Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Big things tend to start in interesting ways. Most know the story of Rowling's "waitress and welfare" period as a single mother laboring to bring the first book into existence, but even after becoming a best-seller, a film version might never have happened. Producer David Heyman didn't give Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone a second glance when it came across his desk. It was only after a secretary brought it to his attention with a positive review that it became a film priority for film adaptation.

Lucky for him.

Here is the second part (Part 1 being found here) of the retrospective on the HARRY POTTER franchise. The next two films marked some transition for the series, with changes in directors, release dates, and even major actors, but it made for some extremely interesting film-making.


Once he was hired on, the initial plan was for Chris Columbus to direct the entire series, but he decided not to come back after CHAMBER OF SECRETS, citing burn-out. The chair was offered to Alfonso Cuaron (Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN), who was initially reticent until he read the books and immediately connected to the story. Under Columbus the films had a warm, bright color palette (he cited influences like THE GODFATHER and OLIVER!), but things got a bit colder and darker under Cuaron.

Also, the guy practically makes love to the eyes with his camera.

Cuaron is a visual showman. Anyone who's seen PRISONER (or films like CHILDREN OF MEN or even the trailers for his upcoming GRAVITY) can attest to this, but while the long takes and swooping shots - aided here by a plentiful budget and visual effects - call attention to themselves, they don't come off as obnoxious or self-indulgent. Rowling's prose has a very knowing, clever bent (something that even the best films of the series have trouble adapting) and the director's style here is an inventive way of conveying her playful text in a visual manner. The film swoops around a newly-expanded Hogwarts (additions like the wooden bridge became central to big moments in later films) through mirrors, inside of clock towers, and among the branches of sentient trees. Not only does it give Harry's world a more vibrant sense of life, but the way Cuaron directs helps to alleviate the biggest issue of the two previous films - the pacing.

Cuaron positively revels in the chances to convey visual information here, and does it in an all-encompassing way. For example, where Columbus had a very clunky approach to shooting, well, EVERYTHING with a tedious step-by-step process of shooting action, new shot, reaction, new action, new shot, Cuaron will layer his shots with information all over the place. Characters are doing something in the background, or across the screen from one another, or a scene will take place over a single take and therefore retain all its emotional momentum (and take less time) from beginning to end.

This is, of course, an ideal approach to shooting a film (and also extremely complex and difficult to pull off), and it's not like we never see it done well, but this sort of invigorating directing is a total shock to the system after the very competent but very bland movies that came before it. And the effect is amplified by the actors.

Firstly, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is where the series underwent its only major casting change, which is something of a miracle considering the time involved and the size of the cast. However, this was an unfortunate necessity when Richard Harris, legendary Irish actor behind the beard of Albus Dumbledore, passed away in October of 2002. It was a major win when Harris (who apparently took the role on the insistence of his granddaughter) was cast, because this was still in the early days of Hollywood taking sci-fi and fantasy "seriously," so getting two stage and screen legends like Harris and Sir Ian McKellen to strap on fake beards and dress up in funny robes for two separate franchises was a BIG win for the genre. However, the wheel never stops turning, and WB found themselves in the unenviable position of having to recast their mentor figure for the third film.

They turned to Michael Gambon, another Irishman who didn't have the same level of recognition as Harris (who had been in major American productions for decades, from CAMELOT to GLADIATOR), but was nonetheless a very respected thespian and, notably, ten years younger than his predecessor.

Dumbledore exists mainly around the edges of PRISONER, and this recasting is almost certainly why. He's given some fantastic moments, showing his gentle and enigmatic nature equally, as well as his occasional playful wit, but he doesn't get as much screen time overall, especially the customary "Dumbledore sits down with Harry and explains everything" coda that had already become a staple in the films (and books), but he makes enough of a mark on the character to prove a worthy replacement (and to make the character's handling in the following film rather disappointing).

Partly because of this, and because of the demands of the story, ever more weight is placed upon Radcliffe to carry the film. Fair warning, this will be a running theme with this retrospective, but that's because it's unavoidable that the movies would come to rely more and more on Radcliffe's burgeoning talents. And here he makes the transition from "good, especially for a kid" to "legitimately has some chops." Grint doesn't play the "Ron makes funny faces while scared" schtick as much as he did in CHAMBER, but it's still his main bit, though Watson gets more of a chance to cut loose as Hermione doing something except saying "I told you so." Some returning cast get a bit more to do as well, namely Coltrane as a newly-appointed Professor Hagrid, and Rickman digging deeper into Snape's complicated motivations.

But boy howdy do the new characters help this as well. Oldman gets to play both against type and in his wheelhouse as the titular prisoner Sirius Black, David Thewlis is a brilliant counterpoint to Oldman's outward mania (while hiding a side that's much more dangerous), and smaller parts like Emma Thompson's Trelawny and Timothy Spall's Pettigrew are highly memorable.

In fact, the Marauders we meet in PRISONER are so richly-drawn that's it's a damn shame that they're not given their full due. It's impressive that the film is so streamlined and focused, and this largely works to its benefit. However, certain elements like WHO the Marauders were, what the names mean, and the significance behind Patronus forms could have been dished out in a minute or less, and done an immesurable amount of good toward anchoring important emotional beats and narrative information later on in the series. If there's one serious flaw in Cuaron's approach, it's that in trimming the fat he went a bit too far.

Still, PRISONER OF AZKABAN remains one of the definite high points of the series. Oddly enough, it's the low-point of the franchise financially. Part of this is no doubt because the summer of 2004 was A) not the usual holiday release window that audiences had come to expect from the franchise and B) very VERY crowded with blockbusters like SHREK 2 and SPIDER-MAN 2. But from here on out, the franchise kept a 1 and 1/2 year minimum between film releases, alternating between November and July dates.

And in November of 2005, everything in Harry's world changed.


Now we come to one of the oddest and most erratic entries in GOBLET OF FIRE. Like Columbus, Cuaron was offered the chance to return to direct the fourth Potter film, but like Columbus he chose not to. Instead, one of the original front-runners for the debut film of the series, Mike Newell, was selected to helm Harry's tumultuous fourth year at Hogwarts.

Through all these changes in director and cast, Steve Kloves remained the screenwriter for all four Potter films to this point. However, with GOBLET his job went from adapting a 300-400 page book into a 2+ hour movie to adapting a 700+ page book, not at all an enviable task. And this is the primary point where the fourth movie falters.

GOBLET OF FIRE is a pacing nightmare. While it took too long for anything to happen in Columbus' films, everything seems a short step away from flying off the handle and becoming totally muddled under Newell. This stems from the fact that there's just SO MUCH stuff in the book, a lot of it good or great, and a lot of it very necessary (though some less so), and the film just doesn't know what to focus on and what to skim over. Transitions are awkward most of the time, and certain sections (like the Yule Ball) are drawn out to the point of being ridiculous when major points are barely given a mention (Prioiri Incantantem). Other times characters are given too much time and too little payoff (Rita Skeeter) or left dangling (Crouch Jr. and Karkaroff). Luckily, there's a lot of good going on here, even if it's rocky. The teenage drama mostly comes off as heartfelt and genuine, and the schism between Ron and Harry is one of the more compelling mini-arcs (with the most satisfying resolution) in the first four films. And Newell's handling of the action is impressive, as well as one of the crucial moments of the film's finale.

His handling of the actors, unfortunately, is not as consistent. Emma Watson doesn't seem to have any of the subtlety she possessed in PRISONER and seems to be breathlessly overplaying a lot of her material (particularly the trying-too-hard upbeat ending), but Gambon is the real tragedy here. After the subdued and playful Dumbledore of the previous film, the shouting, abrasive, and near-panicked moments in GOBLET feel grating and out-of-character, even if you're not aware how much of a betrayal they are from the Dumbledore on the page.

They're not all misses though. Robert Pattinson makes an easy target these days, but his work as Hogwarts Champion Cedric Diggory immediately crafted a perfectly likable character with very little time to get the job done (there really are a TON of plots, counter-plots, and sub-plots going in this film). Other standbys like Rickman (of course), Smith, and Isaacs are still in good form, and new arrival Brendan Gleeson as Mad-eye Moody is reliably impressive, if underused. The other main cast addition made for GOBLET comes up aces. In fact, everything related to the inescapable return of He Who Must Not Be Named is a huge win for the film and the series as a whole. Voldemort had been such a constant ominous presence up to this point that making his return something worthy of all the build-up was always going to be difficult. Luckily Ralph Fiennes and Newell are up to the challenge, crafting a Dark Lord who's just underplayed enough to make his bursts of manic evil deliciously overwhelming.

And then the film throws an emotional gut punch in the form of a major character death, but one that actually comes off as far more affecting in the movie than it was on the page. Thanks largely to Radcliffe, who plays the grief and terror with a towering and raw passion that belies his age. Seriously, this guy can ACT.

GOBLET OF FIRE doesn't reach the same level of greatness as PRISONER OF AZKABAN, but while it may be the most uneven overall entry of the series, its high points make it a far more compelling experience than Columbus' two entries, and as a purely self-contained experience it might be the most audience-friendly adventure film about the Boy Who Lived.

There are two "phases" of the HARRY POTTER franchise (the "multi-director phase" and the "David Yates phase"), neatly coinciding with the films leading up to/including the return of Lord Voldemort, and then the films following his baptism by blood toward eventual all-out war in the wizarding world. This concludes the first phase, and with Part 3 of the retrospective, we'll cover how Harry's world reacted to this new threat, and how his films benefited from their new director.

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