Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Harry Potter Series, Part 1: Sorcerer's Stone through Goblet of Fire

A few weeks ago, having fallen ill for about four days straight, I felt the urge to watch something that was entertaining, comforting, and didn't strain my foggy brain. Upon realizing that I had actually never seen the final film in the Harry Potter series, and I had my answer. I had seen all of the first seven movies, but not since they had originally been released in theaters.

I'm not going to go into the minutiae of the various plot points that run through the 7-novel/8-movie tale. I'll keep things rather short, assuming that most people already know the basics or would rather just watch the movies for themselves. Here's how I found them upon this rewatch:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Director: Christopher Columbus

In this first movie, we meet Harry Potter, a mistreated orphan boy who is informed that not only is there a secret world of magic and wizards, but that he is a rather special young man who is destined for great things within this wondrous landscape. He is brought to Hogwart's School of Wizardry, where he befriends Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley. The three eventually foil a plot by one of the school's teachers to help revive Voldemort, the presumed-dead evil wizard who killed Harry's parents 12 years prior.

Still an entertaining and faithful-to-a-fault adaptation that hasn't aged particularly well, The Sorcerer's Stone introduced all who hadn't read the books to the world of Harry Potter and the witches, wizards, and other dazzling elements around it. There are certainly clumsy elements to the story, and the three primary child actors had not really found their footing as performers. The special effects also haven't held up very well, with the CGI now looking rather garish and clunky. Director Christopher Columbus goes for fairly broad dialogue and comedy, as he's done in his other movies, which doesn't serve us older viewers terribly well.

All the same, the world that author J.K. Rowling created is still a lot of fun, and it provides enough wonder as it is revealed to us, even if the pacing is overly brisk. The plot also features enough amusing turns to keep things lively, and the adult actors are all absolutely perfect, as it's difficult to go wrong with actors the caliber of Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and the like. The movie isn't flawless, but it is a solid enough beginning to this movie franchise juggernaut. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Director: Christopher Columbus

Chapter two of the Potter series sees Harry return to Hogwarts and become embroiled in another mystery - this one involving various students turning up literally petrified around the campus. As Harry digs deeper, he learns a little more about his own history as well as the history of Voldemort, with whom he seems to be inexplicably linked.

Although still containing a few of the weaknesses of the first film, this second entry made some marked improvements. Main child actors Watson, Radcliffe, and Grint show a little more comfort with their roles and acting chops, even if they're not completely natural yet. Also helping matters is that the already-considerable adult cast is assisted by the inclusion of other top-notch actors like Kenneth Brannagh and Jason Isaacs. The effects are noticeably better, although the Quidditch match CGI still looks too artificially glossy and awkward.

As with the source novels, the tone and sophistication increases ever-so-slightly. This second volume features higher stakes, involving a bit more menace and some intriguing insight into the still-mysterious arch-villain Voldemort. The little plot turns reveal more clever updates of familiar myths and fairy tale elements. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

This film sees a 13-year-old Harry in his third year at Hogwart's dealing with the presence of the ghastly Dementors as they hover around the school on the lookout for an escaped wizard convict. The convict, Sirius Black, has some sort of tie to Harry's dead parents, and strange and dangerous events start to unfold around the school.

I always remember this third film in the series as the strongest one, and this repeat viewing didn't diminish that opinion. Directed by highly accomplished director Alfonso Cuaron, Azkaban almost immediately offers a darker look and tone, quickly introducing the horrific Dementors, grim reaper-like beings which siphon the happiness away from those unfortunate enough to go to near. These terrible creatures are a serious part of a grimmer chapter in the Potter series, one which sees the inclusion of great British actors like Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, and a few others. 

Other improvements over the previous chapters include dialogue which is less clumsy and an overall reduction of sentimentality. The plot, still highly faithful to Rowling's novel, also shows a bit more care with its details. Of course, a savvy and mature fan of science fiction and fantasy tales can pick many details apart, but if one keeps in mind that this is a family movie, then it clearly stands superior to its passable predecessors.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Director: Mike Newell

The fourth movie in the series gets into the action more quickly than the previous installments, soon getting to the titular and lethal "Goblet of Fire" tournament in which Harry unwillingly becomes a competitor. Now 14 years old, Harry is dealing with not only the stresses of the tournament but also questions about romance and friendship. These latter life elements eventually take a back seat, though, as Harry ultimately comes face-to-face with Voldemort himself. 

Goblet of Fire is something of a blend of the strengths and weaknesses of the previous three movies. It generally overcomes some sappier elements in its first two acts with some deadly serious consequences and repercussions in its third act. While some of the first two-third of the movie is given over to teenage angst, the final act makes it clear that play time is over. Over in a way that includes a full-on murder right in front of Harry's face. Not exactly the stuff of kiddie movies, which is quite welcome to any of us viewers past puberty. 

The three primary characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are now acting as moody as nearly all 14 year-olds. The interpersonal drama can be a bit tedious at times, but it does create a deeper sense of character. Even if the sappier parts of the drama become a tad thick, they are dispatched in the final part of the movie, when the long-teased nemesis Voldemort finally makes his first true, full appearance. He brings with him the sense of terror that's been building through the previous three films, to be sure, and it sets up the rest of the series extremely well.

So the first half of this eight-film series was solid enough, although the earliest movies haven't aged as well. Fortunately, the general trend was that the quality improved, which boded well as I headed into movies five through eight (review coming in a couple of days).