Having spent the first 2 movies avoiding Harry Potter, I was intrigued by the choice of director to finally watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. That movie, with its time-turner, Buckbeak and the incredible Gary Oldman, impressed me enough to give the rest of the series a chance. Still, I kept the series at arm’s length, not able to get caught up in the mania that surrounds both the movies and the books. Given this, I feel I am in a unique position to check the movies from strictly a film point of view. Anyone who tells you that the book is always better than the movie is either a snob, or has not ever read a novelization. I simply don’t buy the premise. It is comparing two entirely different mediums. You might as well be comparing a poem to a song. The resemblance is there, but its only a reflection, or, better still, a ghostly image moving in a portrait.
The criteria I use to evaluate each movie will be somewhat simple: special effects, richness of characters, complexity of story, reliance on cliche and overall entertainment value. With no background (or ball and chain) to compare it to the books, one is free to watch the movies and leave them where they are. One does not have to agonize on how they cut out half the story here, or left that character underdeveloped. Not tied to that, I will try to view these movies in the most objective way possible. The screenplay adapters of all the movies but The Order of The Phoenix is Steve Kloves, with Michael Goldberg filling in with only minor differences in character development.
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters
Characters Introduced – This is, of course, the first time we see Harry, along with his friends Hermione and Ron. Harry is an open book, literally. You know everything he knows about himself. Every other major adult character seems to know more about him than he does. Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry as an open innocent. Afraid, but still walking forward, due to a sense of obligation to parents he never knew. Speaking of obligation, Hermione is played to perfection by Emma Watson. Someone who knows her potential and has no doubts about her ability to meet it, despite her muggle parentage. Ronald Weasley, however, is essentially played, for better or worse, as a pre-drug version of Shaggy. His constant mugging and making bad choices are an easy source of cheap laughs. Too cheap, with its overall dragging effect on the pace of the story.
Hagrid is really just a large source of exposition in this story. Though I have never been a fan of Robbie Coltrane, he does more than enough with the character to make him worth sticking around. As Snape, Alan Rickman proves to be the most inspired choice of the movie in established character actors. His scenes are priceless, scary and never wasted. Maggie Smith is quite effective as the kind of teacher that would make any student wonder if they are in the right school. Richard Harris lends his stature quite effectively to the character of Dumbledore, as perhaps the biggest mystery of all.
Special Effects – Compared to what is to come, the special effects here are passable, if somewhat comical. The off-color look of whatever character being front of the blue is something out of the original Superman movie. The animated characters, Fluffy and the Troll look okay, except for the grey tint. It is the kind of thing that makes you cringe looking at them now, but back in 2001, they were a bit better than average. Columbus has never been one known for his prowess with digital or even generic special effects. It is a long way from Home Alone 2 to Hogwarts.
Story - This one is, in a way, most crucial, but also the one with the most leeway. He has to be lost, found and make his way to Hogwarts Academy, make new friends, new enemies and see the shadows creep in on both his potential and his past. All of these things are handled with competency, and sometimes cleverly. Voldemort’s introduction is clever, but somewhat goofy.
Cliche - There are no real killers here, aside from the decently played Uncle, Aunt and Cousin. Lo, the poor orphan, indeed.
Overall - (*** out of *****)
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring afore-mentioned above and Introducing Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs and Bonnie Wright
Characters Development / Characters Introduced - Radcliffe’s Harry has a lot going on here…and not much of consequence at all. Harry, Hermoine and, by default, Ron, play sleuths here, just like Scooby Doo. The result is more character development for Hermoine, who is quickly showing to be a driving force for the series. Harry, showing a little bit less of his perplexed look from the first film, is growing into a de-facto leader.
Lucius Malfoy is a delicious introduction to the story. Superbly acted by Jason Isaacs, Lucius supplies the sense of indignant dread that the almost comical portrayal of his son, Draco. Looking at the father, you take the son a bit more seriously. As Gilderoy Lockhart, Kenneth Branagh is given a throwaway character, and his performance is so hokey, it almost throws the Potter world into parody. At least Bonnie Wright comes into her own as a minor character in the series.
Special Effects – Like the first movie, the special effects are good, but hardly something worthy of the work of say, Peter Jackson.
Some characters, like the Phoenix, Fawkes, and the Basilisk seem to be something out of Jumanji. The scenes with Aragog are about on par with Arachnaphobia, but nowhere near Shelob’s lair.
Story – This is a somewhat by the numbers affair. So many clues spew forth, you expect the Mystery Machine to show up at any time. Speaking of the Mystery Machine…
Cliche – Ron’s mugging is really becoming a standard move. Every other scene, he has that stupid clueless look, and all the other scenes, he spends his time looking for food. We have a young Shaggy, pre-drug phase, in the works. The only question at this point, is where is Scooby. To complete the circle of bad cartoon caricatures, Draco Malfoy goes between toothless menace and goofball loser in a clunky, unconvincing way. Add that to that the poorly written Lockhart and you have the worst movie of the series.
Overall (** out of *****)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring all of the above and Introducing Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall and Emma Thompson
Characters Development / Characters Introduced – This movie is the giant leap forward. Harry is incredibly assured. Hermoine is bending time to achieve more throughout the days. Ron…still an idiot. Gambon takes over for the recently deceased Richard Harris, and he adds an assurance to the role which will serve the rest of the series well. Emma Thompson’s talent is wasted on a minor character, but Timothy Spall works magic as the rat that betrayed so many.
Gary Oldman, richly textured as ever, is only the second best new character in the movie. As Professor Lupin, David Thewles adds a more human element to the role of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. His guidance works well
with Harry’s newfound assurance, and moves the story forward better than any point earlier.
Special Effects – This movie got everything right, so naturally, the effects are flawless. The Hippogriff, Buckbeak and the Dementors are seamless with the action. This movie puts Harry Potter on the movie history map.
Story – Dropped are the stupid mystery themes. Instead you have real movement forward with Sirius Black, Lupin and the central trio (at least Harry and Hermoine). Harry comes to terms with more of his past, and new allies are revealed. Cuarón is a master storyteller.
Cliche – Ron creeps ever closer to Shaggy territory. Buckbeak, to be put to death because of Draco Malfoy’s impudence? Cliche, thy name is Draco
Overall (****1/2 out of *****)
Directed by Mike Newell
Starring all the above and Introducing Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson and Robert Pattison
Characters Development / Characters Introduced - Gleeson is as good as you’d expect portraying Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Ralph Fiennes has played bad guys so often, his turn as Voldemort gives you the willies just imagining it…which is pretty much what you have to do, as his scenes are pretty sparse. Miranda Richardson is sufficiently annoying as a news reporter. Robert Pattison gives a game performance as the nearly perfect and completely doomed Cedric Diggory.
Harry is thrust into the limelight in this one, after being surprisingly picked to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. Hermoine and Ron are given precious little to do, aside from play footsies with other young wizards at the big dance. This is an uptick for Ron, as for some strange reason, he is acting as if Hermoine is not worth getting on his hands and knees for . That said, Hermoine finds a little romance on the side, but not so much she can’t give Harry a bit of help in getting through the tournament. Harry finds more help along the way, but really, his fate here is a foregone conclusion, as in the end, he was always meant to face down Voldemort.
Special Effects – There is nothing here on the level of Azkaban, but still, not really a step back.
Story – Concentrating more on Harry’s tie with Voldemort and leaving the mysteries as more of a means to an end, we are allowed to see Harry’s descent into near madness, as he is faced with the insanity of the real world refusing to believe that the nameless one survives. You begin to see that any help Harry can get on this journey is not going to serve him through to completion, and Harry gets his first real brush with death in the angelic Cedric Diggory.
Cliche – No adults believe Harry because it is…inconvenient to the plot. Cedric Diggory is truly too beautiful to live. Ron is nearly completely Shaggy at this point.
(***1/2 out of *****)
Directed by David Yates
Starring the above and Introducing Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter
Characters Development / Characters Introduced - This is the movie where Harry is frustrated beyond the point of reason. Dumbledore helps with gentle pushes here and there. Hermoine does everything she can. Ron acts like an idiot, and gets a fan, inexplicably. The kids are all becoming self-reliant, but strangely, a lot of them act like spells are a new concept.
Of the newbies, Staunton excels as Dolores Umbridge. Her performance is filled with passive-aggressive hatred, and it really feels good the way she abuses our heroes. Helena Bonham Carter, well, acts like she always does: demented. She doesn’t really add much.
Special Effects - Nothing here detracts from the story, and the scene between the Order of The Phoenix and the Death Eaters in the Department of Ministries is breathtaking at times. At this point, the effects are somewhat good enough to take for granted.
Story – This one is the point where children become wizards and witches, for better or worse. To get there, many adults have to seem to be helpless, and ignore obvious signs, but oh well.
Cliche – Ron is at full Shaggy now, with only Neville Longbottom competing with him for most inept. Throwaway characters abound, in the death of Sirius Black, if only to have an ally pass into the great beyond so Harry keeps on understanding that Voldemort really means it. And these Voldemort losses are piling up, too. With seemingly no effect, either.
(**** out of *****)
Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince (2009)
Starring all the above and Introducing Jim Broadbent
Characters Development / Characters Introduced -
Harry has picked up a few friends in his journey to manhood. Among them, Luna Lovegood, an outcast herself that Harry Befriends in an earlier film. Their development reflects on his ability to lead, if only by noticing others that most dismiss. Draco Malfoy, losing his father, Lucius to Azkaban in the earlier film, now is forced to step up, and conveniently, Severus Snape is somehow duped into protecting his development past the threshold. Draco’s character is given a slight boost here, but it is still hard to sense anything but schoolyard bully with the character. Snape, more expertly handled by Rickman, if not better written, shows a path of not necessarily evil intent. Hard to do, and Rickman does it well. Dumbledore still pushes Harry alone, with nothing but half-truths and Obi-Wan rhetoric.
Special Effects – Magnificent at times, especially in the cave where Dumbledore drinks the potion. The effects are far from being a distraction at this point.
Story - Full speed ahead. All of the elements of the movie story are coming into place. This movie has the most movement in explaining the nature of the Horcruxes that keep allowing Voldemort to come back again and again. We find how many there might be, at a seemingly great cost to Harry. One could almost cram the material of the other 5 films into 2 (Azkaban and the rest) and then move right on into this one.
Cliche – Like Diggory and Black, Dumbledore’s death is a seeming harbinger of many more in the last movie, because you cannot get through to a happy ending without one’s pound of flesh. Ron will never amount to more than a punchline, for some stupid reason linked like a ball and chain to the brilliance that is Hermoine. As for Snape, given that he is bound to be evil in the beginning of the book, might he really just be a nice guy? Yeah.
(***1/2 out of *****)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 – 2010
Starring all the above and Introducing Rhys Ifans and Bill Nighy
Characters Development / Characters Introduced - Xenophilius Lovegood, Lunas father plays the proprietor and editor of The Quibbler. Rufus Scrimgeor, the new, albeit temporary Minister for Magic. At this point, Harry, Ron and Hermoine are spending a good part of their time running and mystery solving. It is alternatingly jarring and dreadfully slow, and the effect is understandably hard on their characters. Ron’s back and forth, brought on mostly by the possession of the Horcrux Locket, is more believable than some of the rows that have been forced upon the duo. The effects of being left alone with Hermoine is never brought to a tawdry place, and that is to be commended, if it is on the unbelievable side. Then again, its similarly unbelievable that he would leave his burgeoning love, Ginny Weasley, at home.
Special Effects – Can’t really say there is anything that memorable. The fight of the seven Harry’s is so fast and jarring, it is gone before you know it. I guess the standout for me would be at Bathilda Bagshot’s house. Any time you see a snake evolve out of an old lady it is a cause for alarm. Overall, however, the fights are very brief, I think, to be able to keep the kids in the room.
Story - Entirely the most confusing storyline for those who have not read the books. Those who just saw the movies might find it almost impossible to figure out, if not paying attention to every single moment. What you do get, appropriately, is an overwhelming sense of dread, so much so, that it seems, after seeing the book split into two movies, that the first half, was cropped at the right place, even if it left you hanging.
Cliche – At this point, too many people have died off-screen to accuse them of pandering. This movie is intense, if shortened. The most clichéd moment, perhaps, was the presentation of the Malfoys of having totally lost their nerve. Bullying seems to have been their limit of comfort.
(***1/2 out of *****)
And for my full review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 1, click here.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2 – 2011
Starring all the above and Introducing no one new, really, but we see a lot of characters in a whole new way.
Characters Development / Characters Introduced – Where to start? I think that this episode is a grand reward for any of those who are a fan of the underdog. Neville comes literally out of nowhere to kick a large amount of tail. Malfoy and his family literally turn away from the fray when it gets too intense. The most development, of course is set for Snape and Harry, for reasons revealed in the vile of tears and in King’s Cross.
Special Effects – Yates saved the best for last. Among the many highlights are the dragon under Gringot’s, the reproducing items in the vault, Dumbledore’s sister in the picture and the fight in the Room of Requirement. Slight negatives for the still odd-looking giants. The rest is so amazing, and often times subtly so, it can be overlooked.
Story - This is where it all ends, so every thing needs to come together. That it does. The Horcruxes unfold neatly, as does that little scar on Harry’s head. So many lives lost, yet everyone is still able to justify carrying on. A particularly chilling effect is the voice of Voldemort overhead, bargaining with those who, in the end, know it is a line of bull. They give it the amount of credence that any reasonable person would. The 19 years later epilogue is appropriately brief and respectful. It leaves a good feeling, and that’s what we are looking for.
Cliche – One of the biggest is the charge by Ron, but it also was just as awesome as Han Solo’s. Another would have been any sort of lengthy wand showdown. This did not happen. I credit the first to Rowling’s ingenuity of killing off Harry without a fight,and the second to writer Steve Kloves and Yates, for editing the poorly written book version into something…different. In this case, different is good.
(***** out of *****)
And for my full review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2, click here.