15 July 2011

Through the years: Harry Potter on the big screen

WARNER BROS. PICTURES From left, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe are shown in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
 “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)

The adaptation of the first book chronicles year one at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for 11-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Tasked with introducing a boatload of characters and essentially creating the look and setting of the entire film series to come, director Chris Columbus has a lot of grunt work to do. His solution is to stay slavishly loyal to J.K. Rowling’s writing, resulting in a movie that is entertaining in fits but plagued by pacing problems throughout its 152 minutes. Like the book, it is the most kid-friendly entry in the series, even though the child actors are painfully wooden at times. Luckily, an esteemed cadre of British actors (including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, John Cleese and John Hurt) classes up the entire production, and a typically brassy John Williams score enhances the excitement. Greg's Grade: C+

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002)

Introductions are out of the way, but “Chamber of Secrets” still is exposition-heavy and moves at a ponderously slow pace at times—there simply is not enough plot to sustain 161 minutes. Columbus returns to the director’s chair, so again, Rowling provides all of the imagination and the filmmakers offer little more than a page-by-page translation of the book. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson already show improvement, and the supporting cast, including a delightful Kenneth Branagh as a foppish new Hogwarts teacher, is uniformly excellent. C

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004)

Here’s where it gets good. Alfonso Cuaron takes over as director, providing a sense of directorial vision sorely lacking in the first two movies. After two rather episodic adventures, we finally get into the meat of the story, this part of which is centered on the escape from prison of convicted murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the man accused of betraying Harry’s parents and causing their deaths. The more personal story raises the stakes, and the tension remains high throughout. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are growing quickly into their roles, and the bond between Harry, Ron and Hermione feels deep and genuine. Along with Oldman, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson and Timothy Spall are among the cast additions, though all eyes are on Michael Gambon, who ably replaces the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. With the filmmakers finally starting to take liberties with the text, this is the most divisive and lowest-grossing film of the series. But it also may be the most important, taking the first steps onto the darker path Harry and his friends will follow through to the end. A

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005)

The Triwizard Tournament, a magic contest held between the three largest wizarding schools of Europe, and in which Harry is a surprise entrant, provides a strong narrative backbone. The characters have evolved to the point where we care not only about what happens to them in the grand scheme of the overall plot, but also with regard to their relationships with one another. With more new characters and a lot of plot to get through, director Mike Newell keeps forward momentum, building up to a climax that changes everything. B+

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007)

As the wizarding world scoffs at Harry and Dumbledore’s warnings of Voldemort’s return, the Ministry of Magic wrests away control of Hogwarts through a new professor, the domineering, wretchedly cheerful Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Harry becomes proactive for the first time, secretly training his classmates for the war Voldemort is bringing but the authorities deny. David Yates comes onboard as director for the only movie in the series not scripted by Steve Kloves (Michael Goldenberg is the screenwriter here), and important elements, such as the characterizations and pacing, feel just a little bit off as compared to films three and four. The finale—the first knock-down-drag-out magic battle of the series—is underwhelming until Voldemort and Dumbledore arrive. The movie gets a lot right, though, especially Harry’s torment over his firsthand encounter with death at the end of “Goblet of Fire.” The threat, the impending sense of doom, has never seemed greater. B

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009)

Yates’s second go-round as director is a confident, mature picture, performing a delicate balancing act as it moves from the series’ funniest moments to its most grave. Teenage hormones run wild about Hogwarts, while Harry and Dumbledore delve into the past to unlock the secret to defeating the evil Lord Voldemort. “Half-Blood Prince” is filled with striking visuals; it is the only entry in the series to receive an Academy Award nomination for best cinematography. With its production design dominated by shades of brown and dim lighting, it almost looks like “Harry Potter” as directed by David Fincher. The special effects are better than ever and even more effective for being merely a backdrop for the human drama. A

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010)

The bad guys are winning as the penultimate film begins, and they keep winning right up until the credits roll. Again under Yates’s direction, this is about as bleak as a mainstream, Hollywood picture gets. With Voldemort and his Death Eaters seizing control of both Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic, Harry, Ron and Hermione go on the run (eliciting the best work yet from the actors portraying them), searching for the means to defeat the dark lord. “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is a gritty, moody piece bearing virtually no resemblance to the cartoon-like early movies. It may be a little light on action for some, but it effectively moves the many pieces into place for the grand finale. A

No comments: