Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Yates
viewed: 07/16/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

By now, most everyone has seen it, even though it only opened a few days ago.  It’s breaking box office records.  And Felix and Clara and I saw it on Saturday along with an energetic, avid house of movie-goers.

The finale to the film series pumps up the drama and action, reaching for the epic.  And it does it well.

We finished reading the book a few months ago, so the only surprises were any narrative changes that they added in (of which there are a few, mostly for concision’s sake).  At 130 minutes, it’s the shortest of the film series (so I’ve read), and what with the first half of the book’s story told in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010), this film has what none of the others have had, more room to just be a movie.  All of the other films have had to pack as much as they could of the bloated novels, quirks, details, asides, whole side plots.   But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 only has to finish up everything, and even in that, they’ve made some shrewd decisions to keep the clutter at bay.

David Yates directed the final four films of the series and got a little better at it with each go.

More than anything, this series of 8 films, spanning 10 years in production, keeping all of the key cast members, and literally watching them grow, has been the production’s greatest triumph.  Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have all grown as humans as well as actors.  Digital animation has also improved notably in those 10 years too.  And the fandom of the series?  It’s massive.

The audience was waiting on pins and needles with bated breath by the time the opening credits rolled.   They cheered the characters as they appeared and cheered loudest when certain villains met their ends.  And the cheers and enthusiasm was fun to be a part of.

It’s hard to consider this film on its own, really, because by no means is it a film on its own.  It’s part 2, quite literally, of a single novel’s worth of narrative, though it contains the crescendo and finale of the entire series.  The epic quality isn’t just in the storyline, but in the production, an entire decade, watching these primary characters grow from children into adults (and how oddly appropriate, the final sequence, shooting into the future showing them aged yet another decade or so).  The accomplishment is the series itself, but this is a satisfying, well-handled ending to the whole.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) movie poster

(2007) director David Yates
viewed: 01/07/11

I’m a little Harry Potter’ed out of late.  My kids, on the other hand, are in full Harry Potter swing.  At night, we are reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  In the car, they are listening to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  We’ve revisited Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) recently on DVD.  And when asked what they wanted to watch on Friday Night Movie night: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007).  Well, one side-effect for me is that I am much more caught up on the stories that before I’d never read or viewed in quick succession.

Order of the Phoenix is the film of the 5th book in the series, also the 5th film in the series, and the first of an eventual four films directed by David Yates.   Yates before Harry Potter was mostly a British television director.  I don’t know that he’s brought such a signature “style” to the series, but he has manfully managed the monstrously long tomes and delivered them on-screen as increasingly entertaining films.  Order of the Phoenix is probably the weakest of his contributions, as he’s seemed to have gotten stronger as he’s had more consistency in the director’s chair.  He’s inherited, largely, a cast established and designs established under Chris Columbus, who directed the first two films.

The main plot of The Order of the Phoenix centers around the evil machinations of Delores Umbridge, the newest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (every year there is another).  She’s played in the film by Imelda Staunton with perfectly cringe-inducing aplomb.  Unlike so many of the other villainous villains, Umbridge is decked out in pink and represents authoritarian control with a smug, polite smile upon its lips.  She’s all the more creepy because she’s so banal and under such a pretense of being benign.  Staunton is very good.

It’s funny, but with this inundation of J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus(es), I’ve really been gleaning this vivid and colorful world view of hers, at times slyly embedded in the narratives, other times blatantly embodied in the characters.  Umbridge, for instance, is a critique of an overzealous government, with over-regulated rules, controlling and conforming the populace.  Evil with a smiley face.  What’s also interesting is her portrayal of the press, embodied in two different publications, The Daily Prophet and The Quibbler.  The Daily Prophet is, while widely read, full of highly-slanted, politically-motivated news, and often outright lies.  The Quibbler, on the other hand, is a publication of conspiracy theorists, and while often aligned more with the truth than The Daily Prophet, is also equally dubious in publishing the equivalent of Bigfoot sightings or UFO abductions.  I haven’t gotten my head entirely around it (maybe when I finally see the final installation or the kids talk me into reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) but the wizarding world contains quite a lot of socio-political commentary.  And it’s quite interesting.

Well, with the kids all hepped-up on Harry Potter, I don’t doubt for an instant that this will not be the last re-visit to a film from the series before next summer’s release of the final segment of the filmic narrative.  But I can certainly say that it’s far from the worst of these epic children’s collections, though it has certainly spawned some lame rank imitators.  Such is the curse of success, I suppose.  Felix likes to point out to me, from his latest Guinness Book of World Records, that Rowling is the wealthiest author on the planet.  Good for her.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) movie poster

(2001) director Chris Columbus
viewed: 12/17/10

The kids had never seen the first Harry Potter movie, and as Felix was just finishing up reading the first book of it, he was keen to see the film.  It’s actually been kind of hard to get a hold of from Netflix because, I’m guessing, that a lot of people are catching up on the series.  For Felix, it’s been peaking in his interest, and Clara has been enjoying them too.

I hadn’t seen this film since it first came out in 2001.  And it’s kind of amazing that the film is nearly 10 years old.

The kids were particularly amused by how young Harry, Ron, and Hermione appear in this film (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, respectively).  And it is quite striking, especially having just seen the most recent film where they are all now clearly young adults.  Here they are, playing 11 year olds, meeting for the first time.  It cracked the kids up to know end as they meet one another as their youthful selves.

I think I’d been kind of harsh on this film when it first came out, because it’s really a decent children’s film.  What’s telling is not just that the characters and actors are younger, but as J.K. Rowling had written the story, the film’s adventures and story are more age appropriate for that demographic as well.  What is still, if not more, striking, is how well they cast the film.  The child actors are all very good and the adults are all notable English thespians.

And the film’s design, which they’ve hung on to throughout the series, is a lovingly and surprisingly well-rendered version of Rowling’s world.  I would say that the digital effects have aged less well.  The troll sequence, though the kids enjoyed it, looks particularly cheap and cheesy.

The film was much enjoyed by the kids, and more enjoyed by me than the first time around.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1 (2010) movie poster

(2010) director David Yates
viewed: 11/20/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The penultimate Harry Potter movie.  What can I tell you about it that you don’t already know?

Even at the time of this writing, after five days in release, the film has brought in over $125 million dollars, and the majority of the most avid Harry Potter aficionados will have already seen the film.

Besides that, there is a ubiquitousness to Harry Potter now, a franchise much bigger than its prior not-so-humble beginnings.  I don’t know where he stands exactly in the world of popular movie icons, but he’s everywhere and with the growing anticipation of next year’s finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011), this is one of the biggest film events of the year.

What’s really interesting about this series of films (and yes, I have now seen them all), is how going back to the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(2001), they have used, over what will be a ten year span, the same primary actors in all of the roles (with one exception due to an untimely passing).  The primary actors being children, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, makes this all the much more unusual and amazing.  The fact that they cast three children who would be capable enough to make eight films over a decade, grow with the characters over the duration of the film’s narrative time (also about 10 years), is really something of pure casting magic.  None of them were known child actors before this.  Now they have grown over the 10 years in the public eye and on the screen in the roles of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, respectively, and have all gotten better.

It’s really quite something.

But for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which took J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter tome and split the story into two films for narrative management (the thing is close to 800 pages long) and for financial gain, the other rather amazing thing is that the film is actually a better film than most of the rest of the series.  For director David Yates, this is his third Harry Potter film after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince(2009) (he’s also directing the final installment as well), after a range of directors had done the first four films, including Christopher Columbus who did the first two, Mike Newell who did Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire(2005) and Alfonso Cuarón, who up to this point made what I considered to be the best of the films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).

I would say that most of the films of the series were strong in their casting and general visual design, bringing Rowling’s characters and world to the screen in a way that really seemed to capture her vision.  Of course, now, after a decade or so of these films, it would be hard to even remember what one’s vision of the characters would have been without the likes of Radcliffe and co.  But the films typically also tried to manage Rowling’s rather unwieldy tomes, books often fattened with details and subplots, that really could have used editing in print, much less on the screen.  Boiling down hundreds of pages into two hour or more installments tended to be the major tripping point and often the movies, while capturing the Harry Potter universe, Hogwarts and all, was well done, the overall feeling was not one of great satisfaction.

But oddly enough, I didn’t find myself faulting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsquite so much in this.  That’s not to say that it’s an amazing film nor to say that it couldn’t have been better.  The story sags significantly in the middle in its long ponderous time in the woods with Harry, Hermione and Ron sniping at each other while they hunt for the fragments of the villainous Voldemort’s soul (called horcruxes).  Borrowing perhaps from J.R.R. Tolkien and not borrowing quite so well.

And for me, who quit reading the books after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire due to fatigue, seeing the story unfold in my original exposure, probably played out more engagingly as well.

My son saw the film with a friend on the same day, so I took Clara to the film, my 6 1/2 year old daughter.  Taking my 6 1/2 year old daughter to a PG-13 film wasn’t something that I did unthinkingly.  She’d seen the more recent films (I’m not sure that she even knows which Harry Potter films she’s seen and which she hasn’t) on DVD, and she had great excitement for this, and she assured me that she wouldn’t be frightened.  Besides jumping at one or two leaping snakes (leftovers perhaps from when this film was going to be released in 3-D, as the finale will be), she did quite well, and she liked it too.

Ultimately, there is next July 15, when the second half of Rowling’s final book is brought to the screen.  When we all get to do this again, re-consider this franchise, the growth in physicality and in talent of the young cast, the management of a big, big, big ten year, seven book, eight film epic, and how many things had to go right to get it to work out this well.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. David Yates
viewed: 12/11/09

Okay, full disclosure: I’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies, either in the theater or on DVD.  And actually, my original semi-plan was to read ahead so that I’d read the book before seeing the film version of each episode.  But then I just never got enough oomph behind me to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  So, I didn’t bother trying to catch it in the cinema, and thought one last reprieve would be waiting for DVD.

But then up came a Friday night movie night with the kids with no plans and it had just been released and Felix has been listening to one of the stories very avidly on his iPod, so I bit the bullet. I decided that I will probably never read another Harry Potter book, just watch the damn movies.  Entertainment and diversion shouldn’t be work, right?

This currently latest cinematic episode was also directed by David Yates, who helmed the last film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), and who seems to have gotten his feet under himself a little more on this episode.  Felix had actually seen the film with his mother in the theater so was the only one of us who knew what was going to happen.  A bit of a different situation for us.

So, it’s kind of different for me, going into a Harry Potter movie and not knowing the overall plot, etc.  Actually, it made it a bit more enjoyable.

I’m definitely someone who as far as adaptations go, am one to credit the original material over the adaptation, typically meaning the book over the film, if you are ordering the experience.  One way or another, you kind of take something away from the one that comes second.  You know what’s supposed to happen.  You get an idea of how it’s supposed to go, what characters are “supposed” to be like.  And obviously in books, you have to imagine a lot more and film fills in a lot of blanks that you don’t even realize yourself that you are filling in, just plain via visuals.

With the adaptation of popular material, film is usually the secondary or further interpretation of the material, so the onus rides on the filmmaker “to get it right” or simply “not to screw it up”.   Harry Potter is a major case in point.  They are adapting innumerable characters, locations, events that millions have read and envisioned on their own without any Hollywood intervention.  And one of the biggest successes of the franchise has been that they did a very good job in casting and art design, so that only the hardest core of nerds would be dissatisfied.

But then you get the other side of the experience, those who are only introduced to the characters as played by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, and others, to the point that when they do turn to the texts, they are imagining the people and faces that they have learned rather than imagining from their own mind.  And even those of us who started reading it before seeing it, still have a hard time looking at other texts without imagining the actors in the films in the roles of the characters on the page.

It’s a bizarre conundrum.

Anyways, this film was a little more compelling to me, perhaps because I didn’t know what to expect.  I was able to follow the story as the film wanted to tell it, not deviating from some template that I already had laid out in my mind.  And so I found it engaging, though through popular culture and just assumptions about the culmination of a narrative, while full of invention, is also pretty straightforward, kind of knew what to expect.

It’s weird to see how the actors have grown up in their roles.  I think about the Star Wars franchise and how we waiting 3 long years between episodes as kids, and here with modern franchising and production that they make these films for serial release, using the same cast, not having to replace people (though the original Dumbledore, Richard Harris, did die and had to be replaced), but you actually see them mature through what is a relatively concurrent pace with the characters.  They lucked out in casting.  Even with as much science or intuition, it’s still luck.  The cast has all matured and developed in line enough with the maturity of the story and characters.

And the narrative is increasingly darker and a wee bit more mature.  Clara, I think, might enjoy the first film/story, but this one was definitely a bit old for her.  It’s a conceit that worked for author J.K. Rowling throughout, and it’s worked for the film franchise.

Though it hasn’t been released yet, the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has been turned into a two-part movie, milking that cash cow lest she die fully unmilked.

In case you are interested, I’ll place the links to the other Harry Potter movies that I’ve written about over the years.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chris Columbus
viewed: 06/27/08

There’s been a lot of discussion in our house about the PG vs. PG-13 ratings.  My son is a bit obsessed with films that are PG-13, partially due to the fact that he wasn’t allowed to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  He fantasizes about developing his own films that are all rated PG-13 and is also quite excited about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, wanting to read it even though he’s never read the other books.  We are actually reading the first Harry Potter book right now, and partially because he already got a chance to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) because we have his uncle’s copy on DVD at the house, I decided to sit through it with my daughter and him.  I’d seen it in the theater at the time of its release and had thought it was decent.

Frankly, the Harry Potter film series blurs a lot in my mind, with few exceptions, though I more or less remember them all.  My practice is to read ahead enough to have read the book before the movie comes out, simply to stay a tiny tidbit ahead of the game.  I’ve been enjoying them on my own thusfar, so this is in many ways my first experience seeing them through my children’s perspective at all.

The first two Harry Potter films were both directed by Chris Columbus, to whom we owe Home Alone (1990) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), among other things.  The big thing about the series of films is that the casting has been good as has the art design.  I’ve got no beefs with J.K. Rowling or the whole thing, really.  I watch them.  I largely enjoy them.

This run through with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets surprised me only in a small way in simply that I did enjoy it.  I hate Dobby the house elf, though Felix enjoyed him.  It’s all pretty complicated for the kids, definitely over my daughter’s head largely.  Lots of narrative, lots of plot points, lots of details.  It’s almost baroque in a sense.

But hey.  It’s not bad.  My favorite of the books and movies so far has been part 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).  It’s been impressive how they’ve kept this film franchise rolling, keeping the main actors in place, watching them age and develop along with the narrative.  An interesting experiment if nothing else.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. David Yates
viewed: 12/24/07

My approach to the Harry Potter series has been to read the book before the movie is released.  So, I’m still two books away from the ending.  And this series is, I think, two installments left now, too.

I think the films as a whole are pretty well-put together.  The casting and art design captures the books as well as one could imagine films doing.  But the big problem that they have is handling J.K. Rowling’s tomes in the duration of a typical, long feature film.  With a running time of 138 minutes, it’s no short film, but still, they bloat by trying to get in as much of the books’ narrative elements and characters.

In this episode (how it feels), director David Yates manages much of the sequences pretty well, but to try and downsize the time and number of sequences, the film drops into 3 or 4 long montages that are meant to depict the passage of time and events in a tighter fashion.  While this is a typical cinematic narrative device, here, you can almost see someone reading more intently in places and then skimming large parts in order to hurry the whole thing up.  I don’t know if there is a better way, but it felt pretty uninspired.

Most fans of this series of books and/or movies have probably read the finale already, so my speculating on what is to come is a moot point for anyone but myself.  I have to say that while I enjoy these films to a degree, there is also a sense of drudgery to it as well.  I guess that I’ve committed this much time and energy to them, I might as well see it through to the end.

And not even once did I consider Dumbledore’s sexual orientation.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Mike Newell
viewed: 01/07/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

The amazing thing about this movie is actually how it constrained the sprawling 734-page novel into a cohesive 157 minutes. Credit the writers for cutting out a lot of fat from J.K. Rowling’s heavy tome. I know because I read it not long before watching this film. I’ve kept up with the books usually just in anticipation of the movie releases, though a couple of volumes behind the crowd and the book releases. It’s good stuff.

The thing that the films do well is visualize the books. It’s all very literal and well-designed. It’s always quite striking how close the films come to capturing the world and characters to the way that one imagines them while reading.

What was really impressive, too, was seeing this film on the IMAX screen at the Metreon. I happened to catch the last Star Wars film on the IMAX too and it’s just cool. It’s hard to get over the hugeness of everything. And for this Harry Potter installment, the sweeping landscape shots around Hogwarts struck that much more of an impact on their pure vast scale. It’s really the essence of seeing something on the “big” screen.

All in all, the Harry Potter franchise is certainly not the worst such thing out there. It’s pretty fun. I can say that was I the target age range for this stuff, I am sure that I would have eaten it up. It’s not genius, but in some ways, it’s more pedestrian aspects sometimes are part of its charm. It’s guileless.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chris Columbus
viewed: 11/27/02 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

The Harry Potter phenomenon. Like many such phenomena, 99% of it is media-made hype. That is hardly breaking news, but it’s still worth pointing out when approaching a film like this.

In a slightly less cynical time, not all that long ago, I still enjoyed these big Hollywood productions for what they were and came to think that the hype and commercialism could easily be viewed as all part of the film. The media frenzy is a wholly intentional and heavily “worked at” goal of the studios and the monies behind these products. With tie-in’s at fast food chains, toys in every format that one could imagine, and video games to boot, the film experience of a big Hollywood prefab “blockbuster” is inclusive of the barrage and inescapability of the film all around us,…whether we see it or not.

When I say it was a less cynical attitude, I mean that I kind of enjoyed the onslaught, the gluttony, the gimmicks and toys. I found it fascinating and amusing. Now, I just see lots of landfill.

This extraneous noise of the hype of a film, its ubiquitous advertising and its shared cultural excitement (which most of the children — and some adults I know — share in), is absolutely a significant part of the viewing of a movie like this. I think it often plays heavily into the frequent disappointment that films such as this evoke. I mean, how could they in fact live up to so much hype?

I also often wonder about the way that these films will play in years to come. They are such products of their time, often rooted heavily in the special effects of their time, and they tend to reflect the most polished and “cutting edge” technologies and ideas of a period. They become dated and passe very quickly. And years later, when the hype has petered out, they will be seen with totally different eyes and in utterly different contexts.

Again, this is always true of pretty much any film or cultural product. And I am sure, I am not saying anything new here. But this is all part of the “baggage” with which I approached this film.

I have read the first two Harry Potter books (keeping up with the kids on the street and all) and while I don’t think that they are ground-breaking classics of children’s literature, I did enjoy them and I do think that they mostly represent a better cultural phenomenon than, say…Pokemon.

So, anyway, about this film. I thought it was better than the first film, which did an amazing job at rendering the world of the books visually and a reasonable job at casting. I thought the first film’s visual design was excellent, but its rushed narrative tried to pack in the entirety of the story. It ended up being less engaging than I would have liked. This film had the same visual design (less significant in its familiarity, but still very nice) and seemed to be better overall. Of course, I found the second book to have a better sense of narrative development, too, so maybe that had something to do with it, too.

There are a lot worse cultural products and a lot worse films than this one. The film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is not bad, but one ought to be suspicious of all things that come with too much excess effluvia and hype. I am.