Monday, November 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Billion-Dollar Franchise

Has there ever been a film series as illustrative of the fact that “the book was better” than Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter?

While entertaining, none of the films – including the deservedly praised Prisoner of Azkaban – have come close to capturing the feel of Rowling’s world. Part of this is simply the fault of the imagination. What our minds can concieve is always going to trump whatever special-effects wizardry Hollywood conjures up (no more bad magic puns, I promise). It’s a credit to Mike Newell, director of such effects-free films as Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, that Goblet of Fire comes the closest so far to doing just that.

That the movie inevitably pales in comparison to its source material is forgivable here, because what Newell creates is the first Potter film that feels like a movie, and a really good movie, at that.

Goblet of Fire is, by and large, the most popular Potter book among adults, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s the first of the series to break away from the Scooby-Dooish plots of the the first three books. It’s the first to begin expanding Rowling’s world away from Hogwarts. While I’d argue that Order of the Phoenix is the Empire Strikes Back of the Potter books, you could probably make the same case for Goblet of Fire. It’s damn good.

And it’s dark. There’s death, confusion, the fallibility of adult role-models, and the long-promised return of He-who-must-not-be-named.

What’s great about Goblet of Fire, the film, is that it doesn’t shy away from any of that stuff. GOF is a dark film, a decidedly adult film, even as it offers enough to the kiddies to keep it safely in family land. While there are a handful of people out there who haven’t succumbed to reading the Potter books (I’m looking at you, Adam), I’m writing this review under the assumption that you’ll know the plot before hitting the theater. If you’re not familiar with the books, there are a few spoilers here. I’ll do my best to mark them, but you’ve been warned.

What’s great about the film is how it flows. The first two Potter films were marked by a dogged reverence to Rowling that ultimately hindered the films. They were nice to look at, and solidly made, but somehow uninspiring. I own them both, and they’ve gotten virtually no play since I saw them in the theater. Alfonso Cuaron’s Azkaban was a marked improvement, but the sense of the movie as a Disney-like theme park ride that whisks you past various well-made tableaus remained. What Newell manages to do is wrest his adaptation from the jaws of slavish recreation, hacking vast sections of story out and focusing in on the core of the thing.

The result is a movie that breathes, and that allows the audience to finally connect on an emotional level with the characters in this medium. The slight remoteness of the first three films has been replaced with a textured realism that makes the magic seem, well, magical, and the characters more human.

GOF the novel contained an in-depth subplot on Harry’s fame, and the heretofore-unexplored price of it. GOF the film recognizes that, entertaining as it was, that section of the book doesn’t contribute much of anything to the essential story of Harry’s journey, and the character of Skeeter (played gamely by Miranda Richardson) is given a glorified cameo in the film. Hermione’s house-elf sub-plot is tossed as well, and both these excisions give the central story-line of the Tri-wizard cup room to breathe.

It also allows Newell to focus on a clear strength of his – relationships. There’s an authenticity to the emotions of the characters in GOF that the previous films made slightly more forced. While Azkaban went a long way toward remedying that, GOF goes a little further. The movie’s far better for it, because when characters are put in danger during the course of the film you’ve invested in them to the point of worrying for their safety. I give enormous credit to the filmmakers for making me worry about the characters when they’re placed into danger. Despite knowing exactly how it all ends up, I found myself wishing that things would turn out differently this time, and that’s entirely due to my feeling “closer” to the emotions and relationships of the characters.

The cast (with one notable exception) appears to be growing into these roles with each subsequent film, and its been fascinating to watch as Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint (Harry and Ron, respectively) age along with their characters. No other film series has attempted to film a series this long with the same group of actors. Both do a fine job with their roles, and as usual, the supporting cast is stellar. By the time this series concludes, they’ll have employed virtually every single notable British thespian alive, and the sheer collective firepower of these people is a joy to behold. There’s rarely a false note struck in the character work for these films, a surprising, pleasant rarity.

Sadly, Emma Watson fumbles the ball pretty damn badly here. Her Hermione is an over-acted, twitchy-eyebrowed mess, and not in a good way. She’s been perfectly fine before in each previous film, so I can’t help but to lay the blame at Newell’s feet. He’s an actor’s director, and for him to have let Watson go the way he does here is poor direction on his part.


While we’ve steered into the realm of criticism, let’s also spend a moment discussing what is the movie’s biggest misstep – namely, the telegraphing of Mad Eye Moody’s true identity. Throughout the film, Newell drops elephant-sized hints about this, and to anyone who’s familiar with the books (which is, safely estimated, probably about 90% of the audience) it’s jarringly in-your-face, ruining the final reveal.

Entertainment Weekly’s review of the film criticized the look and performance of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, but I disagree entirely with their opinion. Fiennes (strangely recognizable under some very effective make-up) gives a performance that, especially in light of the revelations given to us by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, feels right. Voldemort is not some spooky, unknowable cosmic baddie. He is, or was, very human in his evil. There have been a lot of comparisons between Rowling’s Voldemort and history’s Adolph Hitler, and Fiennes’ performance reinforces that. What makes Voldemort such a chilling villain is ultimately not the children’s book style pure-evil of his first appearance. It’s his philosophy, and that philosophy’s power over others. He is the Alpha-dog of a belief-system that embraces thinly-veiled, allegorical racial purity. If he did not exist in Rowling’s world, those who follow him would still harbor the same thoughts of superiority. Like any form of racism, or evil, it exists outside of any one person’s control. Fiennes nails the creepily-charismatic allure of leaders like Hitler in the herky-jerky movements of his new-born body, and most especially in his line delivery. It’s a terrifically realized performance in a movie that’s chock full of them.

GOF will be the first Potter flick that I see myself popping in at home just for the heck of it. It’s accomplished in the way that truly classic cinema always is. It works well as a kiddie flick (though it’s dark enough that if my child was under, say, seven years old I wouldn’t take them), but equally well as an adultish, Star Wars-esque coming-of-age tale. It’s done gangbuster’s business so far , and it deserves its success. At this point, Warner Brothers could slap together a Harry Potter flick with the Olsen Twins and a Super-8 camera and still make millions. It’s a real pleasure to see them continually improving their franchise.

While you’re at the theater, do yourself a favor and see Good Night, and Good Luck as well. Clooney’s film is a well-shot, well-acted piece that, despite its flaws, gives you a sense of just how much the world has changed, and how its stayed the same.


At 12:45 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

I haven't seen any of the movies (other than part of the first one) and only read the first book. It'll be a while before I remedy that, but I must say that the trailer for this one made me want to go watch it. If I get the chance would seeing this without having the benefit of the books in between be worth it?

At 2:49 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

That's a good question, and I don't know the answer. It'd be a bit like seeing Return of the King without having seen Fellowship or the Two Towers, I suppose. You'd "get" it, but it might not have as much resonance for you.

Its a well-made, enjoyable movie, nonetheless. I'd also compare you seeing it to seeing Serenity without having watched Firefly.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

I'm in the process of rectifying that. I borrowed the Firefly DVD from a friend and have watched the first few eps. Good stuff over all.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

Note the last item on the list.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

For my part, I've read the books at least three times each. Due in part, I'm sure, to my slightly addictive personality. But in any case, I think it could go either way. I really like the books. The movies a little less. But I watch them anyway.

So, in short, I'm no help whatsoever.

At 12:36 AM, Blogger codemorse said...

You are, however, unfailingly honest. A noble trait, Sir Nizzle.

The Onion never fails to elicit a chuckle for me, Cap. Hagrid as "daddy bear?" I think I need a shower. Preferably con Brillo.

At 12:38 AM, Blogger codemorse said...

Also, kudos on picking up Firefly.

"If someone tries to kill you, you try to kill 'em right back!"

Malcolm Reynolds is my hero.


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