Your Weekend at the Movies Considering Just How Much of Your Life Has Overlapped by the Harry Potter Phenomenon

07/15/2011 10:26 AM |

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II: I’ll get back to having seen some of the weekend’s movies ahead of time next weekend, promise. In the meantime, I am at least prepared for 2 Deathly 2 Hallowser as over the past month and change, I’ve re-watched all of the Harry Potter movies, many of which I had never seen a second time straight through. So I hope you are ready for some incomplete Harry Potter film adaptation analysis! ["Incomplete." -Ed.]

First came the Chris Columbus versions. Everyone seemed to like them at the time, although there was increasingly vocal dissatisfaction as time went on, followed by at least some backlash-to-backlash praising Columbus for putting so much in place: the set design, the world of the film, the story set-up, and most importantly the kids; he labored to get Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to pay attention for just two minutes goddammit so that we might enjoy their fuller teenage performances late. And lo, that totally happened. There are good things in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, much of which are even better when more inventive, less schmaltzy directors took control of the stories later on. In many ways, the Columbus Potters are some of the best movies he’s ever made, by sheer virtue of being about charming wizard children rather than affluent and cloying suburbanites, but his leaden touch with adaptation (keep as much as possible!) and sentiment (but add a six-hour standing ovation for Hagrid at the end of book two!) render the conventional wisdom that his entries are the weakest dead-on.

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Alfonso Cuaron took the reins for the most celebrated (and lowest-grossing!) entry in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While perhaps the praise for Cuaron’s filmmaking loses sight of the fact that the Steve Kloves screenplay is less comprehensively faithful but still full of strange emphases and omissions, it’s hard to argue with the sense of true magic that Cuaron brings to the material. The earlier movies are more kid-friendly while the later ones are darker and more serious, and Cuaron bridges that gap beautifully. A re-oriented Hogwarts looks more lush, more organic, and sometimes more menacing; Cuaron’s takes are longer and more exciting; and the three kids are all blossoming as actors. Too bad that a major plot point about Harry’s father’s past goes unmentioned; at the time, I thought maybe they were saving it for Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire, but no dice.

Newell is a journeyman director in the best sense, able to move between genres with skill, and in his Potter entry, he brings skill sets acquired for Four Weddings and a Funeral (relationship comedy as the Hogwarts kids get flustered about hormones) and Donnie Brasco (ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but the seriousness of the movie’s final stretch is key). It helps that the book breaks from Potter formula in a significant and movie-friendly way.

David Yates took over for Order of the Phoenix, and won custody of the series through the end (in watching the final three pre-finale movies earlier this week, I had the odd thought that I was also watching the entire Yates feature filmography to this point, too). Order of the Phoenix, the only entry not scripted by Steve Kloves, actually does one of the better jobs of slimming down Rowling’s sprawling, actually kind of movie-unfriendly narratives: the most bloated, overlong of her books became one of the shortest movies. Yates also brings style and adult sensibility to the series, continuing with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

But as strong as Yates has been, there’s also a bit of servitude to his work: a loyalty to the material and the fans (and, presumably, the studio) trumping any personal vision he might have for Harry Potter. It’s respectable, often excellent, but I wish the filmmakers took more liberties with Rowling’s structure, and admitted that 700-page books taking place over the course of a school year aren’t an ideal blueprint for a movie’s structure. Granted, the filmmakers often worked at a disadvantage, not knowing until partway during production on Movie 6 how Book 7 would actually end. But feeling the freedom to not just adapt each book one at a time, but actually re-arrange and tweak certain characters and plotlines, shifting them around as necessary and perhaps dispensing with the school-year timelines, might’ve made the movies’ storylines flow a bit more naturally.

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This would’ve been particularly helpful, I think, for Phoenix and Prince: the former has lots of stripped-down incident in the march to war in the wizarding world, while the latter is composed of more backstory and character development than traditional plot. This makes for a lot of strong moments in both films, but despite differing color palettes explored by Yates and different characters getting different measures of screentime, the two movies sort of blend together; I just watched them on Sunday and I still hesitate when figuring out what happens in which (and even then, tend to rely more on memories of the books). Despite the marked differences in the two books, the two films feel similar: ominous beginning, school-year distractions and relationships, big battle where someone close to Harry dies. A little more fluidity about what happens and when might’ve given the films their own shapes and textures, rather than appearing as different models of Late Period Harry Potter™.

Maybe that’s why I like Deathly Hallows Part One so much: finally, a Harry Potter movie that doesn’t end on the last day of school! At first, I thought the splitting of one book (not even the series’ longest!) into two films felt like both a cynical money move and an embrace of exactly what was wrong with many of the earlier adaptations: the feeling that if everything isn’t included, then as much as possible should be (rather than making what’s there make more sense). This still may turn out to be the case, but the extra room afforded Yates some leeway in how to tell his story; as a result, some of the dullest bits of the book (Harry, Hermione, and Ron hiding out in various forests and going on side investigations) are highlights of the film. There’s a section of twenty or thirty minutes where Harry and Hermione are mostly on their own that contains some of my favorite filmmaking and character touches of the entire film series.

Splitting the other books and creating a ten or twelve-part movie series would’ve been indulgent, but Deathly Hallows Part One does show off the possibilities when you’re not confined by what happens between page one and page million of a particular single book. I’m not sure if that’ll turn Part Two into one long fireworks display—to my recollection, the split point chosen for Part One is further than fifty percent of the way through the book—but Part One, probably my second-favorite Potter film after Cuaron’s, makes the Potter series feel rife with possibility one last time.

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Winnie the Pooh: There are two types of parents who are taking their kids to see Winnie the Pooh this weekend: those whose kids are not ready for a long, intense special effects movie, even though it’s ostensibly aimed at children, and who will be cursing their friends with kids old enough to go see the Harry Potter movie that actually everyone wants to see; and those who are avowed non-fans of Harry Potter who don’t have any interest in any flavor of Bernie Botts beans and will quietly, contently take their childrens to a sixty-minute semi-feature like Jehovah’s Witnesses staying home on Halloween. This Lasseter-approved revival of the Milne-by-way-of-Disney favorite looks sweet and nicely animated. Does anyone remember the Winnie the Pooh Saturday morning cartoon from the 90s? It was really antic and manic (for Winnie the Pooh, anyway) and kind of annoying and Saturday morning-y. I hope this one isn’t like that.