OK, so here’s my take on the Harry Potter series, which is breaking both box-office and book-selling records as I sit here writing this. Sure, mass popularity isn’t always a mark of high quality. Being a bit of a movie snob, I can certainly attest to that.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the phenomenon that is English author J.K. Rowling’s life’s work. The last book in the series was released over the weekend and, as expected, is shattering all precedents. When its film adaptation is finally released in 2010, it will all be over. Well, not quite. I suspect that this cannot be a passing fad and that generations of children will continue to immerse themselves in the world of Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
So you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not one of those too-hip-by-far people who turns their noses down at the thought of wasting valuable time reading a stupid kid’s book when we could all be sinking our eyes into the volumes of James Joyce and Herman Mellville. I simply think these books are great yarns full of wonderful characters, fascinating environments, incredible detail and with enough solid emotional content to ground it all in some semblance of reality.
Now here’s my take on the movie series thus far. I could not whole-heartedly embrace any of the movies until 2004 when the near-masterpiece, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was released. Before that, the hack director Chris Columbus wasted a perfectly great cast, amazing production design and quite good scripts by filling them with more obvious “Home Alone”-type moments than I care to count. Not only that, but the first two movies had barely any real visual style to speak of, which I felt was a betrayal of Rowling’s textured writing.
Then I heard that Alfonso Cuaron, director of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” was going to direct one of the best books in the series (well, I guess that’s debatable). I was not disappointed. For the first time, the young actors really grew into their characters and seemed like real children at a boarding school, complete with all the awkwardness and messing around that comes with early adolescence. The special effects no longer called attention to themselves, but merely aided the story along its path and convinced you that this world was real rather than that of a Hollywood blockbuster. I’ll never forget when I watched the movie with my sister and she said “Oh my god!” aloud when the soul-sucking dementors floated onto the screen for the first time. These monsters were not eye candy. They were just plain creepy! I still consider “Azkaban” to be one of the best fantasy movies (mind you, I’m not calling it a kid’s movie) of the past few years. Obviously, “The Lord of the Rings” will probably always be in a class of its own.
Mike Newell, the first British director to take on the series, then did bang-up job with 2005’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s better than “Azkaban,” but Newell definitely took the excitement to new heights with probably the most action-packed stories in the series. Plus, Newell managed to capitalize on most of the things that Cuaron brought to the surface, including not just including a sense of the absurd but also teenage angst. The scen where Harry’s friend, Hermione, breaks down crying at the Yule Ball certainly should remind any adult of middle school and high school dances from their pasts.
I know, I know. When is he going to get to the point and tell us if the new movie is any good, you’re surely thinking. Well, I guess now is as good a time as any. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a bit of a puzzle to me. While it is far from the wince-inducing Columbus chapters, it also doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights that I’ve come to expect from the series over the last three years. Director David Yates, another Brit, does a fine job and the cinematography, set design and acting are all top-notch as usual.
Perhaps it’s too soon for me to judge this movie. Maybe I’m too close to the source material. Maybe my expectations were too high. I’m sure I can’t judge it completely fairly until I see it again. All I know for sure, though, is that I didn’t leave the theater at the end saying, “Gosh that was great!” the way I did the last two times around.
So what’s the problem? My feeling is that the movie feels rushed. It clips along at a very quick speed because there’s a lot that has to happen. But “Goblet” also had a lot going on. The difference is that I think that movie took time to pause for a second and let us simply enjoy the pleasure of watching a really entertaining movie. All the elements of greatness can be found in “Phoenix.” It just needs breathing room. I’m not going to bother pointing out things that happened differently in the book because that’s kind of redundant with an undertaking as massively challenging as the “Potter” series. A director has to cut corners somewhere.
With that said, though, I do have to point out that Harry’s first kiss is all wrong. It should be awkward and unsatisfying. Here, it feels like a “movie kiss,” too perfect by half. This especially doesn’t make sense because this whole romantic subplot has to fade away in the face of more important things.
Still, the movie does boast some very real new pleasures. First, Imelda Staunton does a fantastic job as the evilly perky new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Delores Umbridge. She refuses to teach anything of real value and does everything she can to bring the school under her control. Another new role is that of the seemingly not-all-there Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch in her screen debut. She manages to bring the perfect balance of humor and poignancy to a character that is easily misunderstood by her classmates. All the other actors in the series, both the young and the veterans, just keep getting better. So why am I complaining? Ah, who knows? As always, I reserve the right to change my three-star rating in the future.
“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.