Harry Potter (Films 1-4)

SPOILERS

Don’t read if you have not seen the films (where have you been all this time if you haven’t?!?!?) and don’t want to know what happens. I gave you fair warning you only have yourself to blame if you continue to read on from here.

I have a love hate relationship with the Harry Potter franchise having read the books since the age of 10. Thankfully the love is gradually overtaking the hate – a bit more every time I watch the films. Now the thing that shocks me is that not one of the eight films has been included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. How can you not include a single installment in the most successful film franchise worldwide in a book like 1001 Movies?

Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus

2001; 2002

 I have to say the first two installments are my least favourite of the films (and the books too when I think about it). They are however pretty much carbon copies of the source material. And clearly the safest of the series both in content and the visual style. I can’t help but draw comparisons between Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (they were the focus of my dissertation after all!) as the first two films were made, and released, at the same time. The biggest difference is the standard of the CG – and it is an enormous difference! The CG in Lord of the Rings is flawless and still holds up today whereas certain elements in Philosophers Stone are … let’s say somewhat less than realistic. I’m thinking of their first flying lesson when Neville loses control; it is so obviously a computer generate human. 

The first two films set up the characters and the world extremely well creating a solid foundation for the subsequent films. And I absolutely adore Richard Harris as Dumbledore. He was such perfect casting; exactly how I had pictured the character in my head – it’s such a shame that he died requiring a change in actor.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

2004

Prisoner of Azkaban is the first example of films becoming a little bit darker and more grown up. It also sees a rather dramatic re-imagining of Hogwarts. Personally I really like the new Hogwarts. The Hogwarts of Philosophers Stone and Chamber of Secrets just didn’t seem magical enough for me where as the new layout did. For me you could always tell that Philosophers Stone and Chamber of Secrets had been filmed predominately in cathedrals which grounded it in our reality rather than the reality of the magical world created by Rowling.

The main actors are more comfortable in their characters, the result of staying with them for 3 years. The addition of David Thewlis as Remus Lupin is a welcome one – and one of my favourite Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers throughout the series. The necessary addition of Michael Gambon as the new Dumbledore is a less welcome one. I understand about creating your own character but for me he just never worked as Dumbledore. I felt (and still feel) that he is too far removed from the character in the books. He is too harsh and has lost all the geniality that Harris imbued the character with. It’s one of my biggest gripe with the series. Aside from that the rest of the new castings are spot on. Gary Oldman is brilliant as Sirius and Timothy Spall is delightfully creepy as Pettigrew. Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is  pure genius. She is wonderfully kooky and spaced out just as the character is portrayed in the books.

I remember people saying when Prisoner of Azkaban first came out that you had never seen anything like the Dementors before and thinking have you not seen the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings as the Dementors are so clearly influenced by them. The expansion of the wizarding world through the introduction of Hogsmede adds another level of realism to the story. It is no longer self-contained within the school. Thankfully by Prisoner of Azkaban Rupert Grint is no longer pulling all those stupid faces! The comedy becomes more of a feature as are the little moments between Ron and Hermione.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Director: Mike Newell

2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is where my issues with the series began. It is one of the largest books and therefore a lot of things needed to be cut which I understand. What I don’t get is the stuff they cut that would be needed later on in the books/films, like Bill going to the final task where he met Fleur ultimately leading to their marriage, especially when the author was part of the production team. There were a couple of bum casting as well, made all the more noticeable by the surrounding cast, all of whom perfectly embody their characters. Both the Crouches were wrong. Barty Crouch Snr (Roger Lloyd-Pack) is much too weak and whimpering. He doesn’t match the person Sirius says is ‘ so cold-hearted he sent his own son to Azkaban’. And then there’s David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr. While he is spectacularly crazy it is just so out of character with the person in the books – especially during his sentencing to Azkaban where he is incredibly cocky as opposed to the sniveling and begging cry baby from the books.

Goblet of Fire is the first film to break with the formula – it doesn’t start at the Dursleys but rather at the Burrow. Equally it doesn’t end with Harry, Ron and Hermione boarding the Hogwarts’ Express to go home at the end of the year. The evolution of the series continues, the uniforms have once again changed subtly. And the kids have begun to add their own style to their uniforms all of which echoes the reality of growing up. There is a much more grown up feel to Goblet of Fire, partly due to the cast growing up and the new interest in the opposite sex but also due to the ending. It’s the first death seen in the series, made all the more haunting because it isn’t an adult but someone they are at school with.

It is also the first time we see Voldemort properly as a real person rather than a slightly dodgy CG face like in Philosophers Stone. Ralph Fiennes is once again perfect casting as Voldemort – incredibly creepy and slightly insane. His appearance makes it all seem more real. Hermione’s comment at the end of the film that ‘everything is going to change’ is very true! 

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Avatar

Director: James Cameron

2009

I’ve been a bit slack lately when it comes to posting on here but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching movies. On the contrary I have watched loads but just not any that were in the book. So to herald my return to the blogosphere I thought I’d start with a potentially controversial blog about James Cameron’s magnum opus … Avatar.

Jonathan Penner says “Cameron uses state-of-the-art film technologies to submerge his audience in the flora and fauna of a new world; much as King Kong had done in 1933, Star Wars had in 1977, and Jurassic Park had in 1993. And like those films, Avatar, hailed as a game changer, a masterwork, and a box-office record breaker, will remain beloved, but will someday, no doubt, look antiquated.” (931, 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die) I have to say that I am one of the few people who was not only unimpressed with Avatar but actually detested the film!

While the story may be one that has been told numerous times I don’t think that Cameron’s take on it is an outstanding contribution as so many other people do. I also do not see Pandora as this beautiful utopia – the discord between the Na’vi negate the supposed utopia. The one redeeming factor is the brilliant performance by Sam Worthington but even then that is not enough to inspire multiple viewings on my part.

The CG (which is the most major element of the film) is not as spectacular as everyone is making it out to be. I will admit that the ‘flora’ element is stunning but it doesn’t seem entirely real to me. And the Na’vi are nowhere near realistic enough. Now I can hear some of you saying “How can you expect enormous blue creatures with tails to be realistic?” Well I watch a lot of sci-fi and fantasy films and television and I have seen much more believable ‘aliens’ than the Na’vi. Sure it may be technically brilliant but in terms of its use as a narrative tool I find it somewhat lacking.

I didn’t connect with a single character in the entire film which to me smacks of style over substance … something that is so unlike Cameron. I was also completely unable to ‘suspend my disbelief’ which to me personally is the mark of a bad film and I have to admit my main problem with a film that the vast majority of the cinema going population appear to be enraptured with.