The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: The Columbus Years

Harry Potter 1-Harry Potter 2

It would be an understatement to say that the Harry Potter franchise was one of the most profitable enterprises in the history of capitalism.  Even if you ignore the films, the books alone have been successful enough to make author J.K. Rowlings a billionaire.  In fact, the series as a whole has sold upwards of 450 million copies and when they were at their peak during the early 2000s they were almost inescapable.  They were so popular among kids that multiple think-pieces were written about their potential to usher in a new era of increased literacy.  They were the touchstone of a generation… and I didn’t read a single one of them.

It would be fair to say that my disinterest in the Harry Potter books was rooted in pretty much the same sentiment that kept me away from Pixar movies: I thought I’d outgrown that shit.  I was ten years old when the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, but the series didn’t really catch on until 1999, when I was twelve.  For most kids that might have still been in the target age range, but not for me.  Even when I was really young I was always restless about having to read “baby books,” and I was really excited to move on to more challenging fare.  That was partly because “young adult” fiction was not the semi-respectable thing that it is today, in fact most of it was straight-up crap.  I mostly look back on the monthly paperback series of the era like “Goodbumbs” and “The Animorphs” with a certain degree of disgust.  They were crass moneymaking schemes not too far removed from the Power Rangers and the fucking Pokemon: garbage that you couldn’t pay an adult to read but which kids lapped up because they didn’t know any better.  Beyond that the best you could do was get your hands on a Newberry Award winner or two like Hatchet or The Giver.

By the time I was twelve I was reading well enough to get into “mature literature” like Jurassic Park and Carrie and I wasn’t going to reduce myself to reading the “drival” that Scholastic was peddling to a new generation of susceptible kids.  As such, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published at pretty much the exact right time for me to miss it, and I can’t say that I really thought I was missing anything, and that attitude carried forth when it they began making them into movies.  For the next decade I’d see these big productions show up in theaters every other year or so and greet them with complete apathy.  Critics liked them, but didn’t love them; they weren’t “shoved down my throat” like the Pixar movies were and I’ve never been under the impression that I had to defend my disinterest in them the way I have with other family properties.

But by the end of the series’ run I began to see the movies in a new light.  The trailers started looking more exciting, the movies started earning PG-13 ratings, and all the talk of “the series growing up with its fans” started to make sense.  I might have jumped in at one point or another, but by the time I started to finally get interested the prospect of catching up was already kind of daunting, especially considering that almost everyone seemed to not have many nice things to say about the series’ first two installments: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (AKA Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  These first films were directed by a guy named Chris Columbus, the man behind some of the most soullessly mediocre family movies of the 80s and 90s.  He was most famous for directing the Home Alone movies, but he’s also responsible in some capacity for such middle-of-the-road comedies as Mrs. Doubtfire, Jingle All the Way, and Stepmom.  Not all of those movies are terrible or anything, but none of them really suggest that he’s the right choice to mount something that’s supposed to be this big.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Sometimes when I go a really long time without seeing a popular movie I’ll still end up hearing so much about it that when I finally do check out the film in question it will feel like I’ve already seen it by proxy.  There was some of that going on in my viewing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but the movie did throw me for something of a loop right up front.  I’d always assumed that these films were set in some kind of vague 19th century fantasy world, but low and behold, the first film opens up in the middle of a modern-looking London suburb.  I had no idea this took place in a world that resembled our own, but I can also see why the advertisers would de-emphasize these elements because they’re easily the film’s weakest moments.  In fact I might go so far as to say that the first half hour of the film is kind of terrible.  Harry’s aunt and uncle are completely over-the-top assholes and just about every scene from Harry being left on the doorstep to a strange and out of place meeting with a talking boa constrictor were just grating. (EDIT: after seeing Chamber of Secrets the snake scene makes more sense, but is still weird in the context of  the original film).

It’s only when Harry finally gets to Hogwarts that things begin to settle down a little and the film becomes watchable, but it’s certainly still flawed.  The whole film is really episodic and almost serves as this two and a half hour exposition dump to set up the rest of the series, and some of the things that are set up are not all that promising.  A lot of the basic tropes of wizarding (including the word “wizarding”) just come off as kind of lame things to build a series around.  Flying brooms, wands, and spells based around pig-latin just seem really aesthetically dopey and I’m not too excited to have to deal with seven more films that are built around that foundation.   There are other lame fantastical elements that would pop up here and there as well, in particular I think I’ll single out the talking “sorting hat,” which might be the stupidest thing I’ve seen in quite a while.

The film’s titular stone is a pretty unimportant macguffin in the grand scheme of things and the quest for it that concludes the film seems like a pretty small-scale and unimportant affair.  The focus is really on Hogwarts itself and the characters that Harry meets there.  A number of them conform to very typical middle school clichés, like Draco Malfoy, who is a pretty standard issue bully/rival.  I also find it kind of weird that Hogwarts has basically set aside a sort of fraternity for assholes like him and called it the “Slytherin” house.  As for the main trio, well, it’s kind of odd to see these actors as eleven year olds after having seen them in other films as adults.  Harry Potter himself is kind of an odd hero to set the film around, he’s kind of a bland Luke Skywalker type and his central placement in the series thus far seems to be more of a birthright than an earned position. Also the movie is awfully vague about who his parents are, why they’re so famous, and why they were killed; am I missing something?  If he’s Luke Skywalker, then Hermione is his Han Solo.  She’s significantly more capable than he is and has more of a personality as well, she’s easily the standout among the child cast and I can see why she has been tapped to be the actor with the most breakout potential.  Ron on the other hand… well, I’m just going to reserve judgment when it comes to that character because he seems like kind of bland doofus here.

From a production standpoint, the film does hold up pretty well.  Hogwarts is a pretty well designed combination of British boarding school and general fantasy stuff, and a lot of the makeup effects also look pretty good.  The film’s CGI shows some age, but for the most part it holds up.  Pretty much the only effect that really looks bad today is the mountain troll that attacks Hermione in a bathroom, and maybe a centaur that shows up during Harry’s exploration of the magical forest.  The mid-film quidditch match also holds up as a fairly effective mid-film action scene (sort of the film’s response to the pod-race scene from The Phantom Menace) even though quidditch itself seems like kind of a ridiculous sport.

All in all, I can’t say I was either impressed by the first Harry Potter film or disgusted by it.  If anything it kind of leaves me wondering why this series was such a big deal right from the get-go, because this kind of feels like a pretty average kid’s fantasy film.  It’s closer to what I would have expected from one of the many Harry Potter imitators like Percy Jackson & The Olympians that would pop up later than it does like a genuine original (EDIT: upon further research I’ve learned that Percy Jackson & The Olympians was actually directed by Chris Columbus, which explains a lot).  From what I’ve heard the series does get a whole lot better after this, but that things get worse before they gets better.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

 I didn’t think the first Harry Potter films was all that great, but the rest of the nation seemed to disagree.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was something of a phenomenon; it was the highest grossing movie of 2001 (though LOTR was hot on its heels) and for a short while it was the third highest grossing film of all time at the worldwide box office.  To date it remains the second highest grossing film of the entire series and is likely still the highest grossing if you adjust for inflation and for 3D up-charges.  Impressive as that is, this extreme success was somewhat fleeting.  Its follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was also quite successful but not on the massive scale of its predecessor.  In fact it stands as the second-lowest grossing film of the entire series.  That’s relative of course, but that plunge clearly indicates that someone let the air out of the room.

Indeed, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is by far the most disliked film of the series and holds the lowest metascore of all the films in the series.  One of the film’s bigger detractors was Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times who said the film was like “deja vu all over again.”  Indeed, these first two Harry Potter films have followed much the same pattern: arrive at the school, take some classes, play some quidditch, then go behind the staff’s back in order to uncover some dark secret hidden underground at Hogwarts culminating with a duel against some form of Voldemort.  The series is feeling less like a fantasy epic and more like “The Hardy Boys” with wizards.  But I’m not really going to give it too much of a hard time for that because, frankly, the film works way better when it’s unraveling the mystery of the titular “chamber of secrets” than it is when it’s doing anything else.

The basic premise of a secret chamber created by Salazar Slytherin to enact some kind of Wizard Final Solution is kind of intriguing and also acts as a good way to flesh out the wizard-world and its history.  I also liked the movie when it was acting as a who-done-it, although I do find it strange that Harry and company do so much investigating without consulting with Dumbledore and the other trusted adults.  The film’s last twenty minutes or so when Harry confronts “Tom Riddle” and the basilisk are also pretty good and allow the audience to leave on a pretty decent note.  At its core there is a passable Harry Potter movie to be found in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the problem is that Chris Columbus (or J.K. Rowlings) has surrounded this passable Harry Potter movie with a whole lot of stupidity that hampers the film as a whole.

Like the last film, this installment of the series starts off terribly.  I kind of assumed we’d be done with Harry’s retarded uncle and aunt after the last movie, but they’re back and dumber than ever.  The film’s slow start can’t entirely be pinned on those characters though because Harry and Ron’s slapstick filled journey to Hogwarts is just as bad.  I don’t know why Chris Columbus thinks his audience wants to see thirty minutes of bullshit before each of his stories finally kicks off, but this is the second time in a row it’s happened.  At least last time most of the stupidity ended once they finally arrived at the school, but that’s not necessarily the case this time.  This is the film that treats us to Dobby, the most annoying CGI creature this side of Jar-Jar Binks.  I don’t think I need to go into detail about how lame this third-person talking motherfucker is, it kind of speaks for itself.  There are other WTF side-characters too, like Moaning Myrtle, the ghost of the bathroom.  I thought the ghosts were a strange aspect of Hogwarts in the first film, but they were small enough that I didn’t point them out, but not this time.

Then there’s a dumb span of the film where Harry and Ron try to infiltrate the Slytherin camp (because two of Draco’s henchmen are dumb enough to eat whatever cupcakes happen to be levitating in front of them) and then prove to be incompetent at subterfuge.  Also, Hermione turn into a cat person for some reason, one of many cases where magic backfires on people for purposes of dumb comedy.  And speaking of Hermione, she’s kind of sidelined in this movie, which is disappointing because she’s a much more likable and interesting character than Ron’s bumbling ass.

Another thing that’s really starting to bug me about this series is that it’s kind of painfully obvious to the audience which characters should be trusted and which shouldn’t, yet the staff at Hogwarts seems largely oblivious.  I mean, this is an organization that actively employs a guy named Snape, who wears black all the time, heads an evil fraternity of assholes, and is played by Alan Rickman.  In this film they also employ a guy named Gilderoy Lockhart even though it’s comically obvious that he is both incompetent and corrupt.  Then there’s Draco Malfoy, who in this film goes from being merely a bully to being a spoiled little bigoted shit of Joffrey Baratheon proportions, and yet he’s not only allowed into the school but his feud with Harry seems to be actively egged on by his staff.  Good god is this series not subtle when it comes to its heroes and villains.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is not just stupid; at times it’s actively boring.  This is a film that doesn’t have to do nearly as much exposition as the last film, and I can only assume based on the number of pages in the books that it also has less story to tell than future installments, and yet this is actually the longest film in the entire series.  They easily could have molded this into a much tighter and more enjoyable experience, and I can only attribute their failure to do so to some kind of misguided fealty towards J.K. Rowling’s books.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets isn’t a terrible movie, but its negative aspects really stand out even when compared to the already less than great original film.  In fact I almost feel like I owe that original film an apology because when it made mistakes it at least didn’t make them as hard as its sequel does.

In Conclusion

I dismissed the Harry Potter movies back in the day because I thought they were “kid stuff,” and based on what I’ve seen so far I don’t think I was really missing out on much.  If I had given them a chance I think there’s a good chance that I would have given up on the franchise at this point because these two movies are average at best and rather lame at the worst.  Fortunately I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to work with and I know that the next film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is thought to be a major step forward which sets the series back on the right course.  I look forward to seeing that, but for now I am definitely not sold on this series.  Next Month I’ll dive into the world of claymation by looking at a pair of films from the Aardman Animation Studios: Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

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