The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
I’m always surprised whenever I overhear someone casually say something like “I’ve never seen one of those Lord of the Rings movies, are they any good” or something like “is ‘Star Trek’ the one with the laser swords or the one with those guys with pointy ears.” My first response to hearing things like this is “these people have to be lying, how could anyone be that oblivious to something that this ubiquitous in pop culture?” And yet I’ve come to realize that these statements really aren’t that far removed from my long time resistance to the Harry Potter franchise. I mean, this was a huge film franchise that was endlessly advertised and enjoyed by millions, and I completely skipped it. It’s made me think about how these people could dismiss all these beloved franchises as just a bunch of silly things for kids and a bunch of weirdoes who should have outgrown such childish pursuits.
And yes, I’m more than willing to admit that a big part of why I continued to stick my nose up at Harry Potter and never give it a second look is that I frankly didn’t need one more nerdy thing under my belt. It was bad enough that I’d seen ever episode of every Star Trek series, could recite the title of every James Bond film in chronological order, and knew more about the Academy Awards by the time I was twelve than most people should probably know in a lifetime. I was not going to get swept up into some series about a twelve year old wizard. It’s the same reason I’ve never touched a Dungeons and Dragons game and refuse to wear pocket protectors.
In many ways realizing this has helped me better understand why geeky cults can seem kind of weird and creepy when you’re on the outside looking in. Seeing grown men talk about “muggles” and shit always filled me with laughter and so did watching people line up the day each one of those books was due to be released at midnight. In retrospect it seems more than a little hypocritical to have had that attitude when I could speak on arcane aspects of Narn-Centauri diplomacy and was more than happy to rush out on day one to see all the Star Wars prequels. There are of course levels of geekery that I’m not going to defend regardless of franchise like the learning of the Klingon language and the actual playing of “quiddich,” but I’ve come to realize that I maybe shouldn’t go casting stones at other fan cultures, especially not out of some sort of attempt to pretend I was better than “those nerds.” Still, there is a difference between coming to respect other fans and agreeing with them, and given that my first forays into the world of Harry Potter didn’t work out too well I’m so far still pretty outside of that circle.
Of course I’m probably in good company in not much liking those first two movies and I’m kind of lucky that I knew what I was getting into. Just about everyone who’s written on the subject seems agree with me that the first two films were problematic at best and that things got a lot better with the third, and in some people’s minds the best, film in the series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Even the producers (possibly inspired by the box office dip between the first and second films) seemed to realize that they had made mistakes, and responded by giving Chris Columbus the boot. These next two films show evidence of clear soul searching within the series as they try out a pair of new and altogether more interesting directors who sought to explore what kind of content and tonality could fit within the existing framework of the series.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The first director they decided to try out was a real doozy: Alfonso Cuarón. Were it not for the fact that Alfonso Cuarón had directed this third installment, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be giving the series a shot today. His reputation wasn’t quite as set in stone when he was first hired, but he’s a world-class filmmaker and easily the most prestigious filmmaker to direct one of these films. More importantly, he’s pretty much the opposite of Chris Columbus. While Columbus had made a career out of making dedicated children’s movies (and comedies for adults who aren’t much more discerning than children), Cuarón had solid indie credentials and was just coming off the triumphant success of his sexually explicit 2001 film Y tu Mamá También. For Cuarón this job was most likely a spring board that would allow him to make larger productions like Children of Men and the long delayed Gravity, for the Harry Potter series it was a chance to start over and re-mold itself into something altogether more respectable.
Cuarón did indeed do a lot to improve this film, but one thing he wasn’t able to do was ditch the series’ love of stupid and over-long opening sequences. This one was a little shorter than the previous ones, but it may well have been twice as stupid. It starts with Harry puffing up a woman like a balloon, which is weird because we never see her changed back. Not since Willy Wonka’s reign of terror have we seen someone so casually murdered in a family movie. Then we get a rather bizarre scene involving a magical double-decker bus and a severed shrunken rasta’s head. What the Fuck? These opening scenes are just bizarre, they feel like they belong in a different series and it continues to confuse me why they keep getting made. Fortunately things rebound pretty quickly once Harry gets on the magical train and things get altogether darker. First we get a glimpse of the “Monster Book of Monsters,” a living book that tries to bite its readers. I can’t help but wonder if Cuarón got that design from his friend Guillermo del Toro. We’re also introduced to “Dementors,” which are these creepy grim reaper looking things.
This slightly darker tone continues throughout the film, though when I say “slightly darker” the emphasis is on the “slightly.” The series hasn’t suddenly become Se7en, and for that matter it hasn’t suddenly become The Dark Knight, but things have changed a little since the last film. For that matter, Harry Potter himself has also changed. Daniel Radcliffe is getting noticeably older in this film and Harry is beginning to get into something of an angsty teenage phase. He’s not some cute Dickinsian orphan anymore: he’s pissed about his place in life, about what happened to his parents (which still hasn’t exactly been explained), and about all the people who keep fucking with him. This is the first time when Harry hasn’t been completely overshadowed by his sidekicks and actually seems like the most important presence in his own film. I’m not exactly ready to call him a hero for the ages or anything, but they’re on the right trajectory at least.
When I looked at Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I complained that these films were beginning to feel less like fantasy epics and more like “The Hardy Boys with Wizards.” That’s still sort of true here, but at least the mystery at its center doesn’t seem like a complete retread of the last two. I’m not going to say that all the business between Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall made complete sense to me or that all of it was satisfactory, but at least it was presented well and it didn’t involve yet another duel between Harry Potter and some proto-magical form of Voldemort. Though I’ve got to say, Hogwarts’ hiring practices continue to seem rather suspect. In the last three films we’ve seen them hire a conman, a werewolf, and dude with Voldemort sticking out of his head. It’s come to a point where the introduction of a “new professor” has become analogous to a random red shirted dude going with Kirk and Spock on an away mission; you just know there’s going to be trouble.
This of course brings us to the film’s climax which, questionable werewolf CGI aside, was pretty damn cool. The sudden reveal that Hermione has had a magical time travel device this whole time is way too convenient and raises a number of troubling problems, but if it can allow the films to go full on Back to the Future Part II for twenty minutes I can live with that. I maybe would have liked a slightly more satisfying cap to the scene than “they fly up and save the dude,” and I also feel like they leave a loose thread dangling by not explaining Snapes’s reaction to being attacked by Harry. Still, this was a much more creative and satisfying climax than Harry’s battle for the Sorcerer’s Stone or his fight against the Basilisk.
Ultimately I think what elevates this installments isn’t so much what’s in it as much as what isn’t. Cuarón wasn’t able to completely rid the film of stupid stuff; the Draco Malfoy character is as ridiculous as ever and I’ve already talked at length about the opening scene, but the silliness isn’t nearly as omnipresent as it was in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. If anything this film makes it clearer than ever what a waste of time that second film was. In fact I feel like the first two films would have been better served if they’d been compressed into a single film and that this had been the first sequel. So, this is a big improvement, but there are a lot of people who cite this as the best the series has to offer and I seriously hope that isn’t the case. This movie is good, but it isn’t great, and this series has a lot more work to do if it’s going to convince me that this series as a whole is even successful, much less great.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
For all the praise that’s been leveled on it, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is actually the lowest grossing film of the franchise (which isn’t saying much since it still made almost a billion dollars worldwide). I suspect that this says less about the film itself than it does with the general drop in enthusiasm that the general public had with the series after two lackluster Chris Columbus movies. Still, their decision to bring on a real director seems to have paid off because there was a big box office rebound with the next film: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which would out-gross both Azkaban and Chamber. The catch of course is that the new director of that fourth film is a man named Mike Newell, whose most impressive credits up to that point had been Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and an almost forgotten Julia Roberts vehicle called Mona Lisa Simile. Since directing his Harry Potter film, he’s gone on to direct a botched adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera and the Jake Gyllenhaal bomb Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In short he’s a guy with a resume which screams “we only let this guy direct one of these for a reason.” And so, all of my anticipation leading into these movies was directed towards Cuarón’s film and I hadn’t expected more out of this one than “more of the same, maybe.”
Holy shit was I wrong. This movie is so so so much better than the three movies that came before it. It’s not perfect, mind you, but this is the giant leap forward that I expected from Cuarón’s entry into the series. And I knew I was going to be in for an improvement right away when the movie started and Harry’s idiotic aunt and uncle were nowhere to be seen. I’m more than happy to put up with anything if it means not having to deal with twenty minutes of slapstick and magical forms of public transportation right up front, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film’s opening scene is kind of problematic in its own ways. Not the very opening, that was cool, but the whole “quiddich world cup” thing was more than a little bit weird. For one thing, it seemed pretty episodic and removed from the main story in much the way the slapstick antics were in the first films, but it also just sort of straight up confused me. When Harry finally got to the school and no one was mentioning the terroristic attack by skeleton KKK members on a major wizard sporting event, I began to think I’d misunderstood the whole scene and that what I’d witnessed was in its entirety a dream sequence… but looking back at the Wikipedia summery I realize that I was right the first time, all of that was real and was just kind of superfluous to most of the rest of the film.
Fans of the books apparently aren’t big fans of that opening either, they say that it was an example of the filmmakers rushing through the material in order to fit everything into a 157 minute film, but that is perhaps inevitable given that this is an adaptation of a book that’s almost twice as long as its predecessors. That would seem to be a problem for the filmmakers, but I suspect that its actually an asset in that it gives them an excuse to cut out all the stupid stuff that brought the films to a standstill in the past. This one isn’t completely devoid of dumb shit; Draco is still a cartoon character, Mertyle the perverted bathroom ghost shows up again, and there’s an almost laughable scene involving a wizard rock band. Still, the ratio of good shit to wack shit is getting better and better. Also, this movie just generally moves at a much faster pace and whenever it slows down it’s for things that actually seem important.
The film also benefits from a pretty strong structure provided by the Triwizard tournament, which provides the film with three pretty strong action set-pieces. Harry’s tangle with the dragon in particular stands out as the series best straight-up action scene to date, and is easily the special effects highlight (even if the CGI looks a little dated). The only thing breaking up the parade of Triwizard events is an extended episode where the characters prepare for and then attend a Yule Ball. In the back of my mind this series has been reminding me of the video game “Final Fantasy VIII,” which was also partially set in a school for spell casting warriors, and its interesting that both properties have key scenes set in formal balls. Anyway, it is a little strange that the movie sort of drops everything to deal with all this, if I were writing it I would have brought the prospect of the Ball up earlier and spread all of the buildup to the event out more evenly instead of wedging it and everything about it into a small stretch of the film in-between the first and second Triwizard events. Still, it is kind of amusing to see all these character deal with teenage stuff with all the same awkwardness that the non-magically-inclined had to.
It is of course a bit odd that Harry himself has so much trouble getting a date to the dance, I mean, shouldn’t taking down a dragon be more than enough to turn a guy into Hogwart’s number one pimp? Maybe not, but it is indicative of Harry’s slightly unusual development as a character. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabam Harry seemed to show a little more stride to his step and expressed a little more anger about his situation. He might not have been the most confident kid in the world, but he was a lot more willing to step in and take control of a situation. Here he seems to be back to being a meek and modest little wizard that keeps getting pushed into situations he’s not all that interested in. Also his haircut in this movie is a lot dopier than in the last movie, but I digress.
This was the first Potter film to bear a PG-13 rating, and while it doesn’t exactly seem exponentially nastier than the previous installments, it does seem to have given Mike Newell license to drop the “family film” feel of the previous installments and make the movie like a proper blockbuster. There’s more genuine danger to all the proceedings, and that’s especially true of the film’s finale, in which Voldemort himself finally shows up and is a lot more talkative than I expected. I can’t say I fully understood all the magic involved in allowing Voldemort to hijack the tournament and send Potter into some other dimension. I also thought it was kind of lame and distracting that our hero could be held at bay by a cheap-looking prop statue, and I also didn’t particularly like the fact that the whole scene ended on something of a deus ex machina, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a nicely tense finale and that it actually seems like a truly major event that will hopefully kick off the main conflict of the series.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an imperfect and somewhat messy film, and I kind of expect that to be the status quo going forward. Adapting long-ass books with rabid fans who don’t want a single thing cut isn’t easy, and there’s probably too much silliness in the DNA of this series for an installment to go by without its fair share of WTF moments. All that said, this installment is successful beyond my wildest dreams, and I seriously wish that they hadn’t waited this long to deliver the goods. If I’d known that the series could ever get this compelling I suspect I would have been a lot less friendly to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I’m all the more annoyed at how much Chris Columbus squandered his opportunity to launch the series correctly in the first place.
The auteur theory has failed me this time. I thought for sure that it was going to be Alfonso Cuarón who would be this series’ savior, but it seems like it was actually Mike Newell. Or maybe he was just working with a much better book, I don’t know, but something happened between these two films to give this series a much needed jump start. Between the two films I’ve seen a slightly improved glimpse of this franchises lame beginning as well as a glimpse of its more promising future. I don’t know if the series can replicate Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s success, and I do have reasons to suspect that the next two films are going to have their problems, but I’m still a lot more excited about seeing this series through than I was when I finished watching the last two. Next Month I’m going to be looking at a pair of films from director Robert Zemeckis’ controversial foray into motion-capture animation: The Polar Express and Monster House.