174-177: Harry Potter Marathon, Part 1

This is part one of a Harry Potter marathon me and my wife are doing over the next two weeks or so. I was pleasantly surprised that the 8-film Blu-ray collection was back on the shelves last weekend and took the opportunity to revisit these movies. Mind you, I have never read any of the books so my opinion will not be tainted by adaptation, omissions or changes. I do have to admit that I was never a really big fan of the Harry Potter series. I just wasn’t able to buy into all the fuss that surrounded them. I have seen all but one (the last), and am curious how they will come across now that I am going to watch them as one long series.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Where it all began. Chris Columbus took the helm of the behemoth undertaking that was to become one of the biggest blockbusters in movie history. By this time the Harry Potter books were already a success, so anticipation was high and Columbus didn’t disappoint. He managed (together with screenwriter Steve Kloves) to compress J.K. Rowling’s introduction of Harry Potter and his friends into a wonderfully whimsical fantasy adventure. We are thrown from one wondrous scene to the next and are treated to a nice little mystery that ends in a whopper of a teaser for what was to come with the evil Voldemort doing his evil doings. While the movie is certainly a triumph, there is also quite a bit to point out that isn’t perfect. Throughout the movie we feel Columbus constantly wants to do more, but he is bound by the enormous tome that has to be represented within the running time (which is a staggering 152 minutes). There are parts of the movie that are just there to service the exposition and introduction of all the characters, which otherwise could have been omitted. Some of these parts feel choppy and rushed. You also feel this is (as our heroes) the most immature of the stories. This is totally understandable, of course, and that also makes Sorcerer’s Stone the most  child friendly of the series. Although I still won’t let my five-year old watch it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The Chamber of Secrets was to me a vast improvement over the first movie. I loved the fact that Columbus dared to take the movie down a much darker path with several scenes that were genuinely scary. Now, ten years later, I still like Chamber of Secrets very much. The kids have aged a little bit and aren’t as extremely young as they were in Sorcerer’s Stone. The stakes are a bit higher with people actually getting hurt during the movie. Harry has to really give it his all to fight the evils that lurk underneath Hogwart’s castle. There are, however, still moments that invoke the dreaded deus ex machine, like the sudden appearance of the Phoenix during the final battle. It tells me that either Rowling or Kloves were struggling there and took the easy way out. It took me out of the movie for a moment. The addition of Dobby the house elf, on the hand, is fantastic. What a great character he turned out to be. His total lack of self-respect is endearing in a way and his vindication at the end is a great moment in the movie. Chamber of Secrets has the good fortune of not being encumbered by the necessity to explain everything about our heroes. It dives right in and doesn’t stop until the 161 minute running time is over. I assure you that those minutes will fly by before you realize it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Many point at Prisoner of Azkaban as one of their favorite Harry Potter installments. I don’t see it. I don’t particularly like the third part in the this enormous series. This has several reasons. First is the tone. Director Alfonso Cuarón decided to leave behind the slightly more cheerful color palette of the Columbus chapters in favor of a nearly bleached out color spectrum that sucks all the wonder out the movie. And it is wonder that drove the first two movies. Second is the intensely choppy nature of the screenplay. I admire some of the obstacles Rowling introduces into the world of Harry Potter, like the genuinely scary Dementors. These soul sucking monsters look like they have been lifted from the pages of a Tolkien novel, but that doesn’t make them any less creepy. There are however enough moments that are so shamelessly manipulative (like Ron keeping his hand against the window in the train, or the flight of the hippogriff) that it takes me out of the movie every time. The final sequence with the time travelling is fun and all, but could the story not have been told without that gimmick? Are there positive aspects to Prisoner of Azkaban? Sure, the movie looks gorgeous, even in its almost black and white color scheme. The addition of more British heavy hitters (David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall) to the supporting cast lends more gravity to the movie. I think people think this is one of the best installments because of the shock value after first seeing part two and then Prisoner of Azkaban.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

When I first saw Goblet of Fire back in 2006 I was terribly disappointed. Somehow the movie didn’t connect with me in any way and it in fact annoyed the hell out of me. Maybe the dreadful haircuts of the boys were to blame, or the overtly teenage problems the characters were dealing with. Maybe I was a bit too cynical at that time. I don’t know. What I do know is that I like Goblet of Fire quite a bit more this time around. While the first fifteen minutes still feel like an extreme aggregation of what really transpired, the rest felt like a real adventure for everybody involved. Harry has to cope with being the fourth contender in this ludicrous tournament, while also being plagued by nightmares that foreshadow an event that will rock Harry’s world later in the movie. On the other side there are Ron and Hermione, who have their own problems to deal with. Ron is fed up with being the third wheel and starts to stand up to Harry. However annoying and unreasonable he may be. This is typical teenage behavior and completely fitting. Also fitting is Hermione’s blossoming into an attractive young woman. For the first time she is occupied with the possibility of something else than always having her nose in a book. It is lovely to see that these two characters also get their moments to develop themselves. Then there are the challenges, which are all fun and exciting sequences. Tie those elements together and you have a really fun adventure with a tremendous pay-off where we finally get to experience Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in full force. It feels like Goblet of Fire is just the right combination of the wonder of past movies and the seriousness of the coming movies.

Soon part 2 of this duology.


121: Brave

Pixar has been a part of the Disney Corporation since 2006. Before that they worked under the understanding that they could do whatever it wanted, Disney would show their movies to the world and they’d split the profits somehow. It was a beautiful alliance that brought us gems like Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. If you would ask John Lasseter, Pixar’s mastermind, if their independence has changed since Disney’s takeover he would probably tell you that it is still intact. But Pixar’s latest effort, Brave, tells a different story.

Brave is a Disney movie with every fiber of its being. We have a plucky princess, Merida, who wants nothing more than to break the mold. She is expected to take on a husband and lead a life of relative servitude, while she just wants to ride in the woods on the back of her trusty steed shooting arrows at targets. This of course upsets her mother and the tensions rise. Merida runs away and seeks advice from a mysterious witch who provides her with a spell that will perhaps change Merida’s mother’s mind a bit. Well, it changes quite a bit more than that and a race against time is a fact. Merida needs to find a way to get her mother back and in the meantime erase a black page in Scotland’s history.

Don’t get me wrong, Brave is a fun movie to watch. It is a stunning display of the level of proficiency the people at Pixar possess. The detail in the rendering of the Scottish Highlands is astonishing. You can almost feel the moss on the rocks. I did not see it in 3D, but it was digital projection and it was glorious. Two thumbs up right there. The rest, not so much. The character animation is decent, but incredibly cartoony. It felt like Brave could have used a little less slapstick to offset the strange magical occurrences later in the movie. That’s where Merida’s little brothers come in. They are triplets, but they serve no larger purpose than to be comic relief with a little involvement at a late stage in the movie. There are solely there to create more merchandise for the Disney Stores to sell. A lot in Brave feels like padding for a script that was actually just about an hour long.

Brave reminded me a lot of other Disney properties. There is a great tradition of Disney princesses trying to change their fate (a word used a lot in Brave to hammer the point home) to create a better life for themselves. Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, all of them strong female role models. There is nothing wrong with that, and if Brave had been a strict Disney production, like Tangled, I would have probably settled for that. but Lasseter’s Pixar has set the bar so ridiculously high for themselves that a production like Brave just falls short. Like Cars 2 before it, Brave is just subp-ix-ar (sorry, pun intended).

What is the cause of this gradual decline in Pixar’s quality? I think it is age. When Lasseter and his people took the idea of Toy Story and made it into the phenomenon it became, nobody knew when the sky would be the limit. Lasseter gathered a brilliant group of directors around him (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich) and threw a challenge in their lap: “Create worlds we have never seen before, even though we have no idea whether we can make it happen”. We know what came of that and we are forever grateful for that. It made other studios step up their game, which made the world look at animation differently.

Now the men and women who made Pixar what it is are starting to fan out to other challenges and they seem to be taking a piece of the magic with them and that breaks my heart. For fifteen years we have been eagerly expecting every new release Pixar was preparing and now that seems to not be the case anymore, at least for me. As much as I liked Monsters Inc., I am not really looking forward to Monsters University. Even a fourth Toy Story doesn’t really appeal to me after the way they finished Toy Story 3. I am very worried that Disney’s influence is becoming a little too dominant within the hallowed halls of Pixar. Does that mean you shouldn’t go watch Brave? No, enjoy it for what it is and hope Pixar gets their act together in the future.

> IMDb