In hindsight, the way WB handled the directorship of what became their most lucrative investment (and THE ongoing movie event of the previous decade) was a bit risky, especially after Columbus decided not to stay on for the whole enterprise. What followed was a series of the sort of interesting - even bold - choices that most studios don't go anywhere near when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line. The studio displayed massive confidence in their brand, taking the chance on directors who'd never crafted a tentpole in the hopes of shading the HARRY POTTER films with something unique. The idea of several visions for a single series doesn't usually sound like the best approach, but in a franchise dealing with growing children and a new year of school every entry, it's actually a rather ingenious method.
What's more, each director took it upon themselves to act as an early guide for their successor, from Columbus to Cuaron to Newell - all would show rough cuts of their movies to the "next man" or help walk them through their own approach to the franchise. This close cooperation (along with consistent Art Direction courtesy of Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan) is undoubtedly one of the elements that keeps the franchise feeling like one continuous story in a single world, rather than several disconnected films.
We saw how this helped create a sense of cohesion between the first four films in Part 1 and Part 2 of the retrospective. But something was still missing, and with the fourth director the series finally found it.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
David Yates made his feature directorial debut with this movie. That's just. . . unfair.
Of course he'd worked with the medium before, doing a good bit of television and TV movie work, but ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is one of the more impressive freshman efforts in the business in years. And it had more than its fair share of challenges along the way. For one, franchise veteran Steve Kloves had other commitments and wasn't able to pen the screenplay for the fifth film, so one of the original contenders to script the first film (Michael Goldenberg) stepped in. For another, the reception of Rowling's fifth novel didn't have quite the same universal acclaim as her previous books (notably 3 and 4, the ones that came after the series had become a worldwide phenomenon), notably being viewed as a slightly problematic and even bloated book.
So of course Goldenberg and Yates went and turned it into the the quickest, most lean and slickly-paced film of the franchise to date.
At its heart, ORDER is a rollicking adventure story of rebellious youth. The film's poster really does capture the mission statement of the film, as Harry and company, disillusioned with the Ministry of Magic's craven denial of Voldemort's return, begin to take matters into their own hands. Putting the might of its bureaucracy into a smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore while at the same time interfering at Hogwarts itself, the Ministry is actually the primary antagonist of the film, and is gloriously personified by Imelda Stanton's virtuoso turn as Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge.
Incidentally, you've got to LOVE Rowling's knack for naming.
The focus on the "rebellion" and the secret training of Dumbledore's Army is both the perfect metaphor for a tumultuous teenager and a brilliant bit of foreshadowing for the events that are to come, making independence from the Ministry not just a necessity for survival, but the ultimate key to victory over Voldemort. And the film-makers hone in on this with a vengeance, crafting the struggle between Harry's friends and Umbridge's toadies into some of the most fun of the series. The movie uses this device to revel in an extended training montage (giving particular focus to Neville, which turned out to be a brilliant idea), and adding lubricant to the already impressive pacing of the film.
This is also aided by the way Yates uses the Daily Prophet (and the rule of moving photographs in Harry's world) to literally dive into newspapers in order to convey information to the audience. This device is, quite frankly, brilliant. It's economic, fits perfectly within the established rules of the world, allows for a maximum of "show, don't tell," and results in some of the most impressive camera work and composition in the entire series. The viewer never feels lost, but the film never has to stop to help them keep up.
But for all its single-minded focus it doesn't forget to pay a lot of dues along the way. Sirius Black plays a very key role in this movie, and after only a single scene in the previous one there was a lot of work to be done to make his involvement in ORDER have the necessary impact. But the movie takes plenty of time to dig into his and Harry's relationship, showing yet another tantalizing father figure for the boy who never truly had one. In the same vein, Dumbledore is more reserved, even removed, from the events of this movie, and that's by design both by the character and the film-maker. His calm imploring to Minister Fudge and his tender caretaking of his professors make up a lot of ground lost by the tone-deaf way he comes across in GOBLET OF FIRE, and makes the audience miss his involvement as much as Harry does.
And then he comes blazing back to the forefront during the third act for the single most impressive wizard duel in cinematic history.
Oddly enough, for a franchise so steeped in magic and the fantastical, the "feel" of the wizardry in Harry's movie world had thus far felt very mechanical. Wands waved and things happened, but the film's had been trading far too heavily on Radcliffe's wide-eyed wonder to make these feats come across as truly extraordinary, rather than just the accomplishment of few well-placed special effects. Under Yates, that finally changed. From the first time Harry conjures a Patronus to the showdown with the Order in the midst of a pitched magical battle, the magic FEELS like magic.
Something about the style Yates uses, where he practically revels in the dark corners of Harry's world specifically to call attention to the light, is part of what makes this "pop," and even proves crucial to balancing the overall tone of the film. Rowling's story had to this point been using Harry's world as subtext for a number of issues, largely related to the virulent racism of the obsession with "pureblood" wizards by characters like Voldemort (a telling bit of self-hatred considering the character's own mixed-blood background) and his underlings like the Malfoy family. But with ORDER Yates dove into these ideas and made them arguably even more front-and-center than they were in the (still very obvious) book. But as willing as he is to show us the monsters in the mirror, Yates' film takes equal joy in the moments of triumph - large and small - of its heroes. Whether it's Neville getting to prove himself, Harry finally landing a kiss from his crush, Fred and George making their spectacular exit from Hogwarts, crucial revelations about Voldemort, or the satisfying fate or Umbridge, the movie gives every victory its due.
And Umbridge's ultimate fate is so satisfying because of how gleefully odious Stanton becomes as the character. Most other newcomers to the series strove to slip into the ranks as new professors or allies or long-in-coming enemies and felt right at home. Umbridge takes the polar opposite approach, all but carpet bombing the carefully established order of the school with an at-first casual disdain for Hogwarts and its students that morphs into something utterly horrendous once the film exposes the true depths her character will stoop to. Helena Bonham Carter, another newcomer, strives for no such subtlety as Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius' psychotic cousin. Instead Carter goes full-bore crazy, gorging on the scenery at every opportunity. This change from the usual sinister attitude from the likes of Malfoy and Snape makes the danger to the leads feel that much more immediate.
The leads are, of course, up to the challenge. At this point in the franchise the chemistry between Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson works like a well-oiled machine. It's the easiest thing in the world to believe these teenagers are fast friends, and under Yates they all really manage to excel as actors. Watson especially hits her stride after a bumpy time in GOBLET OF FIRE, bringing a much more natural approach to Hermione, and grounding her default bossiness in a genuine air of command (her scene with Grawp is inspired).
Another returning player who deserves special mention is Rickman, who continues to excel as Snape, and ORDER is where he begins to shift from an antagonist to a tragic hero. It's almost a shame there isn't a bit more for him to do in the film, but Rickman makes every scene he's in stick with you.
If there's one issue with the film, it's that there's a moment in the finale that doesn't quite get the full attention it deserves. Part of this is a problem with how the same event happened in Rowling's book, and part of it has to do with the constraints of wrapping up a 2+ hour movie, but it still can't help feeling that a character gets shortchanged.
Still, there's very little to complain about in the grand scheme of things. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX was a dazzling success, and proved Yates as the right man for the job. And when he chose to return for the next film, it only helped further vindicate WB's faith in him.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
This is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the series. Not in that it's "the dark one" (a mistake that people often make when comparing something the best movie of the STAR WARS saga, as EMPIRE is still chock-full of fun and rousing adventure), but because it digs into the characters more to make them feel human instead of just cyphers or scenery or obstacles to be overcome. It upsets the status quo so that nothing will truly ever by the same again. It reveals secrets that shake the foundations of the characters' world views, and hints at even greater revelations to come.
It's also just that good.
WB seemed to know they'd struck gold when they found David Yates to direct ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, and soon after its release offered him the job of finishing out the series. Luckily, he accepted. For the sixth film, regular series screenwriter Steve Kloves returned as well, and faced the challenge of adapting arguably the most complex book of the series. Full of multiple on-going plot threads and character arcs, a wealth of flashbacks that explore the history of the newly-returned Voldemort (who only exists as an off-screen menace in this film, but still commands a huge chunk of the story), and all the trials and tribulations of another year at school (including sports tryouts, clubs, dating, advanced classes, and renewed school rivalries), there's a ridiculous amount of story to cover.
Yates approaches this film differently. Where ORDER was almost obsessively streamlined and paced like a rollicking school adventure, PRINCE is meditative, almost lyrical in the way it weaves through Harry's sixth year. The movie reaches something approaching a dream-like state that compliments the use of flashbacks to Tom Riddle's school years, underlining the similarities between Tom and Harry's circumstances but also stressing their differences in their choices (particularly when dealing with a certain Potions professor). It's an approach that could easily have come off as disjointed and unfocused as GOBLET OF FIRE, but Yates and Kloves show a real command of finding the heart of a scene or character and linking them to the next segment of the story.
One such character they manage to nail is Draco Malfoy. A franchise regular who starts as Harry's rival and then is relegated to being little more than a troublesome bully, Malfoy gets some real meat in this film. Tom Felton had consistently excelled at the snivelling and self-important aspects of the character, but shows some naked humanity for the first time in PRINCE, and manages the near-impossible task of making the audience feel sorry for the cretin. His struggles to fulfill a mission given to him by Voldemort actually provide some incredible pathos, while as his shunning of Snape is a great counterpoint to Harry's cooperation with Dumbledore (who, incidentally, is perfect in this film - PERFECT).
In many ways, PRINCE is very much a compare and contrast character study. Harry struggles to live up to Dumbledore's expectations of him just as hard as Malfoy struggles to complete his own task without Snape's help. When Tom Riddle went asking questions of Horace Slughorn (seriously, how great is Rowling at names?), he used flattery and lies to get what he wanted, but Harry is only able to get Slughorn's help by being brutally, almost cruelly honest and direct.
Speaking of which, "Harry on Felix" is a damn revelation. Radcliffe had to this point shown himself more than adept at conveying the serious stoicism required of "the hero" for several movies in a row after mastering the joyous glee of a child discovering a world of magic early on. He'd shown his humorous side with a dry wit and deadpan understatement that always came off as natural and endearing. But when under the effects of Felix Felicis, he's allowed to stretch in some ingenious new ways, going for shades of almost Jack Sparrow level flamboyance for a few laughs, but then bringing it back down to earth for one of the most heartfelt moments of the franchise. It's a moment where Radcliffe doesn't just hold his own in a scene with veteran actors decades his senior, he COMMANDS the scene.
Not that Jim Broadbent is anything less than great as Slughorn (because he's Jim Broadbent and he's delightful) particularly in that sequence, and his casting was inspired (because of course it was), because it's easy to relate to the man even when he's made some terrible mistakes. And just as the film allows the audience to get closer to him, so too the movie explores deeper into other characters. The long-in-coming romantic tension between Ron and Hermione reaches a literal breaking point. The audience sees what lengths Snape will go to keep a promise. Harry discovers new feelings for Ginny who has very much grown into his equal, and also finds out just how far he'll go to stay top student in a class or settle a score with Malfoy when he discovers the darker nature of the book belonging to the mysterious "Half-Blood Prince."
But most importantly he learns the final task appointed to him by Dumbledore, and the secret behind Voldemort's apparent immortality. The final sequences of the film are an absolute emotional assault on the audience, and culminates in a moment that is as tragic as it is inevitable. There are a couple musical cues here (ORDER and PRINCE don't feel the absence of John Williams as a composer the way GOBLET regrettably did) that inspire some serious feelings all on their own, but Yates knows how to bring everything together to really work over an audience.
Like ORDER, this largely happens because he is equally careful to show the joy as well as the jeopardy that he professed wanting to bring to Harry's world, and succeeds in truly realizing the playful side of the source material. PRINCE is the film that finally manages to bring a full measure of Rowling's written wit and humor to the adaptation (a feat Cuaron had come closest to accomplishing before), while also giving even more dramatic weight to many of the events from the book itself.
ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE are probably the two best overall films of the franchise, at least by most objective measures. They both walk a fine line between adhering to their source material while also crafting an immensely engaging emotional experience and exploiting the visual medium of film to its full extent. But they're not the end of the story.
However, unlike WB, I won't be splitting THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two parts. When the retrospective reaches Part 4. . . well, it all ends.