Harry Potter series (2001-2011)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Fantasy/Adventure | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: If you’re an evangelical Christian, you may want to stay away from the violence, scares, and alleged godlessness of witches and wizards.

Like it or not, when we look back at the literature that defined this generation, J.K. Rowling’s seven-tome series will be at the top of the list, plain and simple. Perhaps only once before, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, has a series of fantasy novels enraptured the minds of children and adults alike – and bestseller lists reflect just that. And to think, Rowling’s publisher asked her to use initials for her by-line, fearing that males would be biased against a female-penned book. The now-famous Brit that started writing to pay her bills is the first author to be a billionaire, making $32 million in 2007 alone. Take that, A-Rod.

Her books have introduced us to wonderful characters and an even more wondrous world, somehow existing within our own, of witch and wizard students learning how to master their craft and keep “you-know-who” from taking over the world. Yet, perhaps most of all, the students learn life lessons while trying to survive puberty. Though the filmic translations of Rowling’s stories capture these elements wonderfully – the most paramount of which is the cinematic space itself, which when presented well makes us happily return to it again and again in sequels – they failed to produce a truly “great” film (Prisoner of Azkaban is the closest). So, like a sheep, I went to the theater when the each subsequent installment opened, looking forward to another year at Hogwarts, only to be disappointed with the result.  Every. Damn. Year.

The first, Sorcerer’s Stone (or Potter2Philosopher’s Stone in Britain), has professors Dumbledore (Richard Harris), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) rescue the neglected 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and invite him to Hogwarts School Witchcraft of Wizardry. It seems several officials know Harry’s story of being orphaned by a dark, unmentionable wizard. That is, everyone but himself. He befriends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and we enjoy the castle’s ghostly denizens, living paintings, and unique broomstick sport Quidditch. The Chris Columbus-directed film includes an expert British cast, most of whom return for the sequels, including John Cleese, Warwick Davis, Alan Rickman, and John Hurt.

The second film, Chamber of Secrets, has an elf warning Harry not to return to Hogwarts for the next school year. He does anyway, and finds something is turning students to stone and seeks help from a debonair new teacher (Kenneth Branagh). The fourth, Goblet of Fire, sees an underage Harry competing in the deadly Triwizard Tournament – and kind of unfolds as a sports movie – and starts to introduce sexual dynamics. We finally meet Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), another new professor (Brendan Gleeson), and a new director (Mike Newell). The fifth installment, Order of the Phoenix, has a lot more of Voldemort and some dark followers (Helena Bonham Carter is one). This one gets a bit political, with Imelda Staunton taking over Hogwarts like Big Brother, and Harry organizing a union of sorts. David Yates directed and signed on for the final three as well. Number six, The Half-Blood Prince, was far and away the worst of them all with the first two hours encapsulating how many hormones these kids have and the last 30 minutes containing all the action. Number seven (The Deathly Hollows Part 1) – or, more accurately, number 7.5 – encapsulates roughly half of the last book. At this point, reading the books is close to a necessity, as characters show up without much introduction and others we’re supposed to feel a close connection to start dying off. It’s a difficult two-and-a-half-hour film that doesn’t stand on its own and could have had the title Harry Potter and Hermione Go Camping. The final film kills off more people, gives the inevitable final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, and is the most watchable installment since Order of the Phoenix. It has good pacing, brutal violence, only a little sappiness, and thankfully has none of the side plots that confused the passive viewers in previous movies.

The best in the series was the third, Prisoner of Azkaban, with Mexican visionary Alfonso Cúaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and A Little Princess) at the helm. We sense, from the very beginning, that this is a new, more mature Harry as he grasps reading material and plays with his wand under the bed sheets. Ahem. Later on Harry comically blows up his uncle’s snotty sister, and we sense we’re no longer dealing with a child, but a badass mother shut-your-mouth. Cúaron handles this much-needed transition wonderfully (after all, they’re getting older and three-headed dogs now seem like child’s play) by reducing the color palette to blue, gray, and black, as well as constantly keeping characters in shadow and cold weather (storms, snow, and rain).

Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an alleged murderer and Voldemort-follower, escapes from Azkaban prison (the first to do so) and is rumored to be after Harry. There are new teachers once again (David Thewlis and Emma Thompson), one of whom is a promoted (the still loveable Hagrid); and there’s a few new minor characters (Timothy Spall and Julie Christie), with Michael Gambon replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore. There are loads of other students we grow to love/hate such as Neville, twins George and Fred, and the insufferable Malfoy. There’s tons of stuff to experience in this installment, but nothing rushed. Cúaron made a wonderful decision to shoot the film entirely in wide-angle lenses, which allows for a clear picture in the background and foreground equally (I especially adored a transition shot where a wraith floating over colorful flowers wilts them as it passes). For true Potter fans, who will pick up on little details, this is an extra treat. Plus, like Murnau, he makes excellent use of a constantly moving camera, giving fans even more to look at. In the trickiest sequences in the series, Cúaron pulls off the impossible task of creating a climax so engaging that we gladly experience it twice.

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Little tikes, who haven’t read the material, might have to be weary of the movies, which grow darker with each progressing installment. But if you experience it just right, one movie per passing year, kids grow as Harry grows and can enjoy it even more. At the beginning, Harry contends with ghosts, spiders, snakes, and a willow tree, but eventually moves on to dragons, mermaids, Death Eaters, Dementors, and werewolves. Despite never taking home an Oscar, the series is known for top-of-the-heap effects for the aforementioned monsters as well as toys like a flying car, marauder’s map, and invisibility cloak.

The series is not all about visuals, though, as each installment contains life lessons. Parents will recognize the characterization of Malfoy, for instance, as representing the demeaning upper class, while Ron (and others) embodies the working class. There’s a racial message as well, as Malfoy clearly mirrors Hitler’s Aryan ideal (blonde hair, blue eyes, white), and Hermione represents the “mudbloods.” In terms of gender, Potter includes a decently strong female figure (she’s smart, but also fits the “nagging female” stereotype) in Hermione. In fact, Watson submits that she partially agreed to sign on for the character because she’s a wonderful model for young girls to look up to. Despite the flack from evangelical groups, who consider Potter’s dealings with the occult and witchcraft on par with praising the devil, Rowling stays comfortably away from religion other than some thematic similarities. They may not be the best movies, but the world that Rowling has created is one that I’ve found myself yearning to revisit again and again.

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