Friday, April 21, 2017

The Harry Potter Series, Part 2: Order of the Phoenix through the Deathly Hallows

This is the second part of my reviews of the entire eight-film series of Harry Potter adaptation from the novels by J.K. Rowling. The first part, covering the first four movies, is here.
Harry gets worked over by Dolores Umbridge, one of the most
detestable, of not exactly horrific, adversaries Potter and his
pals face off in the series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Director: David Yates

Potter's fifth year was his roughest yet. Still recovering from seeing a fellow Hogwart's schoolmate killed in front of him by Voldemort himself, Harry now must deal with other threats. Hogwart's is gradually taken over by an authoritarian bureaucrat who wishes to stifle the merest suggestion that Voldemort exists, which puts Potter, his friends, and the entire wizarding community in grave peril.

This fifth movie is another strong one, though still not quite as good as Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban. It features a thoroughly dislikable, though rather different, nemesis for Harry in the form of Dolores Umbridge, the quietly sadistic, ultra-conservative Ministry of Magic employee who slowly but surely takes over the school. In my view, she is the most despicable character in the entire series, due to the fact that she is not truly "evil," but rather that equally dangerous type of person who denies their worst traits by doubling down on a rules and order. This does offer no small satisfaction when she gets her comeuppance, to be sure.

The other elements of the movie are on par with Goblet of Fire - a plot that is entertaining and fast-paced, and that holds up well enough if you don't start looking too closely at it (this is always the case with the Harry Potter series, both books and movies). The visuals and effects are as good as any thus far, including some striking set pieces and costumes. As has been the case for the whole series, the themes and tones get a bit darker and more mature, with this film including more notable loss for Harry. It also features him grappling with exactly who he is and facing some of the more negative, destructive aspects of his personality. As a side note, I also enjoy that we are finally let in on a little more history of Severus Snape, one of the most complex and compelling characters in the entire Potter series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Director: David Yates

Year six and Harry's penultimate year at Hogwart's is hardly much fun anymore. Although it is now clear to the wizarding world that Voldemort has truly returned, vindicating Harry, Potter and his friends now face the encroaching threat of Voldemort and his sinister Death Eaters. These dark forces begin to kill and attack anyone they deem a threat, including Hogwart's and its esteemed and powerful headmaster, Dumbledor. In the middle of this, Dumbledor enlists Harry to ferret out of a returned professor some key information about Voldemort's past - information which they may be able to use to put a true end to the malevolent wizard.

At this point, the fun and games are essentially over for Harry and his pals. The darker elements that have been encroaching on their world since The Prisoner of Azkaban are now in full attack mode, and the tone and plot reflect it. The dialogue, story, character development, and even set designs reflect the gravity and even terror at work at this point in the epic story. While it may not be the stuff of highly sophisticated movie-making, it is rather impressive for a "family" movie to have transformed its quality so dramatically. Yes, there is still an entertaining little quidditch match and a silly little sub-plot involving Ron's budding romance(s), but the movie never wanders far from the sinister elements lurking around every corner. Whether it's a fiery, destructive attack on the humble home of the Weasleys or the grim, fatalistic desperation around Draco Malfoy, there is less buoyancy in this film than in any previous Potter entry.

Personally, though, I think that all of these elements make it a better movie. After several movies that set up just how magical and valuable the wizarding world is to admirable people like Harry and his friends, the attacks unleashed in this movie have more power. If there is any notable weakness, it is that, at this point in the series, the film cannot stand alone. Any viewer who hasn't seen most or all of the previous movies will be missing out on so many backstories that the movie will be confusing at best and incomprehensible at worst.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione are joined by house elf Dobby and
a troll for a daring break in at Gringott's bank. It's one of a few
action scenes that come between several overlong,
slower scenes that felt a bit like busy work. 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010)

Director: David Yates

School is out at this point. In the wake of Voldemort and his Death Eaters' direct attacks on their enemies in the magical community, including their killing of Dumbledore, Harry Potter cannot afford to return to Hogwarts for his seventh and final year. Instead, he goes on the run with Hermione and Ron in order to find several magical items which will help them defeat the seemingly-invincible Dark Lord. The three are forced to stay light and mobile, as they desperately search for the items, often with little or no information to go on.

Of the entire Potter series, this is the lone movie that feels overly padded with unnecessary or drawn-out scenes. The filmmakers were, admittedly, in a somewhat tough spot. Author J.K. Rowling's final book in the series was a massive one, making a single movie adaptation virtually impossible (unless they wanted to make a four-hour film). So they opted to divide it into two movies. This was understandable, but the result is that Part 1 consists far more of buildup, plot points that go mostly unresolved, and several scenes which take the already-somber and relatively slow-paced movie and drag it out even more. To be sure, there are still the hallmark revelations and plot elements that make the story compelling, but the nearly two-and-a-half hour film could probably have been a good 15 to 20 minutes shorter and been the better for it.

Perhaps the standout contribution of this episode is the animated sequence that tells the story of the titular ''Deathly Hallows," magical items of lore that play a significant part in the final chapter of the epic series. The tale is visualized using computer-generated silhouettes, which creates a brilliant narrative and visual effect unlike any other in this special-effects-heavy series. Generally, though, this movie is really only a satisfying when you have Part 2 ready to fire up immediately after the credits roll. And I did...

In the final film, the fun and games are a thing of the past as
the little kids we first saw a decade earlier are now locked
in a deadly war with Voldemort's forces of evil.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)

Director: David Yates

And so the decade-long, eight-film adaptation of the most successful children's book series in history ends. Well, they did it justice.

It's been long enough since I've read the final book (roughly seven or eight years ago) that I didn't remember a great many details of final chapter in the series. This probably aided my enjoyment of the movie. This final movie, when viewed shortly after the slightly hobbled previous film, makes up for that earlier effort's shortcomings

The final chapter sees Harry, Ron, and Hermione tracking down the final horcruxes that house Voldemort's soul and using them in a grand final battle between the "good" and "evil" forces in the wizarding world. Harry, obviously, sides with the group who feel that their abilities do not and should not raise them above "muggles," or normal, non-magical folk, while Voldemort and his allies seek to dominate the normal human world and eradicate any sympathizing magicians.

The scale in this final movie is understandably much larger than the earlier ones, and it is handled very well. Whereas Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was bogged down in many places, Part 2 has more than enough action. It culminates in some very satisfying final confrontations, and the story fortunately retains the more challenging elements from Rowling's source novels (challenging for a children's book, that is). Maybe my one takeaway from this viewing is just how interesting a character Severus Snape is. He is arguably the deepest, most fascinating, most romantic, and most tragic figure in the entire series. When one knows his entire story arc, it makes watching the earlier movies that much more engaging.

So this was a fun little OCD movie project of mine. I anticipate that these movies will have an incredibly long life in world popular culture. While the first couple of movies' effects and overall techniques are already a little dated and tired, the remaining half dozen films in the series have the look of ones that will remain relatively timeless.