Sunday, January 08, 2006


Harry Potter and the Defiance of Sequel Expectations

By Edward Copeland
I have never read a single Harry Potter novel, but tonight I watched the fourth in the film series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. How is it that a film series can keep getting better as it goes instead of worse? There are isolated cases of sequels that are better than the original (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day — now my mind is blanking because I still think the original Godfather bests Godfather Part 2.)

Granted, the Harry Potter film series started with a handicap in the form of the ever-bland hack that is Chris Columbus, but when Alfonso Cuaron helmed The Prisoner of Azkaban, the series rose to a new level. Mike Newell's work on The Goblet of Fire lifts it even further, adding a level of creepiness and suspense that was missing from previous installments.

The 5th film of the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is to be directed by David Yates, whose work has mainly been on British television and whom I'm not familiar with. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he has to be better than Columbus, but I'll be curious to see if he can keep the streak going.

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I share the view that Goblet of Fire is the best installment of the Harry Potter series yet. The funniest and the scariest of the four films, it is by far the most satisfying "popcorn movie" of the year (sorry, Kong boosters) and the only one on which I'd bestow a rating of 3 1/2 stars. It's still on my ten best list, albeit at the lower end.

The poster asks why this particular franchise fails to conform to the law of diminishing returns - a peculiar phenomenon that may well be, as he observes, exclusive to this particular series. I think it can be attributed to the following factors:

1) While I too have managed not to succumb to the global frenzy surrounding J.K. Rowling's books, other members of my family haven't shared my resolve. My father and brother have read them cover to cover, mutiple times and in sequence, and agree that they get better as they go along. Popular wisdom holds that Rowling's vision became more ambitious the further she became entrenched in the world of her creations; it serves to reason that better plots, deeper characterization and more thematic complexity provide the enimently capable screenwriter, Steve Kloves, more to work with. The Potter movies are famous for the slavish degree of faithfulness they observe to their source material - while it's true that the direction has improved, the writing has as well. With all respect to Steve Kloves, whose effort has been commendable, this is largely reflective of Rowling's improvement as a writer.

2) Just as Rowling's books have improved with time, the young actors portraying her three protagonists have grown into their roles. All three, to varying degrees, seemed to suffer from the kind of bright-eyed, squeaky-clean, gee-whiz-ain't-I-cute syndrome that afflicts children in Disney films - or those directed by Chris Columbus (Mara Wilson and Liam Aiken, the mothership is paging you). Maybe it took the naturalistic care of Alfonso Cuaron to coax Radcliffe, Watson and Grint away from the bad habits of youth - or perhaps their growth as actors is just a natural consequence of maturation and experience. In either event, all are now giving credible and accomplished performances instead of relying on cuteness and charm.

3) The look of the films has changed to accomodate the darker nature of Rowling's vision. The candy-colored interiors of the first two films, which might have ripped right out of some ghastly theme park ride, have been supplanted by dark and forbiding world inspired in equal parts by historical tradition and classical sources. Hogwarts now less ressembles Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom than an imposing bastian of gothic Victorianism inspired equally by Dickens and the Brothers Grimm. The photography and the effects have likewise improved, creating a look much grander in scope and more beautiful to behold.

4) One of the pleasures of the Potter films has always been the chance it gives England's most venerable thespians to assemble en masse and ham it up in variety of colorful cameos. In Prisoner of Azkbanan, Cuaron figured out how to actually utilize the supporting cast for maximum dramatic effect, rather than just approaching it as a if he were making were a latter-day version of Around the World in 80 Days. Mike Newell continues the trend with expert supporting turns - too many to mention, although special notice should be paid Ralph Fiennes and especially Brendan Gleeson.

That, in a nutshell, is why the Harry Potter films have risen above the level of kiddie-fodder and now make for excellent entertainment. It isn't just because Chris Columbus jumped ship - although, truth be told, I don't think anyone is overanxious for his threatened return. Hopefully by the time the final installment is brought to the screen, the elements that have been established in last two films will have become so firmly entrenched that neither God nor Christopher Columbus can regress us back to the world of The Sorcerer's Stone.

Josh R
One sidenote I wanted to put in my original post and forgot: I asked my parents if they wanted to watch it with me. My mom had no interest, but my dad said he'd liked the others, so I assumed he'd seen them on HBO. Once he sat down to watch though, he asked, "Is this the one with the Hobbits?" I told him that was "Lord of the Rings" and he realized he'd been confused.
I agree with Josh's excellent analysis... I prefer the Cuaron film slightly but really enjoyed the new one as well. Daniel Radcliffe is turning into a very likable actor; he errs on the side of underplaying which feels right for Harry. As a fan of the books I have mixed feelings about Michael Gambon... he is cetainly giving a performance, and it is nothing like Richard Harris (I wasn't really that enamored with his Dumbledore either) but whatever Gambon is doing bears only a passing resemblance to the character in the books.

I think a different writer is penning "Order of the Phoenix" but Kloves is back for Book 6. They have their work cut out for them. Both books have plenty of good material and fantastic third acts but in the interests of adapting books 3 and 4 plenty of subplots were jettisoned that lay the groundwork for the plots of books 5 and 6.

My main complaint is I need more Alan Rickman. But that's how I feel about any movie with Rickman in it... and even movies without him.
Not having read any of the books save portions of the first, my favorite movie is the third. It's the most elegantly directed, the most tightly structured, and aside from a few small confusions here and there -- no more than you'd experience in, say, a LORD OF THE RINGS movie -- I did not feel that I was watching Cliff's Notes to the book, which was the case, to certain degrees, with all the other films.

That said, the middle section of the fourth film where they just concentrate on the social dynamics of Hogwarts is simply terrific -- maybe not the most dynamically directed section of the series, but the warmest and most satisfying, and the closest to what I'd always hoped these movies would be. Like my English teacher used to say of Samuel Coleridge's poetry, the fourth film makes the extraordinary ordinary, which is pretty much how it should be, I think.
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