The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: It All Ends

Harry Potter 7-Harry Potter 8

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.

For almost an entire decade, the Harry Potter series was an incredible cash cow for Warner Brothers.  Adaptations of the first six books had generated a combined $5,421,637,048 in worldwide box office revenue alone.  But there was an end to the gravy train in sight.  J.K. Rowling had only written seven books, which would seem to suggest that there would only seven movies… or would there.  Knowing that their audience would stick with them through pretty much anything, the Warner Brothers execs made the same decision that the producers of the Twilight series, the Hunger Games series, and the The Hobbit series would all end up making as well: the decision to split their last film in two.  It’s a decision that earned the studio a billion dollars in extra box office revenue, but also inspired a bit of light backlash from critics and from the fan base.  Of course the fan base wasn’t going to stay mad at the series for long and while the film is tied with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1 still holds a fairly respectable 79% fresh score.

One interesting thing I took away while watching the recent adaptation of Ender’s Game (a story that pre-dates Rowlings but which, in retrospect, is suspiciously similar) is just how compact it is.  Orson Scott Card’s story managed to tell a complete arc about a boy preparing for a fight and finishing it over the course of a 324 page tome that could fairly easily be turned into a 114 minute film.  If it had been written as a YA novel today it probably would have been expanded into a multi book series whether it needed to or not.  Now this isn’t to say that I wanted the Potter series to have been that compact, but it could have been if it wanted to.  Instead its story was stretched out, and this stretching out of the story started long before Warner Brothers decided to split the final book into two movies.  It was Rowling who decided to turn this fairly simple “chosen one vs. evil” story into seven books when it easily could have been two or three.  She did it a bit more elegantly than Warner Brothers did by setting each book over a different school year, but things have already been slowed to a crawl in order to make the story span six installments up to this point.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that going into these last two movies I have a pretty cynical view of why this final installment was split in two, but I’m also willing to believe that it can potentially work out for the best if it’s executed right.  After all, it’s taken Potter six movies/years to prepare for this final battle so it is sort of logical that it would take him longer to fight it than it did to, say, compete in the Goblet of Fire tournament.  Still, these movies were packaged and sold as separate installments, and as such I will be analyzing them as individual movies rather than two parts of a single whole.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 1

Given that this is a single story split across two films, I expected it to be a rather slow paced affair that stretches a lot of things out, instead it establishes a pretty fast pace right from the beginning by more or less jumping right into the action.  After a short prologue the film goes straight into a chase scene where Harry and his various allies are chased through the sky by Voldemort’s army.  It’s a pretty good scene for the most part and it more or less establishes what the film to come is going to be: an action driven chase film.  The gang never goes to Hogwarts and some of the characters we’ve come to know like Maggie Smith’s Minerva McGonagall are nowhere to be seen.  As such this is unlike any other Harry Potter film and in some ways it’s a little closer to the Lord of the Rings movies in that it depicts three characters on a quest through enemy territory.

As was revealed in the previous entry, the only way to kill Voldemort is to collect and destroy a bunch of magical doodads called horcruxes.  The film is structured around the gang finding these things, and that makes the film kind of episodic in nature.  It moves from set-piece to set piece and is a rather action-driven affair.  Fortunately a lot of these action scenes do have some real weight to them.  This time around the wizards’ wands feel almost like oddly shaped ray guns rather than simple magical instruments and more often than not it feels like Harry’s enemies are shooting to kill.  There are some pretty solid set-pieces throughout the film like a shootout at a diner, a heist that plays out at the ministry of magic, a fight with Voldemort’s boa constrictor, and a rather intense chase scene through the woods which ends with Harry’s very short lived capture.

It does sort of stretch credulity that Harry is able to escape from all this non-sense.  For all the time the series has spent showing Harry preparing for these battles, he still doesn’t really seem all that powerful.  His success often seems to say more about the relative incompetence of his foes, particularly the rather lax security at the Ministry of Magic and Bellatrix Lestrange inability to keep the world’s most highly valued prisoner guarded.  Beyond that, the gang’s success also all too often seemed predicated on their ability to use a rather convenient and ill-defined teleportation spell that often gets them out of hairy situations.  When the gang isn’t going after horcruxes they’re hiding in the woods and arguing about… stuff.  Honestly I’ve kind of stopped keeping overly close attention to the interpersonal relationships at this point.  Here they mostly seem like friends until Ron suddenly turns into a little shit and tries to leave, possibly because he’s being influenced by whatever magic the horcruxes are giving off.  Then he comes back.  It’s not an overly fascinating arc, in part because this isn’t really a film that’s built to accommodate character development.  These characters are pretty much supposed to be as developed as they’ll ever be going into the climactic battle with Voldemort.

Tonally, the series is darker than it’s ever been.  It’s also literally darker than it’s ever been because Eduardo Serra seems to have really taken the moody look the series has been taking to something of an extreme.  I like my lighting a little dark too, but man, I had to really squint to see some of the scenes in this one.  But I digress.  The series really seems to be at its most grim here, but that doesn’t stop it from incorporating its most ridiculous character at the end.  That’s right, fucking Dobby the house elf shows up in the final scene and is instrumental in the film’s climax.  He also dies in the process, which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be sad… but I mostly found it kind of funny.  I’m not exactly sure why Dobby death is given all this reverence while Brendan Gleeson’s character is unceremoniously killed off screen, but that’s the direction they went with.

I also question a diversion taken earlier in the film’s final act where an old man is nice enough to stop and tell a long piece of wizard lore (which is helpfully illustrated through an odd animated sequence) even though he fully intends to betray all three of them.  Obviously this story is going to play into events in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, but here it just feels like an open-ended exposition dump.  Really the whole film feels odd because in many ways it’s a film that doesn’t have either a beginning or an end.  The lack of an ending is obviously in the nature of the beast when you’re watching a movie with “Part 1” in the title, but I do think the film could have done more to ease us in at the beginning and maybe better establish what Potter has been doing in the time since the last movie and for that matter why he thinks for even a second that it would be a good idea to attend a wedding when he’s about to be fighting a war with the forces of evil for the fate of the world.  If I had seen this movie in 2010 and spent full price to see this I probably would have felt a little ripped off, but I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t mostly find it enjoyable as it was happening.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 2

If there truly was backlash against the idea of splitting the final Harry Potter film into two, it had mostly died by the time the second of the two “Deathly Hollows” films came along.  For the most part, critics and audiences were happy to embrace “Part 2” as the culmination of a big long journey they’d all taken.  In fact it has the highest RT score of all the films and by a wide margin.  It also killed it at the box office.  It was the first movie to best The Dark Knight’s opening weekend record (it held the record for all of ten months before it was usurped by The Avengers), and would go on to gross 1.3 billion dollars worldwide.  As of this writing it’s the fourth highest grossing movie of all time and far and away the highest grossing Potter film… unless you adjust for inflation, in which case the first film is number one with a bullet, at least domestically.  Either way, I have to say I’m a little surprised that it was able to do that.  This is a movie that would not make a lick of sense to anyone who hadn’t already seen the previous seven movies.  Who were these people who bought tickets to “Part 2” but not “Part 1?”  I guess they were just keeping up on DVD or something.  Maybe this was a precursor to the rather strange phenomenon we all witnessed earlier this year when “Breaking Bad” suddenly had a huge spike in its viewership during its final season.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 is a different beast from most Potter movies.  For one thing, it’s really short.  Well, maybe not by most standards, but it’s definitely the shortest one of the series.  This is of course a byproduct of the splitting in half of the final installment, but it is interesting to note that it’s the 150 minute “Part 1” that received the brunt of the installment’s combined four hour and forty minute run time.  Actually, come to think about it, almost all of the Potter movies that were released during the summer season have shorter run times than the ones that came out during the holiday season. Weird.  Anyway, this “Part 2” definitely feels more like half a movie than “Part 1” did.  In many ways it’s a film that just serves as one big long extended climax for its entire run time… and I’m not sure I like that about it.  In fact, it kind of reminded me of The Matrix Revolutions.  Both films seem to be missing first and second acts, both have humungous battles in the middle of them, both end with big fights between the hero and antagonist, both have their heroes knocked out at some point, hell, both even use train stations as metaphors for a sort of purgatory/limbo state.  I’m not saying that it’s as bad as that rather infamous third Matrix film, but I do think both films suffer similar problems from having been forcibly split from their first halves.

Truth be told, there isn’t really a whole lot to say about this one.  There’s not much of in the way of plot development beyond “we’ve got to finally kill Voldemort,” there’s no dramatic shift in tone, and there are no new characters (except for Dumbledore’s brother, who seemed like a bizarre and pointless element to be introducing this late into things).  For the most part, the movie can be divided into three set-pieces: the robbing of the goblin bank, the Hogwarts battle, and the final confrontation with Voldemort.  The whole bank robbery section was fun, but felt like nothing more than time filler.  In fact, I’m calling “shenanigans” on this whole “find the Horcruxes” plot device.  If they’d just cut the number of horcruxes down to about three they probably could have fit this installment into one film pretty easily.  As for the battle scene… it was alright.  I’m not exactly sure where Voldemort got this army from, prior to this film the “death-eaters” seemed more like a cult than a legion, but that’s probably nit-picking.  To some extent these epic CGI battle scenes are to be expected at the end of a fantasy series, and this one was mostly passable.

If nothing else, seeing scenes like that one give me a newfound respect for what Peter Jackson was able to accomplish with the battles in his Lord of the Rings series: staging these things is obviously a lot harder than it looks.  And, speaking of things that this movie gave me a renewed appreciation for, seeing the wizards fighting one on one made me really miss lightsabers.  Watching Harry and Voldemort stand around and throw fireworks at each other just doesn’t have the same appeal of seeing Luke and Darth Vader fencing up close with that super memorable buzzing sound.  Also, Voldemort’s tactics seem a bit suspect.  He does a very bad job of protecting his snake for one thing.  If I had a python whose survival was essential to preserving my immortality I’d probably keep it in a bank vault or something, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be using it as an attack dog like Voldemort did both here and in the last movie.  I also don’t exactly understand how Harry’s whole journey through limbo worked, or why Voldemort failed to just fucking behead him while he was out cold.  Voldemort’s plan to just stroll over to Hogwarts and brag about his victory also just strikes me as stupid.

The only thing here I found particularly noteworthy was the revelation that Snape had actually been a double agent the whole time and that his defection to Voldemort had been a ruse intended to make Voldemort steal a really powerful wand under false pretenses.  As far as plot twists go that’s not half bad, and I guess I should probably take back some of those potshots I took at Dumbledore for being stupid enough to hire Snape in the first place.  Still, all of it seems like a rather convoluted way of setting up a somewhat anti-climactic ending where Voldemort gets killed by his own wand backfiring on him.  I can’t help but think it was all done as a means of setting up a situation where Harry can kill Voldemort without actually getting his hands dirty.  Oh, and don’t get me started on that ridiculous epilogue, who the hell wanted their last image from this universe to be one of comfortable domesticity?  Not me.

Earlier I compared the audience that showed up to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 to the Johnny-come-latelys that waited until the last season to finally start watching “Breaking Bad.”  Oddly enough, I kind of feel the same way about the last episode of that show as I did about this movie: it was exactly what I expected it to be, but disappointingly, nothing more.  There are worse things it could be of course.  Ultimately I think its Achilles heel is almost entirely derived from the fact that it’s the final act of what should have been one final film.  In fact, and I’m shocked to be saying this, I might have actually liked “Part 1” a lot more.

Some Final Thoughts on the Series

So, I’ve now dedicated nearly twenty hours to this. Was it worth it?  Eh, I don’t know about that.  I’d say my final appraisal of the series is decidedly mixed.  Of the eight films I’ve given positive marks to six, but my interest in the series peaked at the fourth film and none of the subsequent installments was ever really able to recapture that lightning in a bottle.  In fact I kind of actively got pretty sick of the whole thing somewhere around the sixth movie, though I’ll admit that part of my problem there was that I was watching all of them over the course of a year rather than over the course of a decade.  At the end of the day an “octology” of films just kind of feels like a rather unwieldy format.   I think this is a story that either needed to be dramatically shortened into a three film trilogy or lengthened into a sort of epic Game of Thrones style T.V. series where you really got to know and understand everything about this world.  As it is, I feel like only a small fraction of what was set up over the course of the series was really all that necessary if all the story was going to amount to was a mission to track down and break a bunch of trinkets followed by a pretty standard battle between CGI armies.

In retrospect, it kind of makes sense that the fourth film would be my favorite.  The first three films were all flawed as hell, and then the “Yates” movies all had problems of their own.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire one was the only one that really managed to get everything right and sort of be the best of both worlds.  I liked the fifth and sixth films as well, but in retrospect I think it was during those installments that things really kind of started to go wrong again.  I think the whole series made a big mistake by sticking to the “another year at Hogwarts” formula for too long.  It made it so that the whole series was just a big setup, one which no one final overstuffed installment was ever going to be able to really pay off.  If I were to rewrite the series I would have started it with Harry a little older, then had him graduate after that fourth film, and then had the last few installments be dedicated to him spearheading this war against Voldemort.

That said, I’m not sure I ever would have really been in much of a position to fully take this series into my heart even if it was less flawed.  It’s just not something I grew up with, and as such it was simply never going to displace Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek, or Batman, or Spider-Man or any of the other franchises that left an impression on me at a young age.  To some extent I’m sure that all of these franchises can be torn apart, and I’m sure that all of them can seem kind of silly, but to a certain generation they were everything and I’m willing to bet that if this series had entered my heart at the right time I would have really been into it.  As it is, I can certainly say that I’m glad I watched them if only to have better insights into Hollywood’s current obsession with adapting YA series.  I know for sure that my recent review of Ender’s Game would not have been the same without this experience under my belt, for example.  But beyond that, I did find plenty to enjoy while watching all these movies.  I liked seeing the parade of British character actors, I liked a solid handful of the action set pieces scattered throughout the films, and it was interesting to see the films’ three young stars grow up in front of my eyes as the series progressed.  All in all, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.  Next month will be my season finale and I’ll be looking at the two films that, more than any others, inspired me to start this series.  A pair childrens’ films from directors who aren’t normally associated with family entertainment: Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sipke Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

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