I remember when I was introduced to the Harry Potter books back in middle school. It was exactly the time when Potter Mania hit hard over here in America with the release of the third book. If it was popular here before that, I don’t remember; that’s at least when it became big with schools as part of the reading program. My English teacher had a few copies of each book, and made a waiting list so we could read them. It didn’t take too terribly long to get my hands on one. I took it home and read damn near half the book in one sitting. After that, like the rest of the world, I was hooked. After finishing the first and second books, I went out and bought the third, as well as the other two. Needless to say, I preordered every one after that.
So when I heard the next year there were going to be movies, I rolled my eyes and thought “How could a movie series possibly be of any worth compared to the greatness of the books?” Looking back now 11 years, 8 movies, 4 more books, and a film degree later, OF COURSE they were going to make a movie franchise. How could they not? It’s a guaranteed box office goldmine! If I had the same taste in movies then as I did now, I would have been a little uneasy in hearing that Chris “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York” Columbus would be directing the first movie. With hindsight, I realize that was okay for the first couple movies, because they would have needed to be flat-out kids movies. The characters are 11, after all. Why not have the director of The Goonies direct the first couple Harry Potters? Any more after that would’ve been a mistake though, as the books, along with the characters, grew up and matured.
Unfortunately, the result of having four different directors over the course of 8 movie releases means they’re a little uneven. In my estimation, they range from brilliant to just okay. One holds a sore mark for me, but I’ll get to all that eventually. Before I see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Deux, I decided I’d better sit down and watch all the movies, one by one. I’m releasing this article in two parts (appropriately), so by the time I have the second part written I will have seen the last movie in its entirety. In the second part of this article, I’ll give HP7Pt2 an appraisal based on all that has come before. Ready? Here we go!
WARNING!! AFTER THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS! WHY ARE YOU READING A RETROSPECTIVE IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE MATERIAL?! SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE BUT IS ALSO A GOOD GUY, HARRY GETS SUPER EMO IN BOOK 5, LUPIN IS A WEREWOLF, AND HARRY’S RELATIONSHIP WITH CHO GOES NOWHERE. OH, AND HARRY GETS KIDNAPPED BY TIME-TRAVELING NAZIS FOR THE FINALE. OKAY, THAT PART DOESN’T REALLY HAPPEN, BUT YOU GET THE POINT! IN FACT, TO ENSURE YOU CAN’T SIMPLY SKIP OVER THEM, ALL FURTHER SPOILERS SHALL APPEAR IN BOLD.
1. Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone
The first Harry Potter film is a very decent almost note-for-note adaptation of the book. There are a few key differences, but I’m going to try not to compare the movies to the novel series too much. This article is about the movies, not the books.
First, I have to address it: Daniel Radcliffe acting in this movie leaves something to be desired. Having said that, he does get way better even from the first movie to the second. But in the meanwhile you kind of have to suffer through it for the first film. For example, here’s a shot of Harry’s reaction to seeing his beloved owl Hedwig for the first time:
Ron and Hermione also have that “first time kid actor” aura, but it’s a little less grinding on the nerves than Harry’s acting. They, too, get better from the first movie to the second. Ron’s acting transformation is especially worth noting, but more on that in the second film. Hermione is perfect from the get-go. Her acting in each film nicely reflects the age of her character. She’s a perfect know-it-all in this film.
I can’t help but pick on the CG effects for this early ‘00’s film. I know, it was 10 years ago, and most CG from then looks laughable now that we live the age of Avatar. But still… I think the CG in the first Harry Potter is kind of crap. Here’s the troll:
The lag in effects becomes especially apparent during the Quidditch match, when they try to have CG humans fly the broomsticks in place of the actors. The technology to successfully have CG stunt doubles wouldn’t mature until around 2006 or so, so I guess I can’t get on them too much about that.
A couple of leftover notes before I move on to the next film. Firstly, this film was released a year after Goblet of Fire came out, so there had to be a few things the filmmakers didn’t know was going to happen. I caught this the first time I saw it, but I could be misreading it. Tell me, are Harry and Hermione exchanging looks in this scene?
Lastly, who’s job was it to put contact lenses on this cat? Because I feel so sorry for him.
(Also, I soo want life-size Wizard’s chess to be a real sport. The closest we have to that reality is Chess Boxing.)
2. Chamber of Secrets
DOOM Secrets is a nice shade darker than it’s predecessor. I take it back when I said Chris Columbus would’ve been a mistake if he had continued to direct the films after the second. Kudos, sir. The acting from all three leads is loads better. Daniel Radcliff had to have gotten some useful pointers between films, because previously awkward expressions and reactions are smoothed out, and now play to get comedic timing. Speaking of which, this is when Rupert Grint started to show his great comedic acting chops. Every time I see this face:
I can’t help but bust out laughing. There’s also this:
Emma Watson’s acting as Hermione is a subtle change, but it’s there. She blends with the group dynamic nicely. Another notable joining the cast is Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle.
She plays it over-the-top, but not too much so. Just the right balance of funny and melodramatic teenager. It’s just a shame she only appears in two movies. I wouldn’t mind her just showing up at random, like Nearly Headless Nick. Alan Rickman as Snape gets to shine a little more in this film than the last. In Stone, all he really did was show up and be foreboding, and only got one scene to himself. A great example of this is the Wizard Dueling scene.
We’re also introduced to a younger Lord Voldemort in the form of Christian Coulson as Tom Riddle. He looks a lot like Ralph Fiennes, who as this point wasn’t attached to the series as far as we knew, so kudos to the casting people for that. He is very handsome in comparison to his final appearance.
Until of course this happens:
Finally, this movie marks the last appearance of Richard Harris as Dumbledore, who sadly passed away before the making of the third movie. I have a special fondness for his version of Dumbledore, so much so that I initially didn’t like Michael Gambon’s portrayal, but more on that later. I think if he had continued to play Dumbledore, his later badass would’ve surprised us because of his initial kindly manner. And he probably would’ve taken his death like a boss in the sixth movie. But we can only speculate what that would’ve been like.
RIP, Mr. Harris.
The only thing I have to say about the special effects in this movie is: better. Muuuuch better.
One thing I’ve caught watching these movies this time around are the foreshadows of things to come. Not entirely sure if they’re mostly intentional or not, but they are interesting. For instance, when Ginny defends Harry from Malfoy in the book shop, Malfoy says: “Looks like you’ve got yourself a girlfriend.” Again, this is only two years after the fourth book has come out, when Harry’s love interest is Cho Chang, and there is no real inkling that Harry and Ginny end up together. Another possible foreshadow to the next movie is this shot:
This is also the final Potter film for Chris Columbus. Chris: you weren’t so bad after all.
One thing before we move on.. Scabbers the Rat has his second obligatory appearance in the series, after having a coulple of brief scenes in the first movie. In this one, it’s one shot and name mention, just to remind you that a) Ron has a rat and b) his name is Scabbers.
3. Prisoner of Azkaban
This. This is one of my favorite books, which became my favorite movie. Very nicely done. Sadly, it’s the only film in the series directed by the great Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Y tu mamá también (the film that landed him Harry Potter) and Children of Men. Alfonso’s approach is very stylized, something that the later films try to carry on somewhat. You can pick out the style in individual shots and scenes, like the two mirror shots that serve as a wrap-around for the Boggart scene.
The special effects for the series get their foothold in this installment. The Dementors’ depiction is especially frightening. You really believe they could make Harry pass out.
I don’t think I’ll comment on the acting from here on out in this article, seeing as everyone is in their element and firmly in their place on that front. Notable casting, however, is another matter. This movie has Gary Motherfucking Oldman. It was my first introduction to him, and from then on I believed he could play any role and get away with it. Even though Sirius’s Death two books later is really sad, the fact that Gary Oldman only gets two more movies is even sadder to me. Especially since he has to hide for the majority of it. Here’s a pic of Gary as Sirius Black so I can move on, or else I’d be tempted to fill the rest of this space talking about him.
Two other casting tidbits before we move on: Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is a nice addition to the cast. Slightly unrelated is how the actor and character of Neville Longbottom is progressing nicely, especially since his evolution is important to his shining moment in Deathly Hallows Part II.
The Weasley Twins gain some more screen time and notoriety in this film (as they should). For one, their fledgling candy making business gets underway in a nice playful moment in the Gryffindor dorms at the beginning, and they get to introduce the Marauder’s Map.
This depiction of the map is so iconic and cool that ThinkGeek sells a life-size copy of it for $35.
One thing this movie warps a bit from the other films is the way the Hogwarts grounds look. For example, here’s Hagrid’s hut in juxtaposition to the grounds in the first film:
And here it is in the third film:
Quite a bit more distance and dimension. Also great is how Cuarón uses the grounds to effectively depict the passage of time, most often with the Whomping Willow.
The part I was really looking forward to in this movie was the time travel scene, and it did not disappoint. It’s a great beat-for-beat mimicking of the scene in the book, with some directorial flare added for fun. It’s what completes this movie for me; very satisfying. The Time Turner sequence in Madam Pomfrey’s sick ward yields fun shots like this:
Couple of wrap-up points for this film: first, Scabbers the Rat is redesigned to look like Timothy Spall (who is also a great casting choice, as he does look very much like a rat.)
And lastly, the kick-ass Marauder’s Map-inspired credit sequence.
4. Goblet of Fire
I’ll start off by saying my memory tricked me into thinking Robert Pattinson was in every movie leading up this, and I’m kind of disappointed to learn he wasn’t. Stupid vampire roles notwithstanding, that would’ve been cool.
Okay, now let me lead you through this, because this is my biggest nitpick with the entire film series. Movie opens with a weak Lord Voldemort speaking to Pettigrew and some other guy, and they kill the caretaker. Strong start for the upped PG-13 rating. Then Harry wakes up in the Weasley home, skipping the whole Dursley business. Okay, good. Good cut. Then they immediately take a portkey to some campgrounds and see this magnificent shot, accompanied by Mr. Weasley saying “Well kids.. Welcome to the Quidditch World Cup!”
They quickly show us the Weasley’s T.A.R.D.I.S. tent, then we’re presented with this:
The Weasleys climb to their nosebleed seats, and are treated to the magical fireworks and fanfare of the Irish and Bulgarian players as they fly onto the stadium, brooms blazing. They show off their broom skills as Krum, one of the key players in the story, is introduced as a world famous Quidditch player. They even make a point to highlight what he looks like so you’ll remember him later.
They make a big deal of this, and even show you, the movie audience, a closeup of his real face superimposed on his large magical screen face. Then the Minister of Magic introduces the game. Huh, I guess all the other players are chopped liver. Okay, moving on… the Minister of Magic welcomes everyone to the 422nd Quidditch World Cup.
He takes out his wand and shoots a ball of light from it. “Let the match… BEGIN!!”
We follow the ball of light all the way up and out of the stadium, where it consumes the frame and fades to… this:
What… the… SHIT…
By this point in the film, we are at a little less than ten of the 2 hour 40 minute runtime, and the most epic Quidditch match in the series is glossed right the hell over. The entire screentime involving talented Quidditch players flying on brooms, showing off and NOT PLAYING QUIDDITCH is given a minute and a half of the movie’s time.
I know I said before that I wasn’t going to talk about the books in relation to the movie, but I just feel that as a movie, this fails. And it’s mostly because the storytelling falls short of what made the book so good. These are mostly minor things, but they translate into major things.
The first thing, you know Krum? The person the non-existent Quidditch scene sets up? He’s hardly in the movie. Fleur Delacour? Forget about it. And she even has more lines than Krum. The character of Cedric is set up just enough to where you feel sad when he dies at the end.
Mad-Eye Moody? Great performance here, but his character in the book is an adversary to Harry, much like Lupin is in the third movie, he’s just reduced to this year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who’s a little nuts and drinks. Leaving out Harry and Mad-Eye’s relationship minimizes the impact when we find out the Mad-Eye we’ve gotten close to turns out not to be the real Mad-Eye, and is in fact a Death Eater named Barty Crouch Jr.
Rita Skeeter is also sadly minimized. I don’t know why she’s even in this movie. The whole point of her being there is to cause more PR trouble for Harry, making it satisfying when she’s put into a bug jar at the end. By having her in the movie and not including that ending we’re again robbed of a satisfying conclusion to her story.
Also, I don’t know if this is an actor or director fault, but Dumbledore just seems too rough with Harry in this movie. Check out this still where it looks like he’s about to strangle Harry.
Those are the bad things. Now for the good:
Director Mike Newell is not a bad director. He’s directed such notable films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pushing Tin, Mona Lisa Smile, etc. Though the movie was very uneven, he did get the interactions between the main characters right. First, he kept alive the slow buildup of the awesomeness that is the Weasley Twins.
Second, by largely downplaying the relationship between Hermione and Krum, he was able to better explore what was going on between her and Ron, a subject that is further explored in the next movie.
Neville’s character finally starts to gain some depth in this story. We find out about what happened to his parents and his connection to Voldemort, a point that is important for later on. Also worth noting: I’m not sure if this is in the book, but the scene after the Yule Ball totally implies that Neville got laid.
Couple points to wrap up this movie and part one of this retrospective.
This is the first movie to feature Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, and he shines. You just want Harry to kill him all over again. His screencaps will feature heavily in the next part of this article, so here’s a pic of the rubber baby Voldemort:
Lastly, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance at the end of this movie serves as a preview for the angst-ridden hormone-driven teenager that Harry becomes in the fifth movie.
In part 2, we get to the real meat of the series, including the epic finale ten years in the making.
Harry Potter will return in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of DOOM! (Part II)”
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