Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part Two

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The one thing that most readers of the J.K. Rowling novels observed as the series went along was how the latter books took a considerable dark turn in the narrative.  Whatever the reason, Rowling’s novels dealt with heavier and heavier themes as it headed towards the homestretch, finding the titular boy hero in ever more dire situations.  The notion that this was children’s literature seemed to not apply anymore, and I’m sure that if you asked Rowling herself, she would probably say that she never intended these stories to be just for kids, and these later novels are proof of that.  Death, and the inevitability of it, became the overarching theme of the last four novels of the series, as well as the effect it has on Harry as a whole.  In the story, Harry has to face the deaths of loved ones, put himself and his friends in harms way, and come to the realization that in order to defeat his mortal enemy, Voldemort, he will have to either kill, or be killed (or perhaps both).  Safe to say, things get pretty dark on this side of the Potter franchise.  Gone is the joyful wonderment of the earlier stories, but it’s a maturity that needed to happen for the series to reach it’s full potential.  What many fans and critics all agree with is that Rowling concluded her epic series in a very satisfying fashion.  Harry’s journey does come full circle and little is left unresolved.  And while many of the more shocking moments from these latter novels did leave fans upset, I’m sure that no one would want to see the story done any other way.  Knowing how effective Rowling completed her epic story must have been a relief to those trusted with bringing the books to the big screen, but doing them justice, with all the darker themes involved proved to be a challenge in it’s own right.

The Harry Potter franchise went through something of a makeover in the third and fourth entries, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Goblet of Fire (2005), and those two films would lay the groundwork for everything that followed after.  Just as I had in my first part of this retrospective (which you can read here), I will be examining the Potter franchise film by film, this time focusing on the final four.  Like before, I will avoid giving plot summaries and instead focus on the different highlights of each film, and how the series progressed with regards to it’s storytelling, the performances, and it’s realization of the wizarding world itself.  I will be discussing some spoilers as well, so be forewarned.  The interesting thing about the last half of the Potter franchise is that unlike the first four, which had a shifting number of directors at the helm, all of the remaining films were directed by one man; British filmmaker David Yates.  Yates was given the daunting task of steering this massive franchise home, and for someone with few credits outside of television at the time, he proved to be a surprisingly effective choice.  In fact, not only did he manage to close out the Potter franchise in a grand way, but he’s now the man in charge of shepherding J.K. Rowling’s new big screen franchise, the Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; having signed on to direct all five planned films in that series.  So, now that were ready, let us delve into the final four movies of this franchise and conclude this two part retrospective of the Harry Potter franchise.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

After the shocking revelation of Voldemort’s rebirth, and the death of one of Hogwart’s students (Cedric Diggory) at the hands of the dark wizard in the previous film, the Wizarding World would never be the same afterwards.  Order of the Phoenix deals with the immediate aftermath of those events, putting Harry and his friends in a far more uncertain and paranoid time.  The titular Order, we learn, is an organization devoted to stopping the Dark Lord’s return, and it’s made up of the adult figures in Harry’s life, including his beloved godfather Sirius Black (with Gary Oldman returning for the role).  What is interesting about this particular film in the franchise is that it was an adaptation of the longest novel in Rowling’s series (a whopping 870 pages), and yet of the single book adaptations, it had the shortest run-time; about 139 minutes.  To do that, you can imagine that a lot of the book was cut down, but overall, I think it was something that had to be done.  Not to disparage Rowling as writer, but Order of the Phoenix was the book that suffered the most from unnecessary filler, and I commend the filmmakers for actually cutting the story down to it’s most essential elements.  And they did this mostly by finding the core of the story and focusing just on that, itself being Harry coming to terms with growing older and knowing that loss and suffering will be following him on his journey going forward.  In the books, Harry becomes a lot more moody and aggressive, which does come out a little bit in Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, but in a more subtle way.  The film does also deals with Harry’s maturity in an effective way, showing his talents as a teacher when he helps his fellow students learn essential spells for fighting the Dark Arts in secret, congregating in the Room of Requirement, which sees it’s first appearance in this movie.

Some new important characters get introduced in Order as well.  My favorite would have to be Luna Lovegood (played to absolute perfection by newcomer Evanna Lynch).  Perhaps of all the students at Hogwarts, Luna is the one I most identify with, just because I was also an oddball kid whose head was in the clouds most of the time, so I guess that’s what makes her one of my absolute favorite characters in the series, and it made me very happy to see her so perfectly realized here.  Also introduced were two of the most loathsome characters in the series overall.  The first is the unhinged and sadistic Bellatrix Lestrange, a witch with strong ties to Voldemort.  She’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, which seemed like appropriate casting considering Carter’s affinity for the gothic and bizarre, which has found it’s way into many of her performances, including this one, and she is very good in the role.  The other addition however probably stands as the most hated character in the series overall, that being Professor Dolores Umbridge.  Umbridge is a thoroughly unpleasant character, pretending to be wholesome and gentile, while at the same time taking delight in suppressing other people’s rights and even subjecting them to torture, like having students write with an ink quill that drains the writer of their own blood.  She is played by actress Imelda Staunton in a phenomenal performance.  You’ve got to give her credit for bringing so much into a character that’s so despised.  The movie also delivers an amazing set piece in the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding world’s center of government.  It’s also the setting for one of the series greatest moments, the showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore, which does not disappoint in the movie.  Overall, Order of the Phoenix is the Potter franchise at it’s most efficient, knowing what to cut out and what to leave in, creating a well rounded movie in the process.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)

Released two years after Order of the Phoenix, the longest gap between any of the films in the franchise, we were treated with the sixth film in the franchise.  The Half-blood Prince picks up right after the events of Order, showing the aftermath of Voldemort’s attack on the Ministry, and Harry dealing with the loss of Sirius Black in the confrontation.  Like the previous film, this story is focused on one crucial thing, and that’s the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore, who spend far more time together here than in all the previous films.  This is a movie that focuses far more on filling out the gaps in the narrative, in particular regarding the backstory of Voldemort himself, as Harry and Dumbledore try to piece together exactly how the Dark Lord was able to cheat death.  We learn for the first time about Horcruxes, which we learn is what Voldemort has used to keep himself alive, having split his soul into seven different objects, all of which Harry will have to destroy in order to defeat him.  The film does an effective job of filling us in on how everything in the story now ties together and showing us what Harry must do to finally vanquish the enemy.  Unfortunately for the film, this is what also makes the story feel kind of weak here.  Of all the latter Harry Potter films, this one is sadly the weakest, and that’s mainly because it feels like the story has stalled a bit, in order to fill us in on all the details.  The presentation also feels a little more muted than usual, choosing a more languid pace than previous films, along with a sickly muted color palette (though beautifully shot by acclaimed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel).  After the brisk pacing of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, this movie really felt like the franchise slamming on the breaks, and it suffers as a result.

That’s not to say that everything in this movie is terrible.  There are some welcome highlights.  One is the addition of Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent to the cast as the delightful Professor Horace Slughorn.  The character is absent-minded and self-serving, but Broadbent brings a nice bit of congeniality to the character that helps to make him endearing.  There’s also a graciously hilarious sequence when Harry takes the “Liquid Luck” potion in order to effectively coax out information he needs from Professor Slughorn.  It’s a much need light moment in an otherwise dour film, and it also lets Daniel Radcliffe show off his comedic chops for once as Harry, something I’m sure that he’s wanted to do for a long time in the role.  Also, the relationship with Dumbledore is well developed here, and Radcliffe and Michael Gambon are superb in their scenes together, especially in the climatic and sometimes hard to watch scene where Harry has to force feed a poisonous potion to Dumbledore in order to find a Horcrux.  The backstory scenes are also incredibly moody too, especially one where Dumbledore meets Voldemort as a child (played by Ralph Finnes own nephew, Hero Finnes-Tiffin, who is excellent).  But, all the good elements can’t seem to help the movie as whole, which just feels off in it’s pacing.  Jokes that should have been hilarious fall flat and a lot of the joyfulness of previous films feels missing here.   Also, the film sadly misses the opportunity to go more in depth with the mystery of the title itself, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince.  Spoilers, it’s Professor Snape, who is absent for most of the movie, which seems like a waste.  I do however want to give some praise to actor Tom Felton here, who has played the sometimes one note Draco Malfoy throughout the series.  Here, he’s finally able to show some depth in the character and he at last gives a memorable performance, showing effectively the weight of his conflicting morals when he’s called upon to do the most evil of acts.  Half-Blood Prince is not the series worst, but it is an unfortunate bump in the road towards a satisfying conclusion.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART I (2010)

Warner Brothers made the controversial decision with the last book in the series in choosing to split it up into two films.  The benefit is that they would gain another film for the series, extending it to eight instead of seven, but the downside was that the story might be stretched too thin in each film, making it less impactful than it should.  Still, for some, it’s a decision that makes sense, considering that The Deathly Hollows is a substantial book (at 759 pages) and that unlike Order of the Phoenix, you couldn’t cut a lot of it out without losing something valuable.  So, what we got was two movies devoted to depicting the final chapter of the Potter franchise, and for the most part, it’s a decision that works.  Sadly, this precident has become popular in Hollywood in general, and now it’s commonplace for major franchises to split their final chapters into two-parters, like the Twilight and Hunger Games series, and not all of them managed to do it as well as Potter did.  One thing that helps Harry’s final chapter is that it has a stronger break-off point to split the story up, giving each film a nice full narrative.  The first film, while maligned by some fans for having the same languid pacing as Half-Blood Prince, actually benefits the most from the split narrative.  Part 1 in fact may be my favorite of the latter Potter films, and third overall behind Goblet  and Azkaban.  I just found it a fascinating watch as an experiment.  Could you really make a Harry Potter film without Hogwarts in it.  This movie proves that you can, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione living on the run as fugitives, escaping Voldemort’s disciples The Death Eaters, who have taken over the Ministry and are hunting them down.  It’s that feeling of a world flipped upside down that really drives the narrative along and makes this movie a captivating watch.

What I particularly like about this movie is the way it delves deeper into the relationship between our three main heroes.  Ron and Hermione in particular are given much more depth here, and the growth of their characters is touching and heartbreaking as the story goes along.  Both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson deliver standout performances, and like with Daniel Radcliffe, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve matured as actors since they first showed up in The Sorcerers Stone nearly a decade earlier.  It’s clear in this film that they are no longer children, but full-fledged adults, who now have a sense of pain and loss weighing on their shoulders.  There is a fantastic scene halfway through the movie that really encompasses the growth these characters has gone through, and it’s after Ron has abandoned his friends after a fight.  Harry cheers up the grieving Hermione by leading her in a dance, which doesn’t seem all that important, but in the movie it is a brilliant character moment, and one that was not in the books.  There are other key elements introduced in the story, namely the titular Deathly Hallows.  In an amazing and beautiful animated sequence, we learn that the Hallows are three objects that are capable of cheating death, those being the all powerful Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone which brings life back to the dead, and as Harry soon realizes, the Cloak of Invisibility which he’s long had in his possession.  The film also brings back a long absent character, house elf Dobby, who is very much improved as a character here, both in terms of his construction as a CGI character as well as his personality.  His return is short-lived however, as he is slain while helping Harry and his friends escape the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange at Malfoy Manor, giving this movie a poignant moment to close on.  All these elements make Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows one of the series best.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART II (2011)

It all comes down to this.  After a decade of build-up, with seven previous movies rounding out the story, we finally come to the final confrontation between good and evil in the Wizarding World.  Picking up right where Part 1 left off, Part 2 finds Harry and his friends at a bleak breaking point, and Voldemort in possession of the Elder Wand, which it turns out was being used by Dumbledore up until his death at the end of Half-Blood Prince.  After finding one more Horcrux in the vaults of Gringott’s Bank in London, Harry and his friends soon learn where they will find the remaining hidden Horcrux; in a room somewhere inside Hogwarts.  At that’s where the final battle commences.  Harry and his friends quickly dispose of Voldemort’s cronies at the school, which includes Snape, and those loyal to Harry including Professor McGonagall and the remaining Order of the Phoenix members help to prepare the castle for attack.  The movie on a whole is one big giant climatic battle, which is both the film’s strength and it’s weakness.  While it is a spectacular, epic showdown that is well-paced and captivating, it also has the disadvantage of making this singular film feel very one-note.  The movie feels less like a complete movie, and more like an extended final act; which to be fair, it does very well.  But even still, it makes it less watchable on it’s own than any previous Potter film, because it feels the most like part of a story rather than it’s own thing.  It’s the same problem that plagued the final Hobbit movie, where everything was more or less tied to wrapping things up rather than delivering a complete standalone narrative.  Even Part 1 felt more complete.  Still, despite it’s shortcomings, Part 2 is a satisfying conclusion to this series.

The final battle within Hogwarts is massive and full of eye-catching moments.  The film really shows how comfortable director David Yates had gotten with directing on a massive scale.  The performances are universally strong, especially Daniel Radcliffe and Ralph Finnes in their iconic roles.  To see these two facing off against each other finally is very satisfying, especially in seeing how much more confident Harry has become over the years, becoming fearless in the face of evil and certain death.  We also get to finally see the long awaited moment when Ron and Hermione kiss for the first time, bringing closure to this long developing romantic subplot.  But, the movie’s greatest triumph belongs to the absolutely brilliant segment in which we learn about Severus Snape’s full backstory.  Heavy spoilers ahead.  Harry is given Snape’s memories as the professor is dying from his wounds, and Harry is able to view them through the Pensieve dish in Dumbledore’s office, a plot device introduced in Goblet of Fire and featured heavily in Half-Blood Prince.  In those memories, both we and Harry learn that Snape and Harry’s mother Lily were childhood friends and that Snape was indeed protecting Harry out of his love for Lily, even beyond her death.  The scene is an emotional one, and proves once and for all that Snape was a true hero in the end.  Alan Rickman delivers some of his best work in this sequence, especially the moment when he’s clutching Lily’s body after her murder by Voldemort, utterly devastated.  And Rickman forever endeared himself to a whole generation of fans with one simple, perfectly delivered line; “always.”  The actor’s recent passing earlier this year only made this moment and line more poignant, and he deserves all of the praise he’s been given.  All of this makes Deathly Hallows Part 2 a very satisfactory end.

So, there you have it.  What seemed like a long shot at first ended up proving to be a masterstroke in the end.  In ten years and eight films, we managed to see J.K. Rowling’s grand vision come to life, and it became one of cinema’s greatest journeys as a result.  While not perfect all the way through, the series nevertheless feels very complete as a whole.  It’s especially fun watching it the whole way through and seeing the children grow up before your very eyes.  Considering the scale of the whole undertaking, it’s miraculous that they ever managed to make it through the entire series in one piece overall.  The franchise launched quite a few careers, as well as gave us some career defining work from some beloved veterans.  But, more than anything, it made Hogwarts and the wizarding world around it feel real.  All of us who watch the movies or read the books wishes that a place like that could exist in real life.  It’s probably why J.K. Rowling has expanded the lore of her novels and created things like the Pottermore website, which allows for the fan community to come together online, find out which house they belong to at Hogwarts, and feel like they are a part of this grand fantasy themselves.  Even today, five years after the conclusion of the series, do we still see the impact of the movies in pop culture and elsewhere.  Universal Studios theme parks have their own sections devoted to recreating landmarks from the films, including Hogwarts itself, which immerses the fan-base even further in the world.  But, what I think is the series greatest contribution is the near perfect way it captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in school; as the innocence and optimism of youth shifts into a deeper understanding of the hardships that await us in adulthood.  Harry was the perfect surrogate for this kind of journey, and it’s great to see a movie franchise that brought his story so perfectly to life.  It cast it’s spell on us and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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