Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Review
With the imminent release of the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to Blu-ray plus the up and coming 'Ultimate Editions', the re-cut, extended and otherwise beefed up versions of the films we already know, I thought it might be an idea to take a retrospective look at the set that comprises of the first five films, since they've only been covered on AVForums Movie Reviews on HD DVD. Little did I know that these Blu's are pretty much identical to their old HD DVD counterparts, nevertheless, or at the very least, it will give us a comparison when the new sets hit the stores. Even though it's been close to two years (just where did that time go?) my thoughts, and crucially the discs, haven't changed so much of the following is culled and re-edited from my version already available on site.
A few years back there were a couple of big adverts for some best selling books that showed at the cinema for a few months. They were for Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the Rowling's first Harry Potter. It seemed the cinema going public were leaving the flicks and heading straight to their closest book store. I daresay that the majority found Jackson's treatment of the source material an improvement, I know I did (controversial though that may be) and Columbus' treatment rather dire by comparison. However, both hailed a new era in literature and this can only be regarded as a good thing.
J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful series of books about a young wizard battling against an all powerful evil whilst growing up, on paper, at least, must have looked like gamble. A series of seven books, each depicting a year in Harry's life, as he works his way through school with all the fantastical elements that can be achieved with magic. But thankfully that that gamble paid off, because where Rowling's idea really hit off was with her writing style. It developed in maturity as Harry did. Concentrating on the interpersonal relationships and the complexities of human interaction with a sprinkling of wizardry, rather than the other way around, Rowling created an immense and believable world, shot through with characters that behave in an absolutely realistic way. The relationships are what drive the books forward and Rowling has the knack of seeing and telling a situation with a truthful accuracy that has you right there and choosing the path she has laid out. This is the quality of her writing, the quality of her books. Unfortunately, it is also the biggest problem when it comes to translating them to film. Nearly all these interpersonal relationships are stripped down to the bone in order to get to the wizarding material. And in doing so there is a huge hole left in the films that no effects can fill, no matter how special. However, there is such a force behind the franchise that the only thing that can stop it is the limit of the books. So far we are up to six, with the final one being split leaving two more in the making. So tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I present the first five films, in their original guise and give you The Harry Potter Years 1 - 5.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
An eleven year old Harry Potter, who has been living with his brutish Uncle and Aunt and their equally brutish son, is visited by a half giant called Hagrid who informs him he is a wizard and hands him his invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He also informs him that his parents were killed by a very powerful dark wizard called Lord Voldemort, and that it was he who was responsible for the lightning scar on his forehead. Whilst on the train to school Harry meets the two people that will become his lifelong friends, Ron Weasley and Herminie Granger and together these three discover exactly what is hidden within the walls at Hogwarts and prevent it from being used by a hardly human Voldemort, in the process using the meagre skills they have developed over their first year.
Just like the first book, this first film had a lot riding on it because the potential for the future was enormous. As such there were very few, if any risks taken. Rowling was brought in as a consult and the director chosen was 'safe' and 'family friendly', Chris Columbus. Broadly the film covers the major points of the book, however, it does come off rather like a whole lot of set pieces strung together with a weaker narrative, initially I put this down to the film missing a large portion of the source material, which, of course, it does, but actually that's not the problem. The book itself, being the first and least mature reads much like a 'kids' book lots of exciting pieces strung together with a loose narrative. Yet the film does work, there is a reasonably exciting dynamic between the principle cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson; and crucially they depict their literary counterparts well. In fact that can be said about any of the assembled cast, with particular merit for Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore who adds an austere aloof and majesty to this most beloved of characters. The editing of the book does not go unnoticed however, large sections are removed, most are, to be honest, superfluous to the narrative, one part though, the third lock to the Philosopher's Stone in which Herminie used logic not magic is missing but curiously she is awarded the extra house points ..... In the end, though, this first film fails to really ignite or excite, it plays out like family entertainment, it is the 'safe bet' that executives wanted and it managed the success required for the commissioning of the second film.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry's second year and he can't wait to get back to Hogwarts, feeling that it is far more his home than his relatives. But why has he not received any mail from his friends? His questions are answered when Dobby the House elf materialises in his room trying desperately to dissuade Harry from coming back with portents of doom. His antics nearly work as the Dursley's banish Harry to his room and it is only a timely rescue from Ron in his invisible flying car that releases him. Once at the school things really become sinister, warnings written in blood on the walls tell that the Heir has returned, the Chamber of Secrets has been opened and that death awaits the muggle born wizards. No one is safe as more and more students are petrified. The governors decide to close the School for the safety of the students when an unlikely alliance between Professor Gilderoy Lockhart and Harry discover the hidden entrance to the Chamber wherein the monster that has been terrorising the school is being lead by an evil once thought dead.
Columbus was once again asked to helm the second film and through his treatment we were presented with a functional family film. It follows the book very closely and like the first removes much of what was deemed to be superfluous; the Quidditch matches for example are reduced to one game, lessons and teachers are reduced and in some cases changed, Professor McGonagall, for example, never explained the Chambers Secrets. However, the changes were small and many agreed that it was a very tidy follow up. The interpersonal relationships were well handled, particularly that of the framing of Hagrid and the treatment of Dobby. The cast, now more comfortable in their roles hit the ground running, and we, the audience, are familiar enough with them that this worked fine. There is a huge cast of students and staff and the film picks and chooses whom to linger on, meaning that many of the back stories to these very likable characters is lost. This is especially true of Percy Weasley a character that has a huge role to play later in the series and his near omission here will have significant repercussions on his character. The story, though complex, flows easily and the final stand off between monster and Harry is very well executed, with the final protagonist playing out almost like a whodunit. Excellent detective work. Yet the bond that forms with Dumbledore and Harry seems that much weaker as presented in the film compared to the book. This is a shame because it is a vital and integral part, particularly with the films to come. His heart to heart with Harry in the hospital bed was lacking the necessary dialogue to really bring meaning. The film then, once again, brings nothing new to the franchise, there was no style, no panache and it was too long. It was time for a change, personally I was hoping for Terry Gilliam; surely he was born to direct a Harry Potter film ...?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Finding life at the Dursley's increasingly difficult Harry reaches breaking point when Vernon's sister Petunia insults his real family causing him to cast magic outside of school, a punishable offence for underage wizards. He leaves the house and catches the Night bus to Diagon Ally where he is met by the Minister of Magic, whose furtive behaviour and reluctance to charge Harry with a misdemeanour seems at odds with his position. Harry later discovers that Sirius Black a (supposed) dark wizard has escaped Azkaban prison and is likely to come after and kill Harry himself! Even Hogwarts seems no safe haven as the Dementors, horrific soul sucking apparitions and prison guards of Azkaban, patrol the grounds and whenever they can they seem to strike at Harry; and is that his mothers scream he can hear when they do? Luckily a new defence against the dark arts teacher, Professor Lupin instructs him on a very powerful Patronus charm as a way of warding them off. During the year, Harry and Lupin strike up a strong friendship, even to the point where Lupin protects Harry from Professor Snape when he is caught walking the School grounds after dark and with the Marauders Map (an enchanted map that shows the location of every person within the school grounds). Hagrid has his own problems when teaching Magical creatures, a Hippogriff strikes Malfoy and his influential father sees to it that the creature is put down. A confrontation in the Shrieking Shack between the forces for good and those with Voldemort see friends and foes reunited. But when tragedy strikes, Herminie uses the same magic she has used to get to double lessens all term to avert the problems and save the two innocents. Another tumultuous year at Hogwarts ends with Harry discovering that his life isn't all that bad after all.
Now we're talking. This book was not only a turning point for the films, but also for the books themselves. It marked a point when Rowling's writing reached a level of maturity that ensured literary respect. This was a fully fledged book and not some novella masquerading. It was also significantly darker than all that had come before, there were actual elements of horror depicted, and the despicable nature of the wizarding world was finally opened up so that all could see that darkness. The three main characters too underwent their own stresses, the relationship between Herminie and Ron was particularly strained especially when it came down to their familiars. And Harry's skill was at last allowed to take form, his close tie in with Voldemort was allowed free reign making him a target for the Dementors and his willingness to stand up and be counted endears him to Lupin, himself a tragic character, and when their true relationship to each other is revealed an unbreakable bond forms. As for the prisoner, Black, himself, introduced here is a character that will shape Harry's fortunes for years to come.
So then, a fine rip-roaring read, felt by many to be the best of the series of books for style, story and sheer guts. It required a skilful director to bring this new tale to the screen and the Warner exec. chose Alfonso Cuarón, a truly visionary director, and through his eyes we watch the greatest Harry Potter film to date. The book contained enough material to make two films and for a time that was considered, however, with skilful editing and re-emphasising, a single treatment was written. Unlike its two prequels it manages to pick out the best of the book but manages to play as if there is very little missing. Once again the inter-character relationships do suffer, Ron and Herminie's feud being just one and Harry's learning of the Patronus charm another, but these are minor quibbles because the essence is right there. Cuarón's style was far darker than that the previous efforts, it looked cold, stark and foreboding. The whole film is shot through with a kind of mean streak, every time the Dementors show up we feel the cold they produce, the despair they induce. Harry's final stand off against them is heart stoppingly good, both times. One big change for the film was the casting of Dumbledore due to the tragic death of Richard Harris. Michael Gambon was asked to fill his shoes and whilst he does a reasonable job, for me, at least, he doesn't have that presence required. However, the rest of the other newly cast parts are uniformly excellent; David Thewlis plays it tortured as Lupin, Emma Thompson is perfect as the scatty divination Professor Sybil Trelawney and Gary Oldman has the smarts to bring the wonderfully three dimensional character Sirius Black to glorious life, needing to play both sides of the coin. But above all Danny Radcliffe finally manages to get some emotion; he has the spunk needed to fight off the evil that surrounds his life, but the vulnerability of the teenager he is playing. Not that the Harry Potter franchise was foundering, but The Prisoner of Azkaban really forced home just how good the films could be in the hands of a director not afraid to take the source material and run with it. Cuarón's film is highly charged both visually and with the emotions needed to feel with the characters. We hurt when they do, cheer with their joy and feel the loss when, at the end of term, another parting looms. Much like the books the fantastical elements in this film play second place to the story and it is the best film to date.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry wakes from a tortured dream which involves a barely human Voldemort conspiring with his loyal followers to find he is in Ron Weasley's house preparing to travel to the Quidditch world cup. After the game the camp site is decimated by Death Eaters, Voldemort's followers, and when Harry captures a glimpse of the wizard creating the Dark Mark, he is inadvertently found at the scene of the 'crime'. The Ministry of Magic in trying to avert any panic by hushing up the effects and their blinkered view from those that know the truth becomes frustrating. However, the pupils have other things to worry about, as Hogwarts School has this year been chosen to host the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a legendary event that brings three of the greatest wizarding schools together where one student from each school is selected to participate. Due to the unforeseen events, though, this year sees a stipulation that no one under the age of seventeen can put their name forward, but due to some very powerful dark magic Harry's name is somehow entered and he becomes an unwilling champion, much to the chagrin of Ron; their friendship ends at that point. Harry is tasked to complete three tests, the winner of the tests is crowned the Champion and eternal glory awaits. After the first task, Harry and Ron make up and with his and Herminie's help work through the others. One of the premier events is the Yuletide Ball, a dinner dance, that creates some bitter rivalries as each student needs a partner. The final test turns out to be a trap for Harry set up by Voldemort's followers and with him there, trapped, they manage to resurrect the darkest wizard of all and in the battle that follows a student looses his life. Harry and Voldemort join wands and a traitor at Hogwarts is revealed. With Voldemort's return there are dark, dark times ahead as the School takes up mourning for its fallen student and the wizarding world prepare themselves for the horrors to come.
The job of reducing Rowling's fourth book must have seemed daunting, the longest to up to that point and deals with puberty, social awkwardness, the actual return of Voldemort and for the first time death. The task of directing the film came to Mike Newell the first Englishman to direct this entirely English series. He directs with a reasonably sure hand, there are some quite excellent set pieces, each Tri-wizard Trial being a prime example, but the film as a whole harks right back the beginning of the series, set pieces with a weaker narrative. This is purely due to the filleting of the source novel which was particularly severe; there are huge, and I mean huge swathes of plot missing. And worst of all it feels like it too. Characters are introduced and then just dropped (Rita Skeeter) or get only one or two lines (Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour) and at its very worst get brought into the film at the very beginning scene and thus change the very essence of the whodunit aspect. This was the biggest alteration to the books narrative to date and it was one fraught with danger; ostracising fans all over the world. Oh the film may look spectacular, and it really does, but with such a disjointed narrative and the thorough lack of emotional involvement it is difficult to sympathise. A major theme of the book is Harry's total isolation once his name came out of the Goblet of Fire is demonstrated by only two scenes which is simply not enough. Harry's awkwardness around girls and his fascination and disappointment with Cho has barely any screen time. But perhaps the worst is the lack of time given to involve Cedric Diggory the poor student that holds the key to the climax. Without that involvement his death never had the impact to really shock you. It should have been a totally affecting, it is only with Radcliffe's breakdown that we realise what a truly loved character Cedric was.
Once again, however, the casting was perfect, particular mention must go to Brendan Gleeson as the latest Defence against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Alastor 'MadEye' Moody, having to play two people at once he brings an intensity to his scenes. Sadly the rest though perfect in their roles simply didn't have the time needed to bring out their best, Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter, loved to have seen more of her, Roger Lloyd-Pack as Barty Crouch, needed more time to remind us he's not Trigger, Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory, the perfect likeable and trustworthy student, needed more time invested so we really cared about him, Katie Leung as Cho Chang, two lines and she's gone, Clémence Poésy as Fleur Delacour, three lines and she's gone and finally Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, perhaps the only one to manage to make an impression; he really did exude the naked power and raw threat of an all powerful dark wizard, he was terrifying. The regular cast manage to put in their all in roles that have become second nature to them; not sure about the hair cuts given to the Weasley's though and I never liked Ron's language, there are better ways to demonstrate one's distaste without resorting to profanity, the book manages it fine. In all then a film of two halves satisfying to marvel at but frustrating to enjoy.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Voldemort is back and massing his Wizards but the Ministry of Magic will not accept it and decrees that all is well. Meanwhile back at the Dursley's, Dementors attack Harry and his step brother with only Harry's Patronus charm saving their lives. But, by his using magic outside of school for a second time Harry is called before the Ministry to explain his actions. So that he is prepared he is first called to the Order of the Phoenix, a group of resistance wizards formed during the last time Voldemort was threatening the world and headed up by all his best friends, the Weasley's, Black, Lupin, Moody and a couple of others new to him, Tonks and Shacklebolt. Their headquarters is Black's own house, also home to the traitorous house elf Kreacher. Heading up Harry's trial is Dolores Umbridge and through her things look very bleak for Harry until Dumbledore calls an eye witness and the charges are dropped; this allows Harry to attend School after all. Once at School things start to look even worse, the same Dolores Umbridge has been appointed as the new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher and her methods are at odds with her sickly sweet demeanour. When Harry defies her in class she sentences him lines with a quill that cuts his hand with the line written, a very barbaric torture. As her influence grows she undermines Dumbledore's authority even to the point of having one of the staff members dismissed and banished from the grounds; only Dumbledore's timely arrival stops this travesty. Since she refuses to teach 'proper' defence spells, some of the students, lead by Harry, albeit it reluctantly at first, form their own resistance called Dumbledore's Army. And in the room of Requirement they practise defence spells including the Patronus charm. Umbridge knows something is wrong though and eventually finds out what the students are up to, banning all pursuits with Decrees, culminating with the removal of Dumbledore as Headmaster of the School. Harry, meanwhile, is once again being plagued by dreams of Voldemort's misdoings. To try and stop this Snape tries to teach him mind control. However, once Harry thinks he realises what the dreams are about he decides to go to the Ministry of Magic, convinced that Black is there being killed by Voldemort. Dumbledore's Army mobilises but once there they realise it is a trap for them, Death Eaters appear and attempt to kill Harry and his friends until the Order of the Phoenix turn up and a fully fledged war breaks out. A serious loss for Harry prompts him to try to take on Voldemort alone until Dumbledore himself appears to do battle. Voldemort's possession of Harry is broken when Harry realises with the love of his friends he can beat this dark curse. Another heart to heart with Dumbledore explains why he has been so aloof all year and Harry has to come to terms with being without family once more.
Despite my own reservations about the previous film it was extremely well received and I like to think had an impact on choosing another English director for the next. This time the reigns were given to David Yates, he and screen writer Michael Goldenberg had the awesome task of reducing the largest book so far in the series to a film friendly length. To say they were successful is an understatement. In fact as adaptations go this is quite phenomenal, considering there was so much missing from the book, so many large segments and entire plot developments and characters, it plays out as if there is nothing missing at all. Genius. Of course the film is far darker than anything preceding it and with said darkness against the light and fluffy Umbridge makes for wonderful juxtaposition. It's not all perfect though, Imelda Staunton may have been the only choice for the part, but she doesn't quite have that ring of perfect casting that up until now have been unquestionable. The students hatred of her isn't quite shown enough either, a simple thing like confiscating Harry's broom denying him the Quidditch he so enjoys may only be a small part of the book, but it speaks volumes of her sadistic nature. To not have this in the film, was, in my opinion a mistake. However, the good far out ways this. Harry's tutoring of Dumbledore's Army make for some of the best scenes in the film and Radcliffe manages to show some spunk. He also gets the girl for the first time too. But equally his frustration at being ignored by Dumbledore is given full range. The final action sequence in the Ministry vault was an exercise in excellence, wizard against wizard in fearsome duels matched only by the pairing of Voldemort against Dumbledore whose battle is one of epic proportions.
Except my on feelings on Staunton's Umbridge, the rest of the new casting is, once again perfect. Simply said Evanna Lynch is Luna Lovegood and encapsulates the characters essence from her first moment on screen and whilst she didn't have much in the way of screen time Helena Bonham Carter is every bit Bellatrix Lestrange as anyone could ever be. Just like the third film, this one is a far more emotional affair, the investment in the characters means we feel their peril and their joy. The film is structured in such a way as there is no weaker narrative binding huge set pieces together, the main characters are closed nit, conspiring against an uncaring and blinkered establishment and we are privvie to that make us feel like part of the team and therefore part of the film. Of all the films so far this one flows the best and only comes second to Azkaban by a fraction of a whisker. As a reward for making such a phenomenal success, Yates helmed the reigns of the sixth Potter instalment. Whilst its source was a slightly weaker book, and as a consequence his film is slightly weaker, his treatment was once again incredibly well realised, even though the ending didn't quite have the impact as it should, it remains another strong contender in the franchise. The final book has been split into two films, some say just to eek out the franchise, others, to give full depth to the last instalment, but whatever the reason, with new releases of all the films coming there seems to be little that can stop the Harry Potter machine.