Sunday, September 22, 2013


This summer marked the second anniversary since the release of the final Harry Potter movie and the sixth anniversary since the release of the final Harry Potter novel. For a decade this film franchise was the bread and butter of Warner Bros. pictures and a staple of both the holiday and summer movie season. So ingrained has it become in our popular culture that it's easy to forget it began as a fairly risky and completely unprecedented project in terms of scope and ambition - a ridiculously long-term adaptation of an as-yet unfinished book series, keeping the same cast of actors, including children cast when still in primary school.

That's. . . crazy. Even in an industry that was knee-deep in shooting 3 high-budget epic fantasy films at once under the direction of a schlock horror filmmaker from New Zealand, this project was a bold gamble. Especially the decision not to "age-up" the three main leads, an impulse most children's book adaptations give into immediately (looking at you PERCY JACKSON). To say nothing of the fact that there was every possibility the book craze could have turned out to be a short-lived fad, or Rowling could have "pulled a Jordan" or any other number of complications could have arisen.

But the gamble paid off. Warner Bros. invested over one billion dollars into the Boy Who Lived and in return got the (to date) highest-grossing film-franchise of all time. And a film series that arguably only improves as it goes on.

So after marathoning the films, I thought I'd revisit them all in a 4-part retrospective.


Yes, I know the poster has the lame-ass Americanized title (I'm one of "those people"), but I like the art better than the international version (the great age of quality illustrated movie posters being sadly over).

In any case, this was an interesting project to watch develop. The production was ramping up in 1999 and 2000, just as the nerd sport of internet movie news watching had really taken off, so along with the STAR WARS prequels and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the HARRY POTTER series was one of the first geek franchises to get this sort of constant online exposure. Reports had Steven Spielberg in an early lead as director (he wanted an animated adaptation with Haley Joel Osmet playing Harry), but he bowed out early. The job eventually went to Chris Columbus (HOME ALONE and MRS. DOUBTFIRE being cited as reasons for choosing him for a family film), and initially the plan was to have him direct the entire series.

Frankly, it's a good thing he didn't. PHILOSOPHER'S STONE is a perfectly adequate adaptation, but it's bland and mechanical, and downright plodding in places, suffering from the pacing problems both of a script that is obsessed with adapting as much text as possible in the most awkward "tell, don't show" way possible, and the problem of a director who's approach can be described as "textbook" at best. The film's action scenes lack propulsion and the character scenes seem to plod by without tension.

That said, the film benefits from two principal things: the casting, and the production design. The latter is put to smart use by Columbus - whatever else can be said for him, he has a knack for conveying a sense of wonder and delight, which is of principal importance in the first POTTER film. But the cast, particularly Harry himself, is the real win here. Producer David Heyman and screenwriter Steve Kloves were responsible for discovering Daniel Radcliffe (in a theater seated behind them, no less), and Rowling herself thought he was ideal for the part. Initially unknowns, Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) were cast from thousands to play Harry's best friends, and WB lucked out ridiculously with these three in particular.

The rest of the cast is filled out with a "who's who" of respected stage and screen actors from Britain and the UK (a stipulation in Rowling's contract when she sold the book rights). And while they're all great, the real winner among the adult cast is Alan Rickman, a man who has playing vile down to a science, but who specializes in giving real, tragic humanity to parts that could easily be one-dimensional characters. However, only a glimmer of Severus Snape's eventual brilliance (and surprising pathos) comes into this film, which is a necessary side effect of his role as the story's primary red herring.

Which leads to my biggest sticking point with PHILOSOPHER'S STONE. Looking back, arguably the film's greatest fault lies in how it handles its finale. The book suffers from a somewhat weak final confrontation as well, but the way the movie handles it creates a problem for the film series and Harry as a character.

Because Harry chooses to kill.

After seeing the effect of his touch on Quirrell's hand, he intentionally grabs the corrupted professor's face, causing him to crumble into dust. As an eleven-year-old boy, Harry KILLS SOMEONE. Not only is this a problem because so much of the books are about Harry refusing to ever kill (even his worst enemies), but it also feels tremendously awkward that it's never brought up again, when it should have been a hugely important moment in his life.

It's hard to argue with results though. Harry Potter's film debut shattered the opening weekend record at the box office and ended up grossing nearly $1 billion worldwide all on its own. And to be honest, while it's vanilla and somewhat problematic, it's a solid entry into the world. And more importantly, a fantastic starting point for the players in the film.


CHAMBER OF SECRETS started out with a bit of a handicap. Shooting began (under Columbus again) only a week after the release of the first film, giving the production about fifty-one weeks for shooting and post-production. For those not in the know, that's INSANE for big-budget movies (turnaround is usually twice that long). So what Columbus managed to accomplish here is actually fairly impressive. Even if it's still not a very good movie in its own right.

Other than scheduling, the biggest issue with Harry's second year at Hogwarts is that much of it plays out like a retread of the previous film/book. There's a lot of important information here for later in the series (particularly the payoff seen in Book/Movie 6), but as its own movie its ace in the hole is the gothic mystery trappings. Columbus makes a game attempt at dressing the movie in these, even though it's not remotely in his wheelhouse. The end result is a lot of push-ins and dutch angles that don't necessarily mesh well with his usual style.

He steps up his game in the action department though, resulting in set pieces (especially the Quidditch math) that are much-improved from the first film. But again, the best part of the film is more related to how he directs his increasingly-impressive cast. Kenneth Branagh swoops in to steal several scenes as the self-satisfied Guilderoy Lockhart, and the rest of the cast of UK legends play around him beautifully (even if Richard Harris is very much showing his age here as Dumbledore), and the addition of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy makes for some genuinely great material here and later on in the franchise.

What's impressive is how the child actors manage to distinguish themselves amid such talent. Both Grint and Watson make strides toward more natural (if not necessarily more nuanced) acting here, but Radcliffe makes something of a leap forward. The story requires much more from Harry than awe and wonderment, and Radcliffe is up to the challenge, not only in terms of the physicality demanded of him, but also the added emotional weight. He even shows an impressive mastery of deadpan understatement that works wonders to bridge the gap between terror and comedy during the film's latter half, and an early indication of the range that every other director on the franchise would come to rely on.

It's really unfortunate that so much of CHAMBER comes off like wheel-spinning, because there are some impressive moments here, even if they never completely come together for their full potential.

For Part 2, we'll look at two films that marked big changes for the course of the series as well as the characters, and some experimentation with directors that met with mixed results.

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