Monday, August 8, 2011

Notes on a Franchise



My total indifference to "Harry Potter" over the last decade hasn't been a fact that I've tried to hide. This isn't so much because I don't like the texts -- I read the first four books, saw the first four movies, and shrugged them off to my pop culture periphery -- but rather because the rampant, aggressive fan discourse SURROUNDING "Harry Potter" tends to drive me, well, insane. And trust me, I know this isn't all "Potter" fans -- I am, after all, a "Gleek," and constantly plagued by how obnoxious fans of that show are.

But with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" already the third-highest grossing movie of all time worldwide, I figured it was time to give it its dues. So over the last three weeks or so, I have watched all eight of the movies.



First off, let me say that I largely consider the manufacturing and phenomenon of this series to be  one of the most notable stories of pop mainstream entertainment in the first decade of the 21st centuries. This is, simply and perhaps reductively put, Britain's "Star Wars." Watching "Harry Potter" with fresh eyes and largely back-to-back, I see in it a will and a drive to create mature storytelling, to advance visual effects, and to hone performances and scripts to a fine tee. Overall, it is stirring entertainment.

Revisiting the first four "Potters" again, I was actually very upset with how badly they've aged. With the massive exception of "Prisoner of Azkaban" (which I'll get to in a second), they are movies catapulted by cookie-cutter A-to-Z writing and a focus on getting big moments in plotting and piggy-backing those moments into character payoffs. "Chamber of Secrets" and "Goblet of Fire" are, in my estimation, the worst of the bunch, driven almost solely by overly eventful narratives where the characters are more game pieces than anything else.

But in "Prisoner of Azkaban," I finally started to get the big picture of "Harry Potter" -- director Alfonso Cuaron's style is such that he loves to fill his mise-en-scene to the seams with terrific details. His roving camera actually felt immersed in the little mysteries of Hogwarts, not just putting them front and center for our enjoyment, but putting them in the background and the characters in the foreground so that the camera (and by extension, the viewer) can feel more embedded in Hogwarts culture.

Cuaron's painterly aesthetic and proper integration of character, plot, and place elevated "Azkaban" to a truly fascinating portrayal of a majestic world plagued by an increasingly dark and violent evil.

So let us flash forward from 2004 to 2011. Four directors would helm the eight different movies, and while Cuaron's may be the most inventive work, the franchise truly belongs to David Yates, who directed the last four movies. Maybe it's just because the story got darker and the stakes became higher, maybe it's because Daniel Radcliffe and his cohorts matured into better actors, or maybe screenwriter Steve Kloves just settled into a groove and figured out how to adapt the novels, but I'm going to say something that my Potter friends should surely relish: "Half-Blood Prince" and "The Deathly Hallows" are massive, stunning achievements for the fantasy genre.

And because "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is the most recent, and the one everyone's actually reviewing, I'll jump straight to there. Yes, this is the more eventful film; it's the pay-off for the two-hour setup that was "Part 1," and it's the culmination of seven previous films -- so in a way, to talk about the dramatic weight of the film or the "epicness" of the conclusion might be a little loaded.

But I think what's impressive about "Hallows" is that it finally finds a place where character and spectacle can interrelate. The plights of the secondary characters, traced subtly in earlier films, are brought to terrific payoffs (much as Rowling intended in her novels), the visual effects are incredibly top-notch, and the performers have so lived in their characters that each moment actually does feel bred in a kind of magical reality slightly askew of our own.

Credit must be given to Yates for the tenderness with which he directs his actors, especially the youth. Their energy here is palpable, and rightly so -- just as Harry is about to face the "destiny" to which he has been working toward these last few years of his life, so too are Radcliffe and Co. reaching the climax of a decade's work.

But where the other films may have seemed flattened visually, "Deathly Hallows" is an event for the eyes and ears. This is all, rather smartly, because everything that happens in "Deathly Hallows" -- and indeed "Half-Blood Princes" as well -- refracts images and concepts from the other films. The bright cheeriness of Hogwarts, so readily steeped in warm oranges in the first two films, is now rendered in charcoal gloom courtesy Eduardo Serra's cinematography. Where hallways were once lit prominently, they are now drenched in shadow.

The music by Alexandre Desplat reworks some of John Williams' original themes, but also adds a layer of its own pathos. It lacks the energy of its predecessors, but in its own way succeeds as a singular movement in a larger symphony. We see in the tattered cloaks and scarred faces of many of the characters an undoing of the wide-eyed splendor abundant in "The Philosopher's Stone," and the joys of discovering magic are replaced with the perils of performing it.

I've heard Harry Potter fans roughly my age refer to it as "Our Franchise" -- meaning, simply, that as Harry came of age, so did we. I believe that's true. But why I will now proudly admit to thinking "Deathly Hallows" is one of the best films of the year is because I think that maturation is two-fold: the movies themselves decided to grow up, ushering in waves of visual reform between "Order of the Phoenix" and "Half-Blood Prince," laying the groundwork for this exquisite finale.

Back in the 1940s, British producer Alexander Korda tried to challenge Hollywood producer David O. Selznick (of "Gone with the Wind") to the Global Crown of Box-Office Gold by creating a series of vastly epic, visually intricate films (see, for instance, "The Thief of Baghdad"). While Korda's contributions to British film are manifold, history clearly still favors Selznick as the exemplar of expensive, lavish entertainment.

I can't help imagining Korda smiling at the global success of "Harry Potter" -- the world's most financially successful film franchise. In the years to come, when "The Deathly Hallows" stands tall as one of Britain's most towering cinematic successes, maybe Alexander Korda will get the last laugh.

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