TMBF and the Fantasy Film Franchise He Just Caught Up With ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, July 19, 2009

TMBF and the Fantasy Film Franchise He Just Caught Up With

I have only ever watched the first two Harry Potter films in cinemas. Didn't much like either of them - the second had almost exactly the same faults as the first, which led me to decide that if they're all gonna be like this, I can give the rest of them a miss. (Haven't read any of the books either.) Since then, I've read reviews of the later ones saying the series has been getting better and better... which made me feel kinda left out. So before I watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I caught up with all the previous films, including a rewatch of the first two. What have I been missing out on?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)
My rating:

(Yes, it's Philosopher's Stone. "Sorcerer's" Stone is an Americanized dumbing-down. Stupid Yanks.)

Well, it's better than I remembered, but still not very good. Its main problem is a rambling and episodic plot that keeps going into weird digressions, and not all of these disparate elements come together in the climax. You never really feel like you're following a proper narrative - it's just one scene after another in the life of an 11-year-old boy who's suddenly thrust into a literally magical world. This and the next film have often been criticized for following the books too slavishly, and I suspect this may be the reason for the disjointed plot.

A couple of other things bugged me. Quidditch is a nonsensical game - it has rules, it has a scoring system, it has players with distinct roles, but all of this means nothing as long as one player manages to do one thing that'll win the game instantly. The ending is a blatant deus ex machina. There's a decided Mary Sue-ishness to Harry - he gets admired and cheered for and patted on the back one too many times. And there's an annoyingly cheesy kiddishness to the entire proceedings, especially in its "wacky hijinks" scenes, for which we can only blame director Chris Columbus.

The good parts? Hogwarts is an utterly cool place, with lots of charming and funny little touches; it's the kind of place where anyone - child or adult - would love to live in. The actors all do fine work, even the young ones - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson's performances are a little raw, but you never stop liking or rooting for them. These are enough for me to grant this movie a half-star, and hint at a potential for greatness that the franchise had yet to realize.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
My rating:

More of the same, unfortunately. The plot still meanders all over the place, and there isn't just one but a heap of deus ex machinas. A number of times, Harry and his friends are conveniently aided or saved by something magical that seems to exist for the sole purpose of aiding or saving Harry and his friends at a convenient time. Also, the movie constantly treats magic as something strange and wondrous, in a world where it should be commonplace and taken for granted. You could almost excuse it for the fact that we're seeing it through Harry's eyes, to whom it is strange and wondrous; still, this is not the way to paint a fully-realized magical world.

Like the first film, Chamber of Secrets opens with Harry staying with the Dursleys, and they are as cartoonishly hateful as before. Yes, we're meant to detest them, but I don't think we're meant to feel that every scene with them is a chore to watch. (And if they hate Harry so much, why do they want to keep him from going away to Hogwarts?) Also, this is where we are introduced to Dobby the house-elf, who is a blatant and transparent attempt at creating a cute animated sidekick character for the kids. I found him annoying. He first appears in the early scene with the Dursleys, so that's quite a few early strikes against this movie already. And lastly, I could do with a lot less of Ron's cowardly whining.

But it does have some saving graces. Dobby sucks, but two other new characters are lots of fun to watch - Moaning Myrtle is a hoot, and Lucius Malfoy is over-the-top evil done right. There's a mystery at the heart of the plot, and its resolution is quite clever, involving a character other than Harry who went through an adventure almost as interesting as the one we saw. Still, this is the movie in which I gave up on Harry Potter. The climactic action scene is lame and unconvincing, and it ends on a note of syrupy sentimentality. Again, this is Chris Columbus' doing; the man does not have a good track record as a director. He'll be known primarily for these two films, which will go down as the weakest of the Harry Potter movies.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
My rating:

The third entry in the series brings about a change of director - Alfonso Cuaron takes over, and once we get the requisite wacky-hijinks-with-the-Dursleys scene out of the way the improvement is instantly obvious. The magical world is treated much more realistically now that Cuaron has done away with all the cloying ooh-how-wonderful-magic-is scenes that Chris Columbus gave us. Also, it's a darker and more mature Harry Potter adventure this time around - the Dementors are seriously scary, and Harry himself has to face some dark and traumatic secrets involving the death of his parents.

Unfortunately, I still can't quite get behind this movie. The storyline hasn't improved as well as the direction - one minute it's just another day at Hogwarts, then suddenly events pile up one after another, and the ending arrives in a dizzying rush. After three movies, I've noticed that every one is structured like a mystery; hints and setups are subtly laid throughout the film that are all explained and paid off at the climax. However, in this one the climax where all the secrets are revealed comes a good long while before the ending; what follows is a sequence where our heroes retrace their steps back in time that's frankly kinda dull, the plot's narrative power having been spent. And why in the world does Hermione have a freaking time machine just for her to get to classes on time?

There's a few welcome developments in the series. Fred and George Weasley are turning out to be loads of fun, and I've not yet mentioned Draco Malfoy; Tom Felton has been consistently good at playing deliciously evil. David Thewlis is a reassuring presence as Professor Remus Lupin, the only Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to actually teach something useful for once, but Gary Oldman's Sirius Black doesn't get enough screentime to make as strong an impression despite his significance to the story. Make no mistake, although I'm giving Prisoner of Azkaban the same rating I gave the first two, it's definitely a better movie. But despite Cuaron's best efforts, this just isn't quite the movie that sells me on the franchise.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
My rating:

Oh yes. The first solidly good entry in the series, and it's largely due to a consistent thread that runs through the plot, gives it focus, and creates anticipation and suspense. No opening scene with the Dursleys this time (which earns it instant points already), but after the initial proceedings we are introduced to the Triwizard Tournament. Each of its three stages is alternately thrilling, suspenseful and scary, and in between there is time for the pace to slow down and supply us with some exposition and character development. It's a great structure for the plot. Even the lengthy diversion the story takes after the first stage isn't unwelcome - because now we get to see our young protagonists become teenagers.

Yes, it's practically a teen movie at times. There's a ball, there's dating, there are awkward crushes, there are hints of romance - it's somewhat cliched, but it's fun to watch mainly because we've been following these characters since they were 11 years old. Harry's and Ron's friendship grows more... well, not mature exactly, but where once they were childhood friends they've now become believable teenage boys. Michael Gambon, who took over from the late Richard Harris in the previous movie, plays a more dynamic and energetic Professor Dumbledore here. The new additions to the cast are also uniformly good - Brendan Gleeson lives up to his nickname as the new DADA teacher Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, Miranda Richardson hams it up as Rita Skeeter, and Robert Pattinson's Cedric Diggory is instantly likeable, which helps make the ending so effective.

And what an ending. Horror, tragedy, and real poignancy, not to mention payoffs to plot elements that have been laid since the first film. Radcliffe faces his greatest acting challenge yet here, and he acquits himself well, but it's director Mike Newell who deserves the lion's share of the credit. (One peeve though. I really wish they'd just had one line of dialogue to explain what a Priori Incantatem is. Without it, the climax is almost as big a deus ex machina as the first film's.) The ending also marks a turning point in the series; it's no longer just a school story about a boy learning magic, but about an all-out war between good and evil - and here is where it is declared. It's also the first Harry Potter adventure I enjoyed unreservedly, and I couldn't wait to watch the next one.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

My rating:

The winning streak continues. Even without a strong narrative thread like the Triwizard Tournament, this movie manages to condense the book into a focused and consistently entertaining story. Building on the momentous events of the last film, there's a growing sense of menace and despair in the magical world that the walls of Hogwarts cannot keep out. I've heard that the book is considered the weakest in the series, mainly due to Harry's constant angst and emo-ing. There's a bit of it here (and it's believable, given that the whole world is conspiring against him), but screenwriter Michael Goldenberg - taking over momentarily from Steve Kloves - must have cut out a lot of it, because Harry gets over his self-pity right quick.

One of the joys of this series is watching how the young characters grow and develop. Ron and Hermione seem far more comfortable with each other this time around, where once they used to bicker and snipe at each other like... well, like children. It doesn't take a reader of the books to see where their relationship is going, but it's a nice progression. The eternally put-upon Neville Longbottom gets a level up here, even getting in a good comeback against the murderer of his parents. Fred and George Weasley are still way cool, Evanna Lynch is an adorably kooky Luna Lovegood, Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix Lestrange is gleefully deranged... and then there's Dolores Umbridge. This movie wouldn't be half as good were it not for Imelda Staunton. She makes Umbridge a character you absolutely despise.

We were introduced to magical duelling in Chamber of Secrets, and here we finally see a full-on magical battle. And it is awesome. Whether it's the Order vs. Death Eaters team deathmatch, or Sirius and Harry fighting side by side, or Voldemort's battle royale with Dumbledore, the climax is rousing, thrilling and hugely entertaining. Unfortunately, the (yet another) tragedy that befalls Harry here is undercut by the fact that a certain pivotal character never got enough screen time. For the first time, I'm getting the feeling that a lot of story was left out in the process of adapting the book. But none of it detracted from the solid entertainment this movie gave me. Harry's angst, his frustration at being hampered by paranoia and small-mindedness, the students' rebellion against Umbridge's tyranny, their confrontation against real danger and evil - it all worked.


So what have I been missing? A lot, apparently. The series really has been steadily improving, and even if it never gets any better than the last two I'll still be eagerly awaiting the next instalment. Official word is that the final chapter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be split into two movies, to be released in 2010 and 2011 - which only makes me despair for how much longer I'll have to wait before I get to the end of this fantasy saga. Oh yes, I fully intend to read the novels, as thick as they are, and soak in all the details that the movies left out. But first, I'll finish all the movies. After all, it's via the movies that I was first introduced to Harry Potter's world. And the movies have gotten good. Bring on the Half-Blood Prince!


wankongyew said...

I flatly disagree with your ranking here. I'd say Azkaban is the best as a film that's able to stand on its own apart from the books. It has tension, it has a plot that holds together, it introduces interesting characters and it holds surprises. I also have a fondness for the first one for the magical first look at Hogwarts and the whole series.

Order of the Phoenix was the weakest for me, but that's partly explained by the fact that it's based on the longest book. It tries to cram in way too much and clearly makes no sense unless you'd already read the book.

TMBF said...

It made perfect sense to me. :) But it is the first movie in the series that can't stand on its own - it depends a lot on knowledge of the previous films.

mell said...

i think Azkaban was the turning point for the series. The first two were kid-ish, i have to say. Then Alfonso Cuaron stepped in for No. 3, and the series got darker, more mysterious, and Hermione got prettier. My personal fav was Goblet of Fire, because there's so much action going on that it's essentially the most exciting movie in the series, before darkness descends in Phoenix.