Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Look at the Harry Potter Saga (2001-2010)

Well, the waiting is over. At midnight tonight, in theatres across America, the 8th and final installment in the Harry Potter film franchise, the most profitable franchise in history, will be released. Whether you’re a fan of the books, or you’ve only seen the movies, this will go down as one of the most highly anticipated films of all time. Early reviews of the film are overwhelmingly positive, with a Rotten Tomatoes score currently at 97%… it is the best reviewed film of the summer blockbuster season.

With all that in mind, today’s column is going to look back at the first seven Harry Potter movies and see how they fare against one another.


The first film in the franchise is probably the weakest link in the chain. That isn’t to say that it is a bad film, quite the opposite in fact. However, the film is shot and presented as a children’s film, which admittedly may be appropriate. This may not be all that surprising when you realize that Christopher Columbus of “Home Alone” fame was the director behind this first installment. And much like his earlier work, Columbus does not exactly prove to be a master of visuals. The shots are mostly static and don’t take many artistic risks, and the pacing is slow… close to plodding. The film is not without its merits, though. Columbus does an incredible job of creating the Harry Potter universe, from the set design, to the costumes… you feel like you are IN Hogwarts. You feel a part of this magical world. All of the major characters are introduced effectively and the films provides an excellent foundation for the rest of the series to be built around. The three main child actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were perfectly cast. While not the greatest actors in the world (I won’t nitpick, they were, after all 10 years old at the time), they do perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the Harry, Hermione and Ron. The rest of the actors include a British acting Hall of Fame with Alan Rickman (Snape), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall) and the late Richard Harris (Professor Dumbledore), and all of them, as expected, deliver fine performances. The first film, while flawed, serves as a good start to the successful series.


One year later and the kids (and the audience) is a year older. Chris Columbus returns for another (and what turns out to be his last) turn at the directing helm. He moves the camera a little more and doesn’t keep his shots as static and unmotivated as the first film. However, this film also suffers from the same pacing issues and the story isn’t as compelling, though it is certainly darker. Most of the cast returns, and joining the cast for this school year are Kenneth Branaugh as Professor Lockhart and Shirley Henderson as the ghostly Moaning Myrtle. Branaugh is hilarious as the ridiculously arrogant Lockhart, but Henderson borders on unbearably annoying in her performance (which may have been the point.) The actors still haven’t mastered the craft just yet, especially Rupert Grint who was apparently going through puberty during filming. As mentioned earlier, the story is darker and gives further insight into Voldermort’s dark past. Giving credit to Columbus, the climax and final action sequence in the film is particularly thrilling and surprisingly violent.


Columbus is gone and taking his place is Alfonso Cuarón as director. Cuarón had at the point been known mostly for films like Y Tu Mama Tambien (1999) and Great Expectations (1998). He seemed an odd choice to direct a “children’s” fantasy movie. But as it turns out, he was the perfect choice as he was responsible for the best film in the series. Azkaban ramps up the darkness, both literally and figuratively. Not only is the story much darker, but so is the cinematography… in a good way. It is a beautifully shot film (shot by cinematographer Michael Seresin), and probably the best-looking one to date as well. Richard Harris had by this point passed away, replaced by Michael Gambon in the role of Dumbledore. Gambon’s interpretation was much different… more energy and spastic movements. Some fans of the original two films were not happy with the performance, but I enjoyed it as it breathed new life into the character. The amazing Gary Oldman joins the cast as Sirius Black, the escapee from Azkaban prison with an apparent vendetta for our hero. Oldman is always awesome, even when he’s cast in terrible movies… but in great movies like this one, he’s even better.


While Azkaban is the best in terms of quality, Goblet of Fire is my personal favorite film of the series. Harry is forced into an impossibly difficult tournament where he has to fight dragons, elude murderous mermaids, save his friends and escape a terrifying labyrinth. On top of all of that, he has a huge falling out with Ron and has to deal with the most deadly challenge of all: asking a girl to his first dance. Harry is now 14, and even though he’s faced obstacles and foes that would make us wet ourselves, he’s terrified of the prospects of dealing with the opposite sex. The film perfectly captures what all of us had to deal with at the age when it came to girls. But not just that, the action and story telling is really good in this. Mike Newell of Donnie Brasco (1997) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) takes the directing reins and does the franchise justice. Even though the film comes in at a lengthy 157 minutes, the movie flies by because it is paced in a way to always keep the viewer engaged. Two major cast additions pop up in this film: Brendan Gleeson as the hardcore ex-auror (evil witch hunter) Professor Mad-Eye Moody and Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Voldemort. Gleeson is fun to watch, but Ralph Fiennes steals the show as the actor who finally gives an on-screen presence He Who Must Not Be Named. Fiennes is no stranger to villains as he had memorable performances in “Schindler’s List” and “Red Dragon,” but his Lord Voldemort will be forever remembered by a generation of movie-goers.


This is the film where the three main actors finally start to show that they can act. Radcliffe is tasked with a hefty emotional task… after seeing one of his fellow classmates killed before his eyes the previous year, Potter is racked with guilt over not being able save him, fear over Voldemort having returned, anxiety over possibly being expelled from school, and rage at the Ministry bureaucrats that keep calling him a liar in the press. Oh, and by the way he may also be possessed by the Dark Lord himself. This film’s story mostly sees Harry trying to teach a secret band of students his own brand of Defense Against the Dark Arts. This leads Harry and his band of misfits to head to the Ministry of Magic in the middle of the night because of one Harry’s mysterious visions. What results is a full on battle with a horde of Death Eaters and a death of a major character that rocks Harry to his core. The film also features an awesome wizard’s battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort.


This movie is all about plot. Plot. Plot. Plot. It’s light on action and the film mostly serves as a vehicle to tell Voldemort’s backstory. Harry bonds with Dumbledore on these adventures and a trusted teacher apparently turns to the dark side. To reveal more about the story would venture into spoiler territory. David Yates took over the rest of the franchise starting with Order of the Phoenix. So far he has proven to the series’ most efficient director since Cuarón. He, along with screenwriter Steven Kloves, do a wonderful job of stripping the books down to the bare essentials to tell the most effective story they can. The film, by the way, looks gorgeous, and with good reason as Bruno Delbonnel was nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography his camera work on this film. Again, not as action-heavy as the previous films, but it does give a great deal of back story to the series and helps shape it into an even grander epic saga.


The most adult film in the series thus far. Deathly Hallows Part 1 starts with the entire world, both wizarding and non-magical, in chaos. Potter’s family, the Dursleys, are leaving their home in fear for their lives… Hermione, knowing that there is a real possibility she may die, erases her parents’ memory of her. This is by far the darkest film in the entire series (until, I’m sure, Part 2.) What these films have accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary. They have managed to accomplish something so rare within the world of film series: The films themselves have grown up with both their characters and their audience. Someone who watched Sorcerer’s Stone as a child has now, ten years later, matured into an adult. And the film reflects that. It’s darker in tone and in content. There’s even brief nudity (very brief.) These characters are no longer children and the story reflects that. The three actors are incredible in this film. Much like the previous film, it is light on action… but acts as a major set up to Part 2. (And trust me, I’ve read the book… the second half is pretty much all action.) What’s fascinating is that the film is completely different than the previous six. Harry, Ron and Hermione do NOT go to Hogwarts this year… instead they are on a months-long journey to find horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort’s shattered soul) and destroy them, thus weakening the Dark Lord. Deaths aplenty in this one and it’s definitely not for “the kids.”

These films have become a part of the pop culture consciousness… and in a few short hours when the clock strikes midnight, the final film will be released, putting an end to an entire series, and, for many viewers out there, it signifies the end of their childhood. Fitting, considering it is also the end of Harry’s.