Harry Potter Retrospective Part V: David Yates & the Phoenix Ordering Half-Deathly Hallows

So, we have reached the end of our retrospective. As I mentioned last time, this final examination of the last four films in the Harry Potter franchise was going to be truncated. As one could tell by how sporadic these updates were, other activities took up my time and distracted me from doing this regularly. So, I decided to pack all of the continued analysis into one article. There is at least an appropriate reasoning for connecting all of these beyond the obvious franchise umbrella. All of these films were directed by David Yates, who also returned to the franchise with the prequel series Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (which you can read my review of in that link). Yates’s previous career was mostly limited to British television before he directed Order of the Phoenix. Yet, he managed to take the influence from the work Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron & Mike Newell did with the first half of the franchise and formed the aesthetic of that would close the series… which mostly involved muted colors.

That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s probably the lasting element that carried over as far as style is concerned. Many a Harry Potter fan has attempted to justify the timeline of the books (which take place throughout the 90s, hence explaining why no one has cell phones) as the same era in the films. Yet, while hints of modernism existed in the earlier four films, Yate’s introduction firmly trounced that the moment Dudley starts scoffing against Harry in his mid-2000s era British chav wear. The sleek modern touch Yates brought appropriately places the oncoming threat of Voldemort into a landscape us Muggle viewers can fret about. Yet, he still doesn’t forget the fantastical world we grew to love. There’s still plenty of wonder and magic to be found, but the bleak circumstances make it those flourishes all the more magic. But let’s stop talking vague.

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Harry Potter And the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

While Goblet of Fire mainly focused on the society of the wizarding world crumbling apart under the surface, Order of the Phoenix is about Harry and his adopted family coming closer together. By this point, most of the story takes place outside of any classroom. We’ve moved to the corridors and crevices outside the realm of possibility, allowing people like Sirius Black and the Weasley family to feel even closer to Harry than ever before in the dark recesses of The Order. Harry helps save Mr. Weasley’s life and Sirius confides in Harry his utmost desire to give the boy a proper home. Harry forms a resistance group to fight off the threat no one in government is willing to admit. These bonds tighten here so they can be broken apart by outside forces and emotional destroy the audience emotionally.

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Such outside forces include the best of the Potterverse’s secondary antagonists Professor Dolores Umbridge. Played to cheeky passive aggressive majesty by Imelda Staunton, Umbridge represents everything that’s wrong with the Ministry of the Potterverse. She’s a snake in a pink facade. Behind her cheeky smile and exuberant attitude is a vicious racist attitude of old trying to suppress any sort of rebellion. Right from the moment where she punishes Harry, we know this woman’s cheeky attitude is a ruse to keep control. We also get a glimpse into the cold, titled decour of the Ministry of Magic for the first time, giving us a sleek modern visage of bureaucracy that rules over this world with iron clad precision. It’s the perfect reasoning for Harry to start Dumbledore’s Army, an action that shows just how down hill the rule of the Wizarding World has gone and promotes Harry to an actual place of action as the “Chosen One.”

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Still, these forces destroying the world aren’t as effective as the forces destroying the family Harry has built. The death of Sirius Black shouldn’t be nearly as brutal as it feels. We’ve only seen this character maybe thirty minutes of screentime, but Gary Oldman pulls out the right balance of headstrong dedication and warm compassion to make every word feel organic. When he assures Harry that he can stay with him, there’s not a shred of dishonesty there. It’s a warm small emotional moment that’s broken by Bellatrix in brutal fashion. Yates also gives Oldman a quiet ghostly exit that literally sucks out the sound. It’s the perfect emotional climax to unravel the delusion that things are alright in the Wizarding World. The thing that shatters any hope Harry had of having a normal home, leading to one of the more impressive duels in the series thanks to David Yates’ fight choreography. Truly, Order of the Phoneix takes the context of the book and adds much more engrossing emotional heart tugging to it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Pissed Off Centaurs

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Harry Potter And the Half Blood Prince (2009)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is filler. Order of the Phoenix already firmly set us up to have Harry and his friends are tasked to fight off against Voldemort. That the entire Wizarding World would have to face off against him. Yet, we need to have another year long school story that’s barely even a story here just to get to the one moment that was so memorable it became a meme: Snape Kills Dumbledore. To be fair, the book this is based on was full of plenty of filler and even then the moment in question is well handled, mainly thanks to Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon‘s performances & Yates’ green tinted look that gives the film an extended sense of corpse shades dread. Still, this doesn’t make up for being treated to a lot more of the flighty teenage drama here, mainly with Hermione and Ron being confrontational over their love life pursuits. This isn’t like the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, which felt like a genuine empass of awkward teenage hormones. This just seemed like some sitcomish wackiness that feels excruciating for two and a half hours.

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Meanwhile, Harry sort of hunts down this titular “Half Blood Prince” mystery, but unlike the development that happens in the book, Harry just sort of uses it as a plot device to get on Professor Slughorn’s good side. Despite the best efforts of Daniel Radcliffe and Jim Broadbent in these moments, it doesn’t really amount to much of anything engaging. Just more set up for implied drug use via potions. So, when Snape makes his grand reveal… you’ve pretty much forgotten that Half Blood Prince was even involved in this plot. Oh, and Harry also starts his most baffling development in the timeline of these stories: his romance with Ginny. Ginny was never a character that seemed interesting enough to focus on at all past her brief plot relevance in Chamber of Secrets and here, the romance falls about as flat as it does in the books. Radcliffe has more chemistry with that waitress in the opening scene than he ever does with Bonnie Wright in the entire series.

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Honestly, the saving grace that keeps this tolerable beyond Dumbledore’s death is the actual lead up and how it manages to spotlight a rather underdeveloped character: Draco Malfoy. Draco prior to this wasn’t much more than sniveling pure blood Hitler youth, casting no doubts about his family’s ties to the Dark Lord. Yet here, there’s a worry about his grave task that makes him dimensional. A moment or two of palpable fear that makes his actions have weight and give Tom Felton more range to work with. It’s not a lot, but it’s the best string this has to swing on. Half Blood Prince is in such polar opposite to the powerful swings of Order of the Phoenix. While the latter took the source material to new heights of emotion and wizard dueling, Half Blood Prince guts the emotional context and boils it down to little.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Blackened Hands

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Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Now, if Half Blood Prince was filler, clearly this first half of the final chapter for the Harry Potter universe would obviously be wasteful, right? Every other time we’ve seen people split these final chapters up, it always feels unnecessary. Well, while Deathly Hallows Part 1 does seem long in the tooth, there’s at least a bit more reasoning to give this finale some breathing room. For one, the opening flying fight sequence. We get all of these characters together, only to see them turn into the literal title character of the franchise and split off to be chased by Death Eaters. It’s a vital way of setting up the stakes and a commentary on the guilt Harry feels at every turn as people are hurt in his name, something that will be extremely important come the climax of the next film.

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Yet, while we’re also highlighting the darkness inherent in this finale, there’s also plenty of quiet character moments that actually mean something. Whether it’s some of the humor of our trio sneaking into The Ministry of Magic or Harry & Hermione having their little dance to Nick Cave in the tent, we see these friends truly embracing each other’s company before things irrevocably change for all of them. Unfortunately, we do have to devote so much unnecessary time to a rift between Ron and Hermione & Harry that diverges so much time from more scenes like the dance. It’s another problem of adaptation, but this one more in keeping a useless storythread for the sake of filler. It’s not as confounding as the filler in Half Blood Prince, but still does mark this as a chapter that could have merely added an extra hour and change to the actual finale rather than totally justify the need for separation.

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Then again, the joy of Deathly Hallows Part 1 is that just as it starts to lose you, another tasty morsel comes in to satisfy. Probably the best example is the climactic animated sequence of the titular myth within the universe. It’s elegant and macabre in a way that sells the high stakes nature of all three items. It gives these magical objects far more powerful origins and destructive conviction. Same goes for the punctuation mark that is the finale, in which Harry, Ron and Hermione are saved at the last second by Dobby, only to see him die so suddenly. On the one hand, this is definitely less impactful than the book version given the amount of time we had with Dobby. Yet, by having him return here, he serves as a brief portal to the past, plugged by the shattering onslaught of modern change. Dobby’s death isn’t an empty one story wise. It gives us an appropriate cliffhanger moment of shocking sorrow we didn’t expect, allowing us to potentially be set up for the oncoming fest of feelings.

Rating 3 out of 5 Horcruxes

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Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Finales are tough. Once one gets past that fact that we have an ending, the expectations for it soar until they’re too close to the sun. Thus, setting up more than a fair share of disappointment. Filmwise, the second part of Deathly Hallows doesn’t suffer from lack of trying. We get a pretty full look into our larger recurring characters and their fates. Harry, Hermione and Ron get their fair share of moments, as do the likes of Snape, Lupin, McGonagall, Mrs. Weasely, Neville Longbottom and even Sirius Black & Dumbledore from beyond the grave. The trouble is, the true lack of development that was woven into the books plagues their attempted reveals in Deathly Hallows Part 2 cinematically. People like Tonks or Fred Weasley don’t have nearly the impact they’re striving for on an emotional level. They just sort of add up to Harry’s guilt that builds up to the climactic battle with Voldemort.

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However, even with most of its bountiful cast, Deathly Hallows Part 2 still manages to strike far more of a balance than anyone would have expected. The emotional highs and horrified lows our characters go through emotionally are incredibly well realized. There are too many to count but the main ones to highlight are Snape’s death, the Gringott’s dragon escape and Harry’s finale battle with Voldemort. Snape’s finale shows off Alan Rickman’s true range as an actor, emphasizing just how committed he was to seeing Snape to fruition. The dragon escape is a rousing way to start the film that immediately sets into motion the theme of escaping oppression. The finale not only allows Harry to earn his status as a Chosen One figure, but doing it on the terms of having his friends help. The deconstruction the The Chosen One trope in the Potter series always seemed to be an underrated aspect of the series. Harry isn’t a singular perfect being, but more of a leader able to recognize the talents of others.

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Even during his one-on-one battle with Voldemort, Harry knows he can’t actually accomplish this on his own. The entire series has been built on the strength of friendship. What friends do to help each other as things look their darkest. “Help will always been given at Hogwarts to those who deserve it,” Dumbledore says to Harry during his near death experience. A moment of realization that anyone who truly earns the friendships they’ve had will be able to find guidance from those closest. And that’s not just Hermione and Ron. Everyone from the rising hero of Neville Longbottom to the fallen anti-hero of Snape gave Harry the help necessary to defeat Voldemort. That even from the seemingly useless or lost souls can we find strength. Hogwarts may have been a school littered with perils and chaos, but it was able to bring people together of varying backgrounds who were united by a curiosity for magic.  The type of unity that gave Harry, Hermione and Ron the adventures of a lifetime and the chance to raise families of their own. And even if the three of them were poorly CG-ed to look older during the epilogue, that message still rings ever true.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Tears Into a Pensive

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Well, thanks for being so patient, folks. It’s been a long journey and we’re finally out of it. Happy Holidays and may… the magic be with you? Eh, I tried.

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part IV: Gobbling Up Fire

With their fourth year, the awkward stages of puberty are hitting Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwarts students pretty hard. Sweaty nightmare fueled sleeps, having to go to school dances and dealing with magical hate groups are on their trail, as is the case with most teens. Of course, nothing complicates matters most than something like a Tri-Wizard Tournament, a massive globe trotting competition that pits hormonal teen against hormonal teen in radical examples of putting children in danger. Yes, if Dementors and werwolf teachers weren’t enough, Hogwarts is pitting children against merpeople, dragons and each other all at the same time.

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The Tri-Wizard Tournament is obviously a means to an end in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This isn’t too outside the realm of Potter, given how every plot so far has eventually circled back to a big mystery. While expanding the scope of the universe, it also serves as a backdrop for the standard Harry Potter mystery. Not a bad backdrop, especially with its own not-so-subtle commentary on the distraction of sports from major issues that are right under our noses. As everyone is distracted by spectacle, Harry comes to the realization that not everything is fine under the surface of competition. Right from the start of traveling from the Portkey to the Quidditch World Cup that’s interrupted by Death Eaters, we get a larger sense of Wizard World culture’s darker underbelly. It’s even more apparent in the fallout, particularly with the Death Eaters being brushed to the side as quickly as possibly by the Ministry and replaced with the sensationalist journalism of Rita Skeeter. It removes another layer of this universe, showing a more psychological manipulation that’s taken over, especially with these children who are put on a pedestal as large as the Tri-Wizard Tournament.

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The trouble is that we really don’t get much about these kids participating in the tournament beyond Harry. Sure, we get Harry’s exposition motivated interactions with Cedric Diggory. We get Hermione having some kind of side relationship with Krum. We have Ron’s schoolboy fascination with Fleur Delacour. However, none of that really amounts to much of anything. Getting these things from the perspective of our trio is obviously a major aspect of the entire series. Yet, Goblet of Fire also wants us to feel invested in at least a few of these people, particularly Cedric. The entire ending’s emotional tug hinges on us feeling for Cedric and having the feeling of that death wash over everyone else. Yet, given Cedric’s only role in the film is that of an expositor and he’s played pre-Twilight block of wood Robert Patterson, there’s not much to go on. We’re told more about how we should feel with Cedric than anything, rather that having actual emotional investment in him. Still, this is all despite the best efforts of people like Jeff Rawle as his father giving his all during the reveal of Cedric’s death.

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Yet, it still falls on deaf ears when The Goblet of Fire is far more focused on our three leads. Here, the element of puberty becomes much more firmly planted between Harry, Hermione and Ron. They’re all focused on trying to get with members of the opposite sex out of some social obligation rather than genuine desire. The best moments here are when Ron and Harry awkwardly try to deal with the social pressures of asking a girl to the Yule Ball. It’s a great example of the type of relatable awkward tension that makes Harry Potter as a franchise endearing. In the middle of a film filled racing against fanciful dragons, swimming with merpeople and traveling through mazes made of dark vines, the most engaging scenes are the ones that feature these kids awkwardly stumbling around a school dance. This is especially the case for how it shakes up the dynamic between Hermione, Harry and Ron, splitting things off in a believable sense for a bunch of burgeoning pubescent folks conflicting with each other. It even further develops the increasing chemistry between Ron and Hermione in a more believable way than even J.K Rowling has been willing to admit as of recent. I just wish it would be surrounded by more compelling side character arcs… especially with a Cho Chen. Seriously, who cares about Cho Chen?

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But the Tri Wizard Tournament is at least a bit more intriguing in its bait and switch element. The more conflicting issue of this comes in the form of Mad Eye Moody. None of the problems have to do with Brendan Gleeson, who provides that perfect crabby bitterness needed for the part. No, the bigger problem that drives this particularly disappointing version of “Harry Potter the chosen one gets dragged along a track by somebody” trope that this series loves to do is driven by this Moody being Barty “Doctor Who Numero 10” Crouchy Jr in disguise. Sure, this provides a glimpse into the witch trials that went on, but it pretty severely damages Moody as a character from here on in filmwise. Whatever we do see from here on in is oddly less developed that this disguise who mostly spends his time hiding Polyjuice Potion behind a booze joke that connects the dots far more easily. Also, how could no one in Hogwarts not immediately investigate a teacher who turns students into rodents and putting them inside other students’ pants? That’s psychologically damage on levels beyond comprehension.

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Of course, we’ve been down this road with Hogwarts before. A road that leads to this Tri Wizard Tournament’s sad end and the rebirth of Voldemort. The sort of main reason for this one to exist is building up to his reappearance and it’s the honestly one of the better moments in the entire series. Mike Newell‘s gradual shift from the Tri-Wizard Celebration to this dismal cemetary sequence emphasizes the seedy under world of the wizarding world this entire film was building up to. The Klan-esque dedication to Voldemort shows something Harry didn’t really fathom in reference to discrimination. Even if it’s with obvious reveals of Lucius Malfoy being a Death Eater, it allows Harry to get a full grasp of how vast this has spread.

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Of course, the centerpiece of all this is Ralph Fiennes’ first appearance as Voldemort. Fully encompassing the snake like slithering through his movements that mirrors his make up, Fiennes has all the confidence and intimidation of a freshly reborn cult leader. The raspy intimidation makes him the perfect embodiment of everything slithering under this barely human form. The fact that Harry manages to “defeat him” via convenient ghosts is unfortunately a side effect of adaptation problems with the entire series. Yet, the impact of worry that still permeates is firmly there as Harry returns with Cedric’s body. That worry of the unknown prospect of Voldemort returning chills even Dumbledore, who our heroes cling to as the prime example of knowledge in adversity.

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The final scene of our heroes realizing nothing will be the same rings even truer in a modern context. Given the last week or so, Harry Potter‘s attempts to call out racism and adversity is something we need far more of. To see our heroes realize that sacrifice is imminent and that they’ll have each other to get through it shows a true sense of maturity for these young men and woman. Goblet of Fire is a turning point for Potter, even if it’s one that would have to face some filler material in the oncoming chapters. Still, the thematic drive of dealing with adversity will ring ever truer and make Potter something far more timeless than franchises of its ilk.

One final note: I do plan on finishing this Harry Potter series up soon, but unfortunately in a more truncated form. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrives in theaters this weekend, so I can’t complete four full analyses of the remaining films in that time. But you’ll see something to wrap all this up soon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dragon Eggs

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part III: Azkabound

In which the Harry Potter franchise hits a major turn. At this point, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were hitting puberty, just the right age to start genuinely developing their characters as people. The perfect age for a story as full of darker themes and situations as Prisoner of Azkaban. As the characters grew, their sense of discovery became tempered by the darker shade of the events around them. But these kids are only starting to mature and they’re already accustomed to giant creatures chasing them, conspiracy and death at every corner. Of course, it would only get worse as Hogwarts proved itself to be the most unsafe school in the history of fiction with every passing year.

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Seriously, Hogwarts is about as big a health risk as jumping off a bridge. The Harry Potter main setting does about as much damage to its students physically as it does psychologically. None of the staff apparently gets a background check (especially for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class). There’s no real night time security except for an old janitor, his cat & grim reaper looking ghosts that apparently can’t be controlled. The children are given reality altering time travel tools simply to be over stimulated by classes. This is some reckless shit that would get any private school shut down in a second. The last bit with the Time Turner is one of the bigger universe breaking aspects. A device that is explained away in the books but never in any subsequent film. It’s an eyesore continuity wise, but not enough to ruin this world too harshly… especially since no one here cares too much about danger.

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No, danger is of no concern at Hogwarts. For Harry Potter it’s just business as usual. Even with a new version of Dumbledore in place. Michael Gambon – taking over for the late Richard Harris – steps into the role quite well. While being slightly more active in how he carries himself, Gambon still keeps that slightly mischievous spirit with more of a skip in his step that provides Hogwarts with that unpredictable… let’s call it “charm” that’s simultaneously more intimidating and more human than Harris’ version. Speaking of Hogwarts staff, there’s also a new staff member in the form of Professor Trelawney, with her oddly prescient predictions. Emma Thompson has a sort of Doc Brown-style controlled madness to the part, perfectly balancing enough restraint to hone her eccentricities. Plus, it’s nice to see Hermione so doubtful of a teacher.

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Our familiar trio progresses along the near-lethal corridors with grace. Harry Potter himself has clearly hit his pubescent rebellious stage, starting right from Aunt Marge. This opener is a perfect example of new director Alfonso Cuaron‘s ability to balance a darker concept with a playful tone, as the disturbing notion of a woman being blown out to balloon portions and rising out the door is treated for oddly delightful comedic effect. Through Harry’s sarcastic reactions and defiant attitude towards his aunt, we see that Harry is starting to be his own man, not just one of many faceless students at Hogwarts. It’s Harry’s first ascension into being more than a vague legend, but an actual dimensional person willing to stand up for himself rather than scrape by. The stakes are higher and the innocence begins to fall by the wayside.

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This rubs off on Ron and Hermione quite nicely. All three were purposefully seen wearing their school robes far less than the other two films, showing more of a sense of personality and defiance. There’s Hermione’s pink hoodie that gives her less rigidity, Harry’s darker track suit that visually mirrors his personal isolation and Ron’s goofy hand-me-down sweaters that emphasize his detached upbringing. Harry Potter works as well as it does usually because these three are the rock that allows us to relate to these otherworldly surroundings, something Cuaron recognized and evolved from Chris Columbus’ smaller films. Even with the way this story was structured, there’s a bit more of a looseness to the characters while raising the stakes higher and higher. As Ron and Hermione hint at a potential love connection, Buckbeak makes his grave mistake that becomes integral to the plot. That constant tide between finding yourself and snapping back to the awful reality right in front of you fuels the directions this series will continue on.

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Given what’s going on during his third year, Harry Potter and his friends have every right to be fearful of their surroundings. An escaped killer who ends up being his godfather on the loose; a teacher who turns out to be a werewolf; Ron’s rat turns out to be the guy who… ratted Harry’s father out in disguise. Get it? Cause he’s a… rodent. Anyway, it’s a stressful time for that school, full of all sorts of well realized new threats that put the previous ones to shame. There’s a great contrast just in the transitional moments, where the Whomping Willow – a threat that nearly got out heroes killed last term – is mainly an indicator of the seasons changing while The Dementors roam around every inch of Hogwarts. The Dementors themselves are one of JK Rowling’s most disturbing creatures. Grim Reaper-style specters that roam looking for souls to suck out and keep the bodies alive as husks. Their actions are metaphors for the regrets people leave behind, allowing them to wallow in their past as husks of what they could be, just like Harry does with the prospect of being with his parents. Something he can never do, but seeks so badly as a child.

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Yet, the joy of every Harry Potter story is Harry growing accustomed to his savior role while keeping loyal friends around. There’s the mainstays of Hagrid, Hermione and Ron who go to great lengths to help him despite their own problems, but there are newcomers who give Harry solace and keep him on his toes. There’s Remus Lupin, who teaches him the inner strength of his Patroneous while constantly imploring him to use more careful reason. David Thewlis has the right mixture of authority and regret that makes him an effective surrogate uncle for Harry. He’s willing to let Harry discover his abilities, but wants to keep him somewhat in line. Of course, that serves as an ironic indication given his true nature as an uncontrollable lycanthrope.

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That irony is hinted at a few times. First, the dog Harry sees near start. While more specifically identified as a certain person later, this is the first hint at transformation that will later blow Scabbers out of proportion. This continues during the Riddikulus scene, one of the better examples of how playfully dangerous the Potterverse could be. Each child attempting to make the scary something silly shows this delightful comedic energy that was rarely seen in the series before or since. Using the silliness to deflate a serious threat. The imagery even manages to hold up thanks to a blend of practical and CG effects work, particularly with the giant jack in the box. It gives us insight into the various side characters of the Potterverse while providing a solid sense of levity and mystery to for the main plot. The type of playfulness that eases us into the darkness of this universe… and Alan Rickman in a terrible dress.

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Of course, on the grounds but hidden from plain sight is a crucial character for Harry to confront: Sirius Black. For most of the Azkaban, he’s a mythical side character relegated by his murderous reputation. One that Harry obviously takes personally. He’s part of the lore Harry has heard about with his parents, but unspecified enough for Harry to treat as this vessel to discovery and revenge. It’s a powerful emotional state for a youth, one that changes on a dime once Black reveals his true intentions. Gary Oldman has often been pigeonholed into maniacal roles, but as Sirius in Azkahban he shows off so many more facets of his personality. One of the more beautiful moments in the entire series is Black seeing Hogwarts again for the first time in ages. There’s an optimism there that’s clouded in regret and tragedy, especially from the perspective of one aware of what will happen shortly.

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Harry Potter tends to work best as it shows true progression for its leads. As a film, Azkahban is a true turning point. Not only are the kids dealing with much more mature situations, but the film slowly starts to shave or contort elements stylistically. The Whomping Willow is no longer a scary domineering figure but a neutral force of nature. John Williams’ usual whimsical score is much more nuanced and eerie here, indicating a first loss of innocence. Scabbers has become a hideous agent of evil from Harry’s past Peter Pettigrew (briefly played with ratty characteristics by Timothy Spall). These kids are aware their environment isn’t as trustworthy as each other. They’re the ones who save Buckbeak and Sirius without the help of adults. If anything, the adults here usually make things worse. You just have to use your magic map or clear wit or… time travel necklace. All the essentials.

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Alfonso Cuaron’s direction does such an incredible job of selling the scope of this world with some of his more private intimate scenes. Namely, the scenes of Harry flying on Buckbeak. For an isolated moment, in the middle of all this danger, Harry has an escape. A true awareness of how isolated one can feel in this vast environment and how that can be alright every once in awhile. This is a moment for Harry to be a person and soak up the brief moment of serenity he shares with this magical creature. This helps make the moments of true confrontation play out immensely well. Cuaron plays on the scrappiness of these children starting to fend for themselves. Even to the point of a finale time loop, that sense of isolation feeds into Harry’s self preservation skills. Hermione and Ron can’t help him and his parents won’t be much more beyond a heartfelt memory. Even if this whole thing ends with the child like glee of Harry on a new toy, danger still lurks around every corner to corrupt all of this. But we’ll get to that… whenever we reach for a goblet to drink from.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Animatronic Toads

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part II: Chambered Plot Points

Welcome back to the Harry Potter Retrospective. Obviously, it’s been awhile since our last excursion into the world of Potter, but I plan on making up for lost time over the next month or so. In the meantime, let’s focus on Potter’s second adventure. After a successful launch of the series, director Chris Colombus returns to Hogwarts for Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, an entry that both opens up the world building of the Potter universe and is incredibly repetitive in terms of what it takes from its predecessor. This is an issue inherent in the source material, given that the basic structure of the novel of the same name follows the beats of Sorcerer’s Stone to a tee. Still, the devotion that Colombus’ previous film had to its novel is exactly what hinders this one. With Sorcerer’s Stone, the use of elaborate set pieces gave us a larger window into the Potterverse. Here, that same structure is used, but the window is often foggy for the sake of set up via either repetition or for an admittedly well staged yet ultimately overbearing special effects set piece. So, the encroaching darkness that dominates the tone of this story does set up that thematic drive for future films, but also depletes the film of much surprise given its similarities to Sorcerer’s Stone structurally. It’s a bit of a conundrum for Chamber of Secrets, feeling like needed exposition with less sugar to help us swallow.

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Warner Bros

One of the better examples of this is the opening car sequence, which manages to use the audience’s expectations from the first film to hilarious subversion. The entire sequence hinges on how much the audiences are ready to see Harry go back to Hogwarts in the typical fashion, even if the Durselys have set up hinderances to keep him from leaving or even getting word via owls. So… let’s completely subvert expectations by having a junky 20th century car crash through railings. The subversion manages to continue through some well timed moments of slapstick humor to initially indicate how off Hogwarts and the magical world in general is at this point. It’s the best way of initially introducing that unease before things become far more sinister as the mystery plot unravels. Still, even with this darker dressing (sometimes dressing covered in blood), the plot still resembles Sorcerer’s Stone‘s structure beat-for-beat. Dobby’s entrance intruding on the Durselys is this film’s Hogwarts letters, the Tom Riddle mystery its Nicolas Flamel, Aragog its Fluffy and the more obvious connections like the Quidditch game or the ending vague philosophy speechifying by Dumbledore. Chamber of Secrets gives its tremendous supporting cast far less to do, from a brief sneer from Alan Rickman to the clearly sick Richard Harris‘ limited lectures in what would end up being one of his final performances after his death a few months before the film’s release. It’s a shame when the strongest returning supporting performance is Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, who spends most of the film banished for contrived purposes so that the cast can literally slow clap the film to its end credits.

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So yeah, there’s an obvious formula in Chamber of Secrets. Of course, future Harry Potter films will obviously have elements that recur or familiar threads. I’ll obviously address those later. That’s not to say that some of these recurring elements aren’t done with some new flair here. I’d argue the Qudditch match scene here is a decent improvement over the one in Sorcerer’s Stone, mainly in terms of focusing on Harry and Malfoy’s own conflict rather than Harry attempting to get through the game. Introducing Tom Riddle here gives more of an authentic face to the threat of Voldemort than the poorly plastered CG face on the back of Quirrell’s head in Sorcerer’s Stone. The Defense Against the Dark Arts gag is firmly established here, in which the teacher who takes the position ends up being uncovered as something more sinister and disposed of in a fitting fashion. Kenneth Branagh takes Ian Hart’s place for this entry, showing off his usual bombast with enough ego to support his ultimate selfish turn. In terms of new elements, the biggest are probably the lovable and insanely large Weasley family that starts its evolution as Harry’s surrogate family in the world of magic, from the motherly Julie “Molly Weasley” Walters to his future love insterest Bonnie “Ginny Weasley” Wright. There’s also the concept of Mudbloods, which feeds into the prejudices of the rather Aryan inspired Malfoy clan (including newcomer to the franchise Jason Isaacs that gives his co-star Rickman a run for his money in terms of still iciness) and Hermione’s drive to strive in the world of magic, as a way of proving that prejudice wrong.

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That head strong motivation manages to create a genuine reason for splitting up our trio of Harry, Hermione & Ron. It’s their literal sophomore slump, often trying and failing to live up to the expectations set out for them as they get deeper into this mystery. Hermione goes in over her head trying to use magic against it, Ron continues to disappoint in his magic studies and behavior with elements like the car & Harry becomes so enraptured in the mystery of Tom Riddle to see the clear danger in front of him. Yet, it still follows the basic beats that enables Harry to directly face a threat on his own from Sorcerer’s Stone, which gives this genuine reason less impact thanks to predictability. It can be somewhat tiring at points to lead us from set piece to set piece, but the effects work and little nooks and crannies of the universe discovered along the way are pretty damn entertaining. The mixture of CG & practical work on monsters like Aragog and the Basilisk are still astonishing. Even Dobby still feels like a living breathing creature for 2002 level special effects, though Toby Jones‘ delicate voice work adds a huge amount of sympathy. This culminates quite well with the ultimate sock reveal that gives Dobby freedom, though it’s a shame that the House Elf Liberation Subplot would ultimately go to the wayside for the films, leaving Dobby to languish until he would be needed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

harry-potter-and-dobby

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There’s a lot to fault Chamber of Secrets for. It’s repetitive reputation proceeds it. Yet, it’s not at all a slog to get through. There are fun character beats, the cast returning & new is still entertaining to watch develop and the tone of the rather grim climax manages to keep the ominous potential of films to come afterward intact, even giving Harry more to do than the one for the previous film. Even some of the moments it repeats are improved, but that’s still not enough to make the general actions of Chamber of Secrets stand out that much. It’s pretty much necessary set up with fun set pieces to help the medicine go down. Yet, it’s not without triumphant moments. As cliche as the slow clap finale is, the return of of Hagrid still brings a smile to my cold cynical heart even after over a decade. It shows that the schmaltz of Chris Columbus could still be utilized well, but at the same time was overstaying its welcome and Warner Bros wisely saw fit to change up the director’s chair for a darker auteur. Until then, let’s wait to see how those planted Mandrake scenes sprout and scream in our ears for next time (which will be sooner rather than later) for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Basilisk Fangs

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part I: Stoned Sorcerers

In anticipation of November’s release of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I plan on revisiting all of the films in the Harry Potter franchise. This will likely be a once a month type deal, though it’ll vary depending on time and the films in question (ie anticipate both parts of Deathy Hallows coming shortly after one another). In any case, I should explore a bit of my history with the franchise. Harry Potter served as a pretty significant pop cultural touchstone for myself and those I grew up with. More so than even the Star Wars prequels that were being released around the same time, this was the highly anticipated series of films that my friends & I eagerly awaited on a semi-annual basis. It also served as the first series of films where I had read the books prior, working up that book geek feeling of disappointment over details that weren’t in the final adaptation. Yet despite meaning so much to me at the time, I haven’t really taken a look at any of the Harry Potter films since Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released five years ago. Until now, that is.

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So, our journey begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (at least for American audiences like myself, though Philosopher’s Stone is a far more appropriate title that I guess Warner Brothers figured we couldn’t wrap out heads around). Director Chris Columbus – most likely chosen due to his practice getting memorable performances out of child actors in Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire – had the immense task of introducing JK Rowling’s world to cinema and quelling the needs of the demanding fanbase at the same time. The resulting film is often criticized for feeling too close to the page, but that dedication to adaptation is honestly needed for an introductory film like this. Through the eyes of young Harry himself, we get a vibrant sense of variety that this magical land hidden beneath our own can give. The wondrous ennui of discovery from the halls of Hogwarts. The danger that lurks in the shadows of the Forbidden Forest. The hauntingly infinite sadness of the Mirror of Erised. It’s the perfect combination to build this wondrous world yet tease the terrors that will come in the inevitable future of the franchise. Of course, Columbus’ direction would be nothing without the seminal production design by Stuart Craig or the gorgeously sweeping John Williams score. There are moments where the seams are a bit more torn than others, mainly with the confusing and completely unneeded aspect of Qudditch that bogs things down in a sport that’s ultimately pointless and the rather muddy CG that makes the humans in particular look like Shrek extras. Yet, the better moments of the latter and the enchanting practical effects work strongest at crafting a world that hadn’t really been depicted in many mainstream fantasy films beforehand, arguably on par with the admittedly more vast and grandiose initial Lord of the Rings trilogy from Peter Jackson that came around the same time.

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Well, inevitable might not be the perfect choice of words. For the time, no one working on this first Harry Potter film knew if this would pay off. The gamble of putting out this first in a at least seven part series – let alone casting these kids and acclaimed UK actors – with the potential chance that some of them wouldn’t continue with it is staggering. Given hindsight, it’s a risk that ultimately paid off. Sure, one can see the training wheels clearly set in place for our leads. This works out for someone like Daniel Radcliffe, whose genuine stiff child actor awkwardness fits the titular character given his harsh and suffocating upbringing. Of course he’d be socially inexperienced and shy, which makes the embrace from his new friends all the more endearing. The same awkwardness isn’t as well worn by young Rupert Grint as Ron Weasely or Emma Watson as Herminone Granger, who have plenty of cringeworthy examples of delivery that show the type of naive acting choices they would luckily soon grow out of over the course of their ten year journey. Other child actors fit comfortably in their admittedly more standard roles, particularly Matthew Lewis as the dimwitted yet lovable Neville Longbottom or Tom Felton as an effectively slimy Draco Malfoy.

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But the balls they fumbled are picked up wonderfully by the immense talents around them. Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid is the perfect lovable deliverer of initial information. His emotional honesty instantly attaches us not just to his character, but also to the magical world he’ll introduce Harry and the audience to, especially after he gives the Dursleys the verbal lashing they’ve been asking for. This is then carried into a more complex sense of authority from the more familiar group of English actors, particularly the elegantly stern Maggie Smith, the brief playfully black comedy of John Cleese or the warmheartedly regal nature of Richard Harris. Harris in particular is interesting to note, given this is only one of two turns he had as Dumbledore before his eventual death shortly before the release of what will be our next topic Chamber of Secrets. Though Michael Gambon would be given the chance to show much more range for the character over the course of five films, Harris did the better job of getting across the more authentic sentimentality of the part. Even for as schmaltzy as his monologue to Harry is about “love” being the big factor that saved him from Voldemort’s grasp, it’s sold incredibly well by Harris’ genuine dedication to the role. One can see it in every moment he has on screen, from the building warmth of his House Cup ruling to the small aside of “Alas. Earwax.”

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Warner Bros

But of course, the main reason I started this series this month was spurred by an unfortunate event. Alan Rickman, who played Severus Snape here and would go on to play the part for the entire eight film series, passed away on January 14th, 2016. Rickman, beyond being an iconic actor from films like Die Hard, Galaxy Quest or the Harry Potter cast grab bag Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was a professional who knew how to embody the varying facets of a character that would grow to be incredibly complex from this point forward. One can see, even at this point when JK Rowling had only a vague idea of where Snape would be, the conflicted heart that would lead to Snape’s reveal in the final part of the series. Right from the moment Snape introduces himself for Harry’s first potion’s class, the intimidating presence of Rickman sends eerie vibes down the audiences’ spines, showing the mysteriously droll effect Snape has on those around him and building up enough seemingly incriminating evidence to support the red herring of Snape’s motives. Yet, that piercing face is still able to transition into dedicated worry, showed off in probably the most redeeming aspect of that Quidditch scene. Rickman’s face was one of complex variety, managing to show off intense warmth and rage with mere seconds apart. It’s a shame we’ll never see that face again in a new context.

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By the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we’ve gotten a true sense that an adventure has started. Many of the attempted fantasy YA based franchises that came in Harry Potter‘s wake like The Spiderwick Chronicles or The Golden Compass failed to give their commencement chapters much weight by simply introducing a few pieces of world building via exposition and a cliff hanger rather than truly endear us to the characters populated within that world. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the characters find a genuine connection of friendship as they’re tossed into an environment based around learning. Learning not just about spells and magical creatures, but how to deal with social situations, how to question authority within reason and how to deal with immediate danger thanks to their collective skills. Even with the clear foibles of the era it was made in, this first chapter of the Harry Potter saga serves as the adolescent’s imperfect entrance into a strange new world, both of the magical and adult variety. Something I really could relate to as a child when I originally saw it. But it’s only the first step. See ya in the Chamber of Secrets!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 3.5 out of 5 Hogwarts Letters

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