The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: The Dawning of the Age of Yates

Harry Potter 5-Harry Potter 6

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.

The last round of Harry Potter films really through me for a loop.  I thought for sure that the Alfonso Cuarón helmed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban would be the more impressive accomplishment than the Mike Newell directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but it turned out that the opposite was the case.  I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why this was and I’ve come to something of a conclusion: the Harry Potter series isn’t really a film series, it’s a television series.  A very well made and very expensive television series, but at its heart a television series.  Obviously I don’t mean this literally; the films came out in theaters and were projected on celluloid, but in many ways they are created the way that one would create a TV show.

In television the director takes a much more secondary role than they do in film.  TV directors are solid but anonymous craftsmen who put together solid episodes using an already established formula and the quality of any given episode they make is in many ways at the mercy of the particular script they’re given that week.  Similarly, I’m beginning to think that this series may be more the work of producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and of J. K. Rowling than of any of the given director.  Taking this analogy further, one can perhaps dismiss the first two Harry Potter films as a bad pilot that isn’t indicative of the series as a whole, while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is like one of those late first season runs that right the wrongs of a given show’s early missteps.  By extension, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is like that awesome second season in which a show really finds its voice and manages to be confident and strong right out the gate.

Interestingly enough, the man who would direct all four of the Harry Potter films to come was himself a TV director for the most part.  Aside from one obscure independent movie called The Tichborne Claimant, all of director David Yates’ experience prior to his work in the Harry Potter franchise had been in British television.  This background is sort of indicative of his work as well, the rule of the day under David Yates seemed to be “don’t rock the boat.”  It was also a period when the rest of the world seemed a little apathetic about the whole series.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t popular, it most certainly was, but its fanbase had been firmly established and they sort of gave up trying to bring in outsiders like me at this point.  The fanbase was so established that every movie between Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows- Part 1 would make between 290 and 300 million, no more and no less.

For me personally, this was the era where my disinterest in the franchise was less of a protest against family entertainment and more of a complete apathy.  Every two years one of the things would come out, critics would respect it but not get too excited, it would quietly make a ton of money, and everyone would move on.  Before seeing them, I had a pretty good idea of who directed the first four Harry Potter movies and could probably recite a very basic description of what they were about, I knew next to nothing about these next two except that one had Imelda Staunton in it and that Dumbledore died in one of them.  In fact I had to look up which one was the fifth installment and which one was the sixth.  Still, given that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was so good, I was excited to see these next two in a way that I wasn’t when first going into the first four films.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Bad news first: Harry’s fucking aunt and uncle are in the opening of this film, and so is his equally ridiculous cousin, who starts the film by mocking harry for being an orphan.  I don’t for the life of me know what harry did to turn these assholes against him, but turn against him they did and in cartoon fashion.  The good news is that they’re only in the film for a couple minutes and that, taken as a whole, this might be the least offensive opening to a Harry Potter film to date.  In particular I liked the idea of harry being put in front of a wizard trial for having used a spell in front of a human.  It seems like a rather odd charge considering that he inflated a “muggle” woman and watched her float away two movies ago.  I guess that inconsistency can be explained away by the fact that Harry is being watched more closely by the authorities at this point than he was before, but I still can’t help but wonder why his wizard accusers seem to think it’s appropriate to summon him via a magical floating letter which is plainly seen by the very same “muggle” he who wasn’t supposed to be exposed to magic before.

Whatever the charge, I like the idea of seeing a wizard trial in action.  For that matter I like the idea of seeing more of the politics of the wizard world, and we get a lot more of that in this film than we have before.  In doing so we realize that there’s more of a difference between a wizard and a Jedi than I initially believed.  These people aren’t a brotherhood of wise monk-like paragons; they’re a bunch of weak and petty fools trying to save their own asses.  We still only really see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the politics of Wizard Land (seriously is there a real term for the world of wizardry that I’m supposed to know?), which is a byproduct of the story being told from the perspective of children, but I did like the glimpse that we did get.

It’s this pettiness that necessitates much of the story of this fifth installment of the series.  After the events to the last movie I figured that the forces of good would have finally started their fight against the resurrected Voldemort, but no, most wizards are in denial about what happened at the Goblet of Fire tournament and they’re still playing that stupid “he who shall not be named” game.  This movie is all about the fight to get the rest of the wizards on board with the fight, and as such it sometimes feels like something of a giant set-up for the later films.  In particular, it sets up a core group of good wizards at Hogwarts who will presumably be some of the major players in future installments and it also serves to introduce us to Voldemort’s various henchmen like Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange and that dude who could turn himself into tornadoes.

Another villain of sorts is Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge, which was one of the few elements of the film that I remember getting much attention from critics back when the film was released. I can see why.  This character is a dead on variation of the kind of infuriating alpha-bitch that seems to dominate every PTA, HOA, and book club you’ve ever seen.  The kind of lady who’s all smiles on the outside but who clearly wants to use whatever status she has in order to control everyone around them and mold their surroundings to a very specific vision and will tear down anyone who gets in their way.   It’s her domineering that really brings Dumbledore out of his shell and turns him into a character I could actually see myself giving a shit about.  Before he was facing off against Dolores Umbridge he just seemed like a pretty generic Merlin/Gandalf wannabe, but when compared to Umbridge he comes off as a much stronger and wiser character… gee, I hope nothing bad ever happens to him (har har har).

The fight against Umbridge also brings out the best in Harry Potter himself, who’s at his angstiest, but also his most active here.  He shows real initiative by forming “Dumbledore’s Army” and while I’m not exactly sure how he’s educating his fellow students in spells that he himself presumably wasn’t privy to, it shows real leadership and character just the same.  This is so much Harry’s own movie that his usual sidekicks are really pushed to the background.  Instead this weird girl named Luna is given a pretty large amount of screentime and we also delve into Harry’s rather undeveloped and not overly rewarding relationship with Cho Chang, which quite frankly feels like it was just added to this series in order to appease certain fans who would insist that there be a love-interest added to the mix.

Of course the series does really need to prioritize its storylines at this point.  As a book, this installment was even longer than the last one, and yet at 138 minutes this is actually the shortest film of the series (except of course for the individual installments of the bisected final film).  In my analysis of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I suspected that the act of making shortish movies out of long-ass books would be beneficial because it would give the producers a reason to cut out some of the books’ dumber moments, but here things really do just seem extremely rushed.  The filmmakers need to resort to montages and newspaper collages in order to steamroll their way across some fairly important moments like Umbridge’s ascent to the head of Hogwarts.  To their credit though, this was relatively free of dumb “funny” moments.  I mean there was maybe an off note here or there but for the most part this was pretty dignified.  The only really cringe inducing element was the existence of Grawpy, Hagrid’s half-brother who’s chained up in the forest.  The character is both a terrible idea and also an atrocious special effect.

I suppose I can forgive the film for one terrible effect since they were clearly dumping most of their budget into the film’s climactic action scene.  The effects there are awesome, but I have mixed feelings about the scene as a whole.  For one thing Sirius Black goes out like a punk bitch.  Why in the world would you spend the better part of three movies developing a character like that only to have him get hit by some vague spell and then disappear into some kind of portal thingy.  Lame.  But the bigger problem is that it really diminishes Voldemort as a threat.  I always assumed this guy was going to be some vague and rarely seen threat like Sauron, but if he’s just going to attack Harry with a scheme in every movie only to be defeated each time and run off saying “I’ll get you next time, Potter” it makes him stop looking like a serious threat and starts making him look like some cartoon villain like Mumm-Ra or Gargamel or something.  Still, I can see why they’d want to give the film a climactic action scene and for the most part the set-piece does deliver.

So, yeah, I guess my feelings about this one are pretty mixed.  I mean, it’s not a bad movie, in fact of all the Potter movies that had been made to this point this is firmly the second best but I also think that it’s vastly inferior to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  I don’t know, there just seems to be something very perfunctory about this whole production, as if everyone involved is just trying to get this one out of the way so they can get into the series’ final act.  If everything that’s set up here does indeed pay off then it will have all been worth it, if not… well that would speak ill of the whole series but especially this one.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

As usual, I should start with a report on what the filmmakers have done with the opening sequence this time around and for the first time yet I have pretty much nothing but good news.  Harry’s aunt and uncle are nowhere to be seen, there’s no slapstick to speak of, no confusing tangent, no shrunken rasta head…. ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a Harry Potter movie that works from the get go.  In fact, the opening here actually seems downright important as it establishes the film’s three main plot threads: Harry’s relationship with Dumbledore, his relationship with a potions professor named Horace Slughorn, and his conflict with Draco.  The relationship with Dumbledore is perhaps the most important because, frankly, they need to make up for a whole lot of lost time.  In my analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix I mentioned that Dumbledore was finally starting to seem like more than just an aloof Merlin-clone, and here he finally starts to feel like an actual character… and not a moment too soon because as everyone knows this is the movie where he finally kicks the bucket.

That Snape would eventually kill Dumbledore is something I’ve known from the very beginning thanks in part to that viral video of the guy spoiling the twist for a bunch of people lined up to buy  the book on its release day.  Oddly enough, the movie seems assume that everyone else had already been spoiled as well, because there’s an early scene in the film that just goes ahead and reveals Snape’s true allegiance in the most anti-climactic way imaginable.  Did I miss something?  Was this already revealed earlier or something?  I feel like there were quite a few more dramatic ways that this reveal could have been handled, I’m not exactly sure what they were thinking there.  If I hadn’t already been spoiled I would have been more than a little pissed.

However, it isn’t too hard to look past that, because for the most part this is one of the most solid Harry Potter movies yet and tonally it’s a complete 180 from everything that made me a little uneasy about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  This film slows down the pace substantially and puts much more of an emphasis on character than on plot.  In some sense it feels closer to the pre-Goblet of Fire films in that things seem to be back to relative normalcy at Hogwarts and Potter and co. are back to participating in classes and whatnot.  In fact the accelerator may have even been pulled up a bit too abruptly.  I mean, the last movie ended with a full-on battle scene between two groups of wizards and culminated with a duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort.  It kind of seems a little odd that the series could go right from that to this relative calm in such a short period of time.

Maybe I should take a step back and look at each major storyline, starting with the Horace Slughorn thread.  On his surface Slughorn is easily the most boring professor to come through Hogwarts.  He’s got no makeup gimmick and his personality doesn’t skew too far from the typical tweed jacket teacher type.  However, I really liked the backstory that they gave Slughorn and I was generally impressed that they brought back the whole Tom Riddle/Voldemort backstory that was introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Harry’s little mission to get the truth out of Slughorn was consistently interesting and I also quite enjoyed Harry’s encounter with the “half-blood prince’s” textbook, even if it maybe stretches credulity that he never reports this thing to his teachers.

Less successful is the sub-plot about Draco Malfoy deciding whether he’ll join with Voldemort and Snape in… doing whatever evil thing that they’re planning to do.  It could have been worse though.  The character is adjusted just enough from the cartoon character we’ve seen thus-far to keep this plot from being overtly annoying.  Still, there was an opportunity here to fully redeem the character which was just left on the table.  For the most part this sub-plot just doesn’t really go anywhere and just sort of gets lost in the shuffle.  Still, it’s remarkable that the movie even makes a Draco storyline moderately watchable, and that’s in line with a general absence of WTF stupidity throughout the film.  I’m sure that if I looked back at the film there were probably one or two off moments, but they were so infrequent that they are not worth noting.  The film also makes a lot more time for Ron and Hermione, which is nice even if their time is mostly spent engaging in petty high school love triangles.

And that brings me back to the Dumbledore material.  I said earlier that the film was making up time for how long Dumbledore was sort of a non-character, and that does help a little, but I can’t exactly say I found his death to be a devastating occurrence.  At the end of the day he’s just a very derivative and not overly interesting character, and he also proved himself to not even be overly competent at his job.  There’s a line mid-way through the film where a character says something along the lines of: “It comes down to whether you trust Dumbledore’s judgment, [and] Dumbledore trusts Snape” which is an odd thing to say considering that throughout the series Dumbledore’s judgment in regards to who he trusts has been laughable.  This is the same guy who employed Quirinus Quirrell (the dude with the Voldemort head), Gilderoy Lockhart (a full on con artist), Remus Lupin (a fucking werewolf), an evil Alastor Moody doppelganger, and Dolores Umbridge.  Admittedly he was kind of forced into that last one, but still, the point is he’s hired an evil teacher in every single one of these movies.  His inability to do simple background checks has been an Achilles Heel of his from the beginning, and it’s that character flaw which ultimately killed him.

At the end of the day, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince probably has the same basic problem as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: it mainly exists to set up future Harry Potter movies.  To some extent it feels like the series is treading water and padding itself out in order to sell more tickets/books than the story perhaps warrants, but it’s not too egregious about this.  The filmmaking is also generally improved this time around, which is good though I wish that Yates had shown the same control in the last film.  Overall though, I can’t say too many negative things about this one at all.  It’s not perfect, but in many ways it’s the Harry Potter movie I’ve been asking for the whole time.

In Conclusion

I started this installment assuming that David Yates would even things out and make the films a lot more consistent in tone.  Instead I’ve found myself analyzing two movies that, within the context of a series, couldn’t be more different.  One is way too fast paced, the other feels way too relaxed.  One is way too plot heavy, the other is too character oriented.  One is filled with special effects and action, the other is only moderately filled with special effects and action.  There’s merit to both approaches, but I can’t help wondering why these films needed to be so bipolar.  Couldn’t they have found the right balance for both films instead of going all-in in two different directions in each?  I don’t know.  Both of the movies do work well enough and I’ll take either of them over the first three Potter movies, but they leave me feeling like a Goldilocks who’s desperately trying to find a Harry Potter movie that works “just right.” Next Month: The time has come to finally tackle the studio I’ve been dreading the most: Dreamworks.  I’ll be looking at two of their least disreputable efforts: Kung-Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.

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