Retrospective: Harry Potter

It is the year of our Dark Lord 2018 and I had not seen any of the Harry Potter movies. Talk about being late to the party. That seems like something you would just do. Seeing all those movies. That they might be synonymous with some idea of growing up or having a real childhood. At best I read a couple of the books. But I have never pieced it all together or totally understood what had been going on in this absolute cultural phenomenon. Being a relatively new Dad, I want to understand it. This has driven me to a complete marathon of the film series in which I’ll relay the impressions of someone with no outside influence or knowledge of what is in them. So here goes.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone


This is a sports movie. There is the recruitment story. The boy with a rough upbringing who’s found his way out through buried talents that had not been nurtured and certainly weren’t an element of nature. Once Harry arrives at Hogwarts, he is immediately assigned to a sports team. It feels like a sports draft. Natural talent is assigned to the teams they most benefit. It seems here that Harry is a natural Slytherin. I’m essentially expecting a Mighty Ducks storyline: like when young Adam Banks is playing for the menacing Hawks and Coach Bombay fights for him to realign with the Ducks and he becomes the de facto star of the squad. That’s what I think we all want from Harry: a heel turn followed by a reversal of heroism as he carries his friends on his back to the finish line. We have the naturally analogous sport of Quidditch – but set that aside and we have all the other component pieces –  the way teams are formed, how children grow into their own cliques around their grouping, and the exuberant thrill of an against all odds victory against a slimy opposing team – in this case, the Slytherin house. The story closes with an official tally of points accumulated from the year’s games. The heroes are in the last place and the villains are triumphant. Much like Who’s Line is it Anyway, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. Giving his best Drew Carry impression, Dumbledore awards Gryffindor enough altruism points for being good sports and teammates that they seize the point victory for their house.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


All the actors in this film look like absolute babies. That’s what stands out to me most about the first two – how damn young they were and the way we get to watch them grow on this journey. It’s absurd to see the incredibly self-serious Daniel Radcliffe, as a little boy who looks genuinely afraid of the power of his newfound stardom. Little did we know when this came out, he’d come to be an interesting actor. That he’d develop into the star of Swiss Army Man, a touching picture about a recently deceased man who’s discovered the power of flatulence and friendship in the afterlife. After going through the Harry Potter films, I’m sure that Swiss Army Man is his best role and I do not mean this with any irony, all this repetitive groundwork as a child actor has surely prepared Daniel Radcliffe for a life in the movies where genuinely anything is possible and there is no greater proof of this than Swiss Army Man (2016). Which I recommend without exception.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


This is art cinema. What if the world of Harry Potter were perfectly adapted to film? This is exactly how that would look. Azkaban does everything right. It is a pot boiled over with delicious tension. Every part of the Harry Potter world engages the imagination here. Finally, the characters, the creatures, the setting, all feel like a puzzle piece slotted exactly into their right hole. Director Alfonso Cuarón brings a great sense of gravitas to the mise-en-scène – every component part works toward furthering an end goal. There is seemingly nothing more important than cohesion in a fantasy world. Let Prisoner of Azkaban be a reminder of everything that is possible in fantasy moviemaking.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


Goblet of Fire severely needed to move the story. It exists in this function: pushing the plot, it wants to show us something, and it’s barreling forward with or without us. It’s my impression there is too much in the book for the structure of the film. It unfolds like an awkward High School comedy, becoming what I was always afraid Harry Potter would be.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


The feeling is that Order of the Phoenix is a post-pubescent Harry Potter. The actors have found their grooves and are totally ensconced in their roles. It’s good then that this film’s quietly a shakeup of the routine. It goes well outside the norm of the usual Potter fare, characters are faction off into militarized subcommittees at war over philosophy, ideas, and stature within Hogwarts. It’s an all-together well-made picture and one of the series better example of some real character progress and the evolution of relationships. Marking their turn from puberty, the actors are really interested in Snogging. They really love the Snogging concept in the later pictures.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


Severus Snape is the choicest character in Harry Potter. I’ve been told that I sound like him. I always wondered what that meant. He’s the dark guy, right? Yeah, I knew Alan Rickman, anyone who’s seen Die Hard enough times knows. But Snape grew to be one of my favorite cinematic characters in the Half-Blood Prince. We finally come to understand that the universe does not operate in black and white – that its strongest characters exist in the gray area and their intentions are often so different than their actions. I really enjoy what this means for some of the character building in the series. As with most of the franchise, the movie itself comes up on the good side of average. This entry is merely a good building block for what is to come.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I


This is where Harry Potter takes a turn from feeling like a vanity feature of British theater to being something like a typical Hollywood blockbuster. It’s mostly in the pacing. Now there is either a sense of urgency or finality that I really appreciate. Character arcs are coming full circle, the relationships between characters immediately clear. It does go away to confuse being bleak with being authentically dark and so it does not reach the true aesthetic darkness of Prisoners of Azkaban perhaps but it is the first time I have understood Potter as a hero. The winning formula here is that we understand the stakes: they’ve finally revealed themselves over the course of too many movies and now we’ve reached an understanding of what must be done.

I was very cynical about dividing the last book into two parts. Perhaps it would have been worsened by having to wait. It does make for a fittingly lengthy final chapter that finally brings the wizarding universe into the epic scale the series has always hinted at. And it’s a true Hero’s story. These parts are important although like much of the series, I’ve found there again on the good side of average. They may fail to truly elevate themselves into anything more than decent adaptation, mostly a failure of having hemorrhaged a good story into so many parts. With all that, this episode remains a check yet to be cashed…

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II


The stakes are high. There’s no perfect way of going out here. Let’s say that at best, any second part is already limited to being only as good as its initial entry. We must say goodbye on a continuation of a story. Like a vacation stretched too long. So much is fit in here. Again, it’s done with an expediency completely unfamiliar to those early movies. It moves, and it’s moving. There is no good goodbye, we cannot leave on better terms than we came in. Because we’ve now lived here in this universe for so long, there cannot be any satisfying divorce from it. It’s just familiar that way and it’s known and while the final moments have some surprising and heartfelt turns, they cannot show us anything we have not already had before.

The thing about Harry Potter is that it is timeless. Many years from now, I’ll go back and show my daughter and say, this is going to be important to you. She already reacts anytime Voldemort is on-screen. I will not take this with any judgment of her character yet. What has changed is that Prisoners of Azkaban has a new place in my heart. It was worth pushing through a couple middling-to-pretty-good fantasies to find the crown jewel of this franchise. And now I wish to extend the same invite to you – go and watch the Harry Potters – make it a marathon! See what you can extract, whether you’re new to the world of wizardry or are a regular around these parts, a few of these movies will captivate your spirit and we’ll all be better off for having seen them.

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