Friday, November 19, 2010

Chapter 30: In Which I Do a Movie Review

When people mention the Harry Potter series, I inevitably point them towards the Chronicles of Prydain. I understand what Rowling was doing, framing the mono-myth as a literal coming-of-age story. In my opinion, Lloyd Alexander did it better, he did it in a fourth of the page length and he did it over 40 years ago.

The books always bored me, what with the cardboard villains and no variation on the usual hero's journey. The mysteries never seemed too exciting. I've had more fun reading Wikipedia summaries of the books than trying to slog through the meandering plots. I've been on and off with the movies. Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favorite fantasy films. It's a dark, beautiful and truly effective film that actually made me care about Harry. Goblet of Fire was funny, entertaining, but also overlong and burdened with unnecessary nods to the book fans. Order of the Phoenix barely held together as a coherent movie; its just a succession of plot points. I skipped Half-Blood Prince. Hearing good reviews, I decided to catch the new one.

I liked it. Definitely didn't need to be two movies. I heard the characters spend a huge amount of the book camping, and this is translated to the film. They could have cut out a lot. There's not a drop of set-up for the uninitiated, but I didn't mind that. Expecting a recap in the seventh chapter of an ongoing storyline is kind of nonsensical. The film starts right in the action without a moment to breathe.

The main appeal of these movies is their longevity, the idea of the films and filmmakers growing with the audience. Watching the films evolve has its own interest for me. Seeing the cinematography that's reminiscent of Azkaban; the Ghostbusters-style ectoplasm wand battling from Goblet of Fire; the wand fights substituting sword- and gunfights, which started in Phoenix. All of these elements have been added over the years, and are now at full use in this movie. The films have their own mythology now. There are repeated call-backs to previous films, characters who show up just to be there. The absolute waste of some of the world's finest actors might rile some, but I never watch these movies expecting to see Alan Rickman or Maggie Smith do real acting. They're window-dressing to the teen angst, and that's fine.

The plot's incomprehensible. Also par for the course. I enjoyed the urban fantasy elements. Seeing Harry and pals have a wand shootout in a diner is pretty cool. The movie moves them between the wizarding world and ours, with good results. One moment they're in the middle of London. The next, they're in fantasy woodlands populated by evil wizards who all look like the cast of Les Mis. One moment they're in the ruins of a trailer park, the next they're in the Terry Gilliam-style Ministry of Magic. There's an amazing broom chase over a highway. I liked finally seeing these movies transplanted to a recognizable, modern English setting. All this is helped by maybe the most seamless special effects I've ever seen. I'm a geek: seeing fantasy tropes updated (and so well) will always get me. There's also a shadow puppet fairy-tale in there that I found genuinely enchanting. It's the kind of stuff you'd expect from a Tim Burton movie, if Burton was actually the visionary he's advertised as and not just a soulless Hollywood factory.

Everything skids to a halt when THE CAMPING starts. The Hogwarts students start spouting clunky exposition when they should be having character moments. It gets boring at parts. Still, the actors playing the Trio are solid, having grown into the roles after being not the best child actors in the world. I also liked that the movie acknowledges the chemistry between Harry and Hermione (which may simply be due to the actors), even if its only in a platonic way, and showed how it affected Hermione's boyfriend Ron, who already has jealousy issues about his heroic friend. This part also has some nods to Lord of the Rings and King Arthur that I enjoyed. Fantasy is nothing if not about paying homage to your forefathers.

Where I've always felt these movies missed the boat was in the human element. Because I saw Azkaban, I know there is the opportunity for emotion in these stories. Not just because of attachment to the books, or getting to see an actor grow from a boy to a man onscreen, but the emotion that stems from the characters and their situations. This is the story of someone growing up, with all that entails, while shouldering responsibilties he is nowhere near ready for. Harry is a hero, sure. He's also an orphan, an abused child, a person with plenty of reasons to lash out. In the Azkaban movie, he does. All of this has been lost in the last few movies, in favor of cramming in every single red herring from Rowling's books. In doing this (and, yes, I'm speaking as a non-fan) I think they might have lost some of the books' appeal. HP book fans I know are wild about the characters. I don't know anybody who watches the blockbusters for anything other than special effects. As someone who believes strongly in character, watching them squander that has been pretty disappointing.

These movies hold a distinct place in film: they are the most expensive fan movies ever made. Only Azkaban holds up as a film. The rest are for the joy of seeing these characters onscreen. Deathly Hallows part 1 was an enjoyable enough matinee. I have no real desire to watch it again.

All the same questions remain. Why don't they just use guns? Why don't they use the time travel device Hermione had in the third movie, go back in time and kill Voldemort when he was a baby? On that subject, why is he such a weak villain? Why is there a spell to fix everything? Because it's Harry Potter, and it will always be that way. This isn't deep entetainment and was never meant to be. For me, the magic is seeing such a classic style fantasy translated to modern times. And the concept of watching a cast grow together over ten years is undeniably fascinating. I remember watching the 6 original Star Trek movies as a kid, being intrigued how the plot and themes developed over the course, and how the actors aged but retained the charm of their characters. Harry Potter seems to be that for this generation. And it's cool they have that.

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