CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical


Introduction


Does the 'Harry Potter' series really need any sort of introduction at this point? Surely just about every human being with access to a library and a multiplex has heard of the boy wizard, his years of education at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and his ongoing battle with the evil dark wizard Voldemort. Chances are pretty strong you've read the books and seen the movies. Or read one of the books and saw a movie or two. Or burnt the books and gritted your teeth through a theatrical trailer, but that's besides the point. You've heard of Harry Potter. This introduction is moot.

With the penultimate film, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1,' opening today, I decided it was time to revisit the series, to examine it as one epic adventure instead of a single film every year or two. Whether you're a Potter fan or not, you cannot deny that there are more than a handful of remarkable things going on in this series, things that deserve analysis within the context of the larger story, a story that may feature the same characters and cast but is driven by four different directors with four distinct visions.

It was time for me to watch all of the 'Harry Potter' films in one sitting.


Marathon Prep

As part of the marathon process, I decided to track three key aspects across the entire series. First, The Thespians, or which esteemed actors or actresses joins the bursting-at-the-seams cast this time around and what do they contribute to the film and series? Second, The Magics, where I'll examine how magic, the single most important thing in the entire world of Harry Potter, is realized and portrayed in each film. Finally, Accuracy to the Book, where I'll activate my (perhaps hazy) memory and attempt to judge how each film functions as an adaptation. Naturally, I'll then top off each film with some personal Thoughts of my own.



Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), directed by Chris Columbus

The Thespians: The first thing you notice about the first Harry Potter film is that the cast surrounding the unknown leading child actors is a group of professionals that simply borders on the absurd. Just take a look at the Hogwarts faculty -- Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis and Robbie Coltrane. Then you have John Hurt, John Cleese, Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw popping up elsewhere! It's like someone picked up England and shook hard enough that every reputable British actor fell into a pile and was forced to participate. Those who don't appear here will appear in future films. (I've come to the conclusion that if you are British, you are somewhere in the Harry Potter films. You may not be aware of it, but oh, you are.)

What's most remarkable is that none of these actors are phoning it in. With this many big names in the cast (performing roles that often don't offer that much screen time), you'd expect at least one or two of them to sleepwalk through the film. Actually, although the quality of the series will fluctuate, the one unbreakable constant of all of the films is the quality of the supporting performances.

The Magics: Since both the audience and Harry himself are brand new to this world, every spell and magical object is treated as a grand, colorful event. This is a film that treats a rather mundane feather levitation as a big set piece! It's the appropriate choice -- how else do you sell the initial overwhelming wonder of this world without going BIG with it?

Accuracy to the Book: As far as adaptations go, you won't find a film more faithful to its source material than 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.' However, it's faithful to a fault, choosing to capture the minutiae of the novel while glossing over key plot points because it seemingly expects everyone in the audience to already be familiar with the story (the exact rules of Quidditch are never given a proper explanation). A novel is allowed to sprawl and to go off on tangents and dwell on the tiny details that go with learning the art of magic in an enchanted castle in the middle of nowhere. A film needs to find a have direct story with a beginning, middle and end.

Of course, the counter argument is that the three-act structure is putting storytellers in a strait jacket, but my response is that a creative strait jacket is a necessity when adapting a novel as dense and detailed as this one. By sticking so close to the book, 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' feels like a series of events with no proper sense of pacing, so much so that we don't actually build to a climax as much as the climax just, well, happens.



Thoughts: 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' is about as well-intentioned as a movie can get, but that doesn't stop it from being pretty terrible for much of its running time. Awkwardly directed, shot and paced, the film is a nightmare from a technical standpoint. Everything from the flat, non-atmospheric lighting to the flabby editing drags the movie down in a big way and the finished result feels like a marathon of a made-for-TV miniseries instead of a big budget feature film.

So yeah, I'm going to place the bulk of the blame here on Chris Columbus, a man who's made his fair share of awful motion pictures and has no business directing an effects heavy fantasy adventure. There is a distinct lack of vision behind the camera -- as faithful as the film is to the text, the dull production design and overly silly tone clash with Rowling's whimsical but emotionally grounded tone. This is a strange case where everyone involved obviously loves (or at least appreciates) Harry Potter, but no one gets why it works.

In Columbus' defense, he is adapting a children's book, so perhaps it's appropriate that 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' is a children's movie; light, fluffy and with no sharp edges whatsoever. The lack of bite is irritating to those of us who know how fascinating and complex the series will become but it really is the perfect film for the 5-8 year olds in your life. Credit must also be given to Columbus' eye for casting. Not only is the Hogwarts staff filled with remarkable actors, but the kids themselves are perfect finds. They may be a little stiff here and there, but they get better with each passing film, growing enough that their award-winning co-stars don't completely embarrass them.

While this may be a pretty lousy film, it does effectively set the groundwork for the entire series, building the playground that other, let's face it, more inspired directors could play in. It's a nice effort that just doesn't work, especially when directly compared to the more ambitious films that would soon follow it.



Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), directed by Chris Columbus

The Thespians: Oh, there are some British actors who didn't appear in the first film? This time around, Jason Isaacs, Kenneth Branagh and the voice of Toby Jones pop up, slipping effortlessly in the ensemble. The eternally underrated Isaacs is inspired casting as the icy and quietly villainous Lucius Malfoy, Branagh shows that he can play a comically pompous buffoon with the best of them and Jones is always a welcome addition to any movie, even when he's just providing the voice for an irritating house elf. Also, although Mark Williams and Julie Walters both appeared in the first film as Arthur and Molly Weasley, their roles are significantly beefed up in the second outing and they will remain vital, important characters throughout the rest of the series. Although not nearly as famous as many of their co-stars, Williams' and Walters' portrayal of these characters, who may be the most vividly drawn and lovable people in the series, borders on perfection.

The Magics: It's more of the same, really, although the Weasley family's enchanted flying car is one of the niftier magical items to show up in the series. There is a showmanship to the magic in these first two films that's completely charming but it undoubtedly would have felt out of place in the later, darker films in the series.

Accuracy to the Book: Like its predecessor, 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is faithful to its source in the worst possible way. Although individual moments sparkle, the film as a whole drags, making it's nearly three hour running time feel like five. This should have been a movie about an investigation: What is the chamber of secrets and who opened it? Instead, that investigation shares the movie with a half dozen other subplots, most of which act as simple fan service.



Thoughts: It cannot be stated enough how much of an improvement 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is over the first film. For one thing, the flat made-for-TV lighting that plagued the first film is gone and this one actually looks like a real movie. Secondly, the broad, almost silly tone has been diminished, allowing the threat at hand to actually feel like a real threat, with real stakes and real danger. There is real menace behind the creature that's sneaking around Hogwarts and paralyzing innocent students and when Harry it forced to journey into the titular chamber and take it down, it feels like a real climax. In fact, it's one of the best sequences that Chris Columbus directed for this series.

That doesn't make 'Chamber of Secrets' a great film, it makes it an okay film, a film that goes down far easier than 'Sorcerer's Stone' but remains oddly slight. The big problem here is that this is a long film. Unpleasantly long. Because the movie takes its sweet time meandering through needless scene after needless scene, you feel each and every one of those 161 minutes. I've already said it, but it needs to be said again, this time in all-caps so that the people in the back of the room can hear me. Ahem: A GOOD ADAPTATION MOLDS ITS SOURCE MATERIAL INTO A NEW NARRATIVE, IT DOES NOT SIMPLY COPY AND PASTE EVERYTHING INTO A SCRIPT. Thank you.

Misgivings aside, I understand why many fans like these first two films more than the later films. They're friendly and pleasant and find joy in this magical world. Whereas later films will be about war and death and betrayal, these two are about discovery and making new friends and embarking on that traditional hero's journey and finding your place in the world after years of thinking you were lost. Chris Columbus is going for the hearstrings while every other filmmaker to tackle this series goes for the throat. In a strange way, these films are a necessity for the later entries to work at all; when things get truly dark, the characters and their audience are able to look back and wonder where the innocence has gone.



Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), directed by Alfonso Cuaron

The Thespians: The great Gary Oldman as escaped convict Sirius Black. David Thewlis as full-time professor and part-time werewolf, Remus Lupin. Emma Thompson as the batty psychic Professor Trelawney. Timothy Spall as the rat disguised as a rat, Wormtail. Heck, even Julie Christie pops in for about two minutes for a role that could be considered a cameo if it wasn't so small. Class acts, the lot of 'em. Of course, the unfortunate passing of Richard Harris after the second film required the role of Professor Dumbledore to be recast and with all due respect to Harris, Michael Gambon nails the role in way he never could. To be perfectly honest, Harris' frail, soft spoken Dumbledore has nothing on Gambon's vital, eccentric, ex-hippy Dumbledore.

The Magics: Allow me a metaphor. A child is overjoyed to learn that he's being allowed to live in Disneyland and spends the first two years of his new life in "the happiest place on earth" overjoyed by the sights and sounds that are all around him. However, there comes a point when the animatronics in Pirates of the Caribbean start to look a little fake and he's memorized all of the drops and turns in Space Mountain. It becomes routine. It becomes mundane. It becomes life. That's the magic in 'Prisoner of Azkaban.' After three years of this, Harry is no longer surprised when something wild and unexpected happens because in this world, something wild and unexpected is always happening. For the first time, magic becomes a background element of the film, something that adds subtle details and character to the world instead of providing "WOW!" moments.

Accuracy to the Book: 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' is the antithesis of the first two films -- a terrible literal adaptation but a pretty amazing movie. Director Alfonso Cuaron claims he didn't read the books or see the two previous films and oh man, does it show! Although the story has been contorted and re-arranged in a way that's still infuriating fans, this entry manages to rise above its predecessors by not remaining slavishly faithful to every detail and just letting the movie become its own beast. Cuaron fills the story with his own personal touches, redesigning the Potter universe to fit his personal whims and axing anything, even moments that feel incredibly important to the mythology of the series, that gets in the way of his personal vision. The result is a lean film that looks nothing like Columbus' entries, ignores much of the book and actually feels like a real movie. My inner Potter fanboy remains irked, but my inner Cineaste still thinks it's a remarkable achievement from a remarkable filmmaker.



Thoughts: The fact that 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' opens with a thinly veiled masturbation reference tells you right away that new director Alfonso Cuaron is here to take things in a new direction. The fact that the scene features Harry using magic outside of school, something that almost got him expelled in the previous film, tells you that Cuaron doesn't care about continuity or staying true to the previous films or even to the books. Cuaron is here to make what Cuaron wants to make and there's nothing you sissy little fanboys and fangirls can do to stop him, so there.

The result is almost shocking. The warm, friendly Hogwarts of the Columbus years is gone, replaced with a gray, moody castle nestled on treacherous landscape. The prim and proper school children have been replaced by shaggy, undisciplined teens with loose ties and un-tucked shirts. Tom the barkeep, formerly a jolly, smiling older man, is now a terrifying Max Schreck-ian hunchback who speaks by grunting. A journey on the Knight Bus, somewhat unremarkable in the book and used primarily as an expositional scene, becomes a major set piece filled with wild imagery, slapstick comedy and a talking shrunken head. Columbus' pedestrian cinematography has been replaced with gorgeous compositions and shots that would make Terrence Malick nod with approval. It's almost shocking when Cuaron makes use of a handheld camera considering how pinned down the first two films are.

'Prisoner of Azkaban' may play fast and loose with the Potter universe and it may be a little messy, but it's focused and it's fast, making sure it's a good movie before it's anything else. No, not good. This is a great movie; a continuously surprising adventure filled with all sorts of monsters and all kinds of action and a fascinating core conflict. The true nature of Sirius Black acts as the series' first step into morally gray territory, feeding the central theme of the film: growing up is hard, messy and difficult but you have do it and you have to make the right choices, no matter how much it hurts. Cuaron's carefree style perfectly reflects this, dwelling on the characters' disappointments and failures. When you really think about it, the good guys don't win at the end of 'Prisoner of Azkaban.' They only survive. Such is life.

It's probably a good thing that Cuaron never returned to the series. Who knows how his creative tampering would have royally screwed over the increasingly vital continuity of the series? However, his work here is vital to the series, dislodging Harry Potter from a narrow, dull place and shaking things up, transforming the Potter movie universe into something appropriately cinematic.

Continue to Part 2