by magic, towering vertically over the playing field) it is announced that Hogwarts will be the host to the “Triwizard Tournament.” Three schools will each send a champion to compete for a cup. They will be selected by the Goblet of Fire. After three are chosen, Harry’s name comes out, too, forcing him to compete way over his head. First, they have to fight a dragon, then they have to retrieve something precious to them that has been put—by the schools, apparently—at the bottom of a lake full of ugly creatures. They have an hour, and figuring out how to breathe underwater that long is their problem. Cutting to the chase, the “precious things” turn out to be people. Ron, Hermione, and two others. They are floating there, chained. I guess they are in suspended animation, because they aren’t drowning, but the clear implication is that, if somebody doesn’t rescue them, they will be dead.
Whoa! Has anyone thought about the ethics of this situation? To me this is a real breathtaking lapse in the moral universe of Harry Potter. They kidnap and drug minor children and put them in danger of their lives, and the only way they can be saved is by the heroics of another student? I mean, if the authorities are not going to let them drown if the hero fails, what’s the point of the exercise? Say Harry surfaces, having failed, believing Ron and Hermione are dead. And Dumbledore laughs, slaps him on the back, and says, “It was all a joke, Harry old boy!” I’d sock the old weasel in the jaw, after kicking him in the nuts. But then, say, it wasn’t a joke. If Harry fucks up, they’re dead. And even if he doesn’t fuck up … say you’re Ron. “You mean you used me as fucking bait? You used me as the fucking ball in your shitty little game?” There’s just no way to make this look good, to make it moral in any way. At this point I’d be looking for one of two things: a good wizard lawyer to sue Hogwarts for every doubloon in Gringott’s, or Lord Voldemort, to tell that old rascal to sign me up. If this is “good” magic,” I’ll try the dark stuff. I mean, putting these children in danger by having them battle dragons is one thing. Presumably they could chicken out, but it’s their decision. And we always knew that wizarding is dangerous for young and old alike. Putting the four hostages at the bottom of the lake—and that’s the only way to see it, hostages, no one asked them if they wanted to be the goalposts in this sick game—is disgusting. They are helpless to do anything about their situation, precisely like someone with a gun held to his or her head. Even worse, because they don’t even know it’s happening to them!
Well, all that aside … the story continues to unfold, and sex is rearing its interesting head. The fourth-year students are all well into puberty, and behaving badly. The boys, mostly. Harry and Ron, who were both too chickenshit to ask the girl they really wanted to go with to the big dance, behave horribly to their actual dates, the Patil sisters. It’s painful to watch. Ron is even worse toward Hermione. Sigh. Looks like wizard teen boys are no better than muggle teen boys. I remember, with some pain, that I was no better than that myself. Adolescence drives one insane. I don’t know how any of us survive it. Facing dragons is a lot easier that facing girls.
… and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) I’ve been rattling on a lot about the first four, I guess. Time to get a little more concise, which should be easy, as there’s not a lot new to talk about. The biggest new element here is something I find a hell of a lot more scary than Dementors, Death Eaters, or even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. (Hint: rhymes with Coldemort.) That is fascism. The Ministry of Magic is in denial about the return of Doldemort, Harry and Dumbledore are being smeared in the press, which is just as despicable as a Rupert Murdoch pile of toilet paper. And Hogwarts has been taken over by one Delores Umbridge, a sweet-talking little Hitler who soon runs out of wall space to post all her new rules. Our heroic trio forms a resistance, Dumbledore’s Army. The story is rapidly moving away from the cozy feeling I got in previous installments. Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, is killed by Bellatrix Lestrange, someone almost as scary as Delores Umbridge. Hogwarts no longer seems like a lot of fun. And we begin to get a better idea of Harry’s destiny.
… and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) More young love and bad behavior. Foolish Ron, a quidditch victory gone to his head, starts seeing the school slut, breaking Hermione’s heart. Harry is falling for Ginny Weasley. (Ron later comes to his senses like a good fellow. It’s not easy, being the best friend of The Chosen One, and not overly bright to boot.) We learn more of the origins of Voldemort, in the person of Tom Riddle, and a bit more about the dark, brooding, Severus Snape. (Here’s a good time to mention how great Alan Rickman is in the part.) We learn about the seven horcruxes which will play such a large part in the following episodes. I’m still not completely clear what a horcrux is, but you don’t really have to understand all the Avada Kedavra mumbo-jumbo to enjoy the stories. But things are very, very bad. Dumbledore is dead!
… and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) The kids are all grown up now. (And Daniel Radcliffe has a drinking problem, oh my.) Hermione, muggle-born, has to cast a spell on her parents that makes them forget she was ever born. That had to be tough. Trying to escape the Death Eaters, Harry’s friends witch themselves into duplicates, hoping that the real one will get through. He does, but not without cost. Mad-Eye Moody is killed, along with Harry’s beloved owl, Hedwig. Harry, Ron, and Hermione flee across the countryside, where the action slows down a little. (I suspect that if they’d made this book into just a single film, they would have condensed this part radically.) Ron gets witched by the horcrux they’re carrying, believing that Harry and Hermione are doing the nasty behind his back, and he leaves them. The neatest thing about this installment is the tent Hermione puts up. On the outside it looks about right for two people, if they’re very good friends. Inside, it’s big enough to host a Boy Scout Jamboree. Ron returns and rescues Harry from the depths of a pool where he’s trying to retrieve a sword. Dobby the house elf rescues the trio from the awful Bellatrix, and dies in the process. Goldemort breaks into Dumbledore’s tomb and steals the Elder Wand, the dirty rat. And then … and then … and then … join us next year for the exciting conclusion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!! WTF?
… and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011) Okay, it’s finally here. I’m not going to join the masses shouting hallelujah and proclaiming it the best Harry of them all. What I will agree with is that it is a worthy way to end the eight-movie adventure, and is at least equal to any of them.
The strength here is the acting, both by the three principles and the amazing array of British talent, especially Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Those kids really grew into their roles, and to the extent that I partake of Potter-mania, I will say that I was sorry to see the last of Hermione. JK, why don’t you write more books about her? Muggle-born, smarter than her two male companions combined … what was it like growing up? How did she learn of her magic powers if she wasn’t raised by wizards? She wipes out her parents’ memories of her, so it’s as if she never existed, a terrible thing to live with. Surely there’s new adventure there.
The big weakness here is something I’ve observed before: Wand battles are not exciting. They are even less exciting than light-saber battles, which are dull as graham crackers. Do you seriously feel your blood pounding while watching two guys standing still, pointing sticks at each other, and shouting Expectoramus! or Fellatricio cunnilicorum!? And the space between them is filled by a generic off-the-shelf SFX lightning bolt?
It is available in 3D, and I am so glad I didn’t opt for that. It is a very dark movie. I have cataracts, but even without them I don’t think I’d have wanted to lose the 10% or whatever it is of available light. As it was, some scenes were like walking through a coal mine with nothing but a Zippo. Does wearing sunglasses in a dark theater make sense to you? If they ever figure out a way to do good 3D without glasses, I’ll be an instant convert. Until then, not so much.
And there we have it. The epic is over. Unless JK relents …