Friday, 15 July 2011

HARRY POTTER - THE END OF AN ERA


After 10 years of cinematic magic, one of the most successful franchises in film history comes to an end later this week as the eagerly anticipated HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART TWO takes centre stage. Throughout the last decade, many audiences have been enchanted by the popular series since Philosopher's Stone came out in December 2001, a day I remember as if it was only yesterday. The setup was simple. The story of a young boy wizard named Harry Potter whose destiny is to confront the dark lord Voldemort who was responsible for his parent's deaths which leads him to the magical school of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry provided a widespread chronicle which proved the main focus its infamy. When young actors Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) were cast in the roles of the three wizards, little did they and many others know that they would be part of a dynasty which has gone from strength to strength as each film has passed. From wizards and centaurs to dragons and giant spiders (!), the magical world of Harry Potter as adapted from J.K Rowling's phenomenal book series has captivated its readers with Harry's many adventures and eventually translated themselves to the big screen and proved to be just as enjoyable. However like other film franchises, there comes a time for it all to finish as Deathly Hallows Part Two concludes the epic franchise with a brutal and thrilling showdown at Hogwarts School which could decide the fate of many between good and evil. With the film due out, I will give my view of how the previous films fared from a film buff's perspective. The magic is almost finished....


HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE (2001) - 3 (1/2) STARS


Having started my Harry Potter-a-thon recently, it was obvious that to appreciate the series, I should start from the beginning with how this magical world began. Back in 2001, there had been a lot of talk about the production of this particular film, and I remember being excited about seeing it at the flicks. My dad took me to see it on a chilly evening in Chester and whilst he never got as far watching them as I did, it was obvious that this would begin something special through its fantasy elements that enchanted the audiences who watched it. It was always going to be a box-office smash and that is exactly what it did as the world of Harry Potter came to life. From its glorious depiction of Hogwarts to some pitch-perfect casting including Richard Harris as the kindly Albus Dumbledore to Maggie Smith as the defiant Professor McGonnagall and the best of them all, Alan Rickman as the sinister Snape, the film set the standard for what was to come as Harry is saved from the cruelty of his relatives by friendly giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane also perfectly cast) and discovers his reputation of being the "boy who lived". By attending Hogwarts, Harry makes friends (and enemies), learns various magic and spells, becomes a successful Quidditch player and eventually confronts his nemesis through a corrupted teacher, Professor Qurrell (Ian Hart). 

Watching it for the first time properly in years though, it is safe to say there is a strong difference between this edition of the series and the much, much darker film from last year. Being directed by the man who helmed Home Alone was one major factor with the family-aimed dynamic of the film being evident throughout. Radcliffe and Watson especially didn't get off to the best of starts acting-wise but since then they got better though not helped by cheesy dialogue that makes this film unbearable to watch in a way. But low and behold, the first Harry Potter film had cast a spell over people....


HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) - 3 1/2 STARS  


A year had passed when Chris Colombus continued to direct the beginning of the Harry Potter franchise in which the first film made huge bucks at the box-office. However critic-wise it'd been overshadowed by the film adaptation of another successful fantasy series; the Lord of the Rings which proved too powerful for the Potter films to tackle apart from the money issue. Chamber of Secrets came out in 2002 and like its predecessor was just as enchanting as Harry and friends must try and uncover the truth about a chamber of secrets which homes a mysterious monster which is going around Hogwarts petrifying people. A lot more went on in this film including Harry and Ron's pursuit of the Hogwarts express via the flying blue car, Harry using Parseltongue during a confrontation with his nemesis Malfoy (joined in the film by his father Lucius played by Jason Isaacs) as well as taking him on during a game of Quidditch and the enthralling ending of Harry taking on the young Voldemort and a giant basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. Off-screen though the child actors were struggling to cope with their voices breaking as Radcliffe, Grint and Felton all sounded manly from now on.

 This film proved just as magical as Philosopher's Stone with more action-packed scenes including the Flying Car as well as the confrontation with the spiders (shudders) and the final showdown but also new casting coups which impressed again including Isaacs as the dastardly Malfoy Senior and Shakespearan actor Kenneth Branagh as the smug Lockhart. Technically though, it was the CGI creation of goblin Dobby who became cherished by all with his determination to ensure that Harry doesn't suffer back at Hogwarts. Again like the first film though, COS did suffer from its family-aimed dynamic with several cheesy moments none more so than the vomit-inducing climax of Hagrid's celebrated return in front of the children; "Hogwarts wouldn't be the same without you Hagrid", bleugh! Fortunately the childish tone of the franchise was to disappear once the production took a break and came back to Prisoner Of Azkhaban in 2004....


HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKHABAN (2004) - 4 STARS 


After an 18 month break, the Harry Potter franchise came back with a bang thanks to several key changes orchestrated by new director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) who gave the franchise a much-needed dark tone with Prisoner of Azkhaban. Gone was the family-aimed backdrop, plus light-hearted characters like Dobby, Moaning Myrtle and John Cleese's Nearly Headless Nick (though Dawn French appears briefly in this one). More unfortunate though was the death of veteran actor Richard Harris as Dumbledore which saw the production team turn to Michael Gambon to keep the character alive and well. Despite some criticisms of making Dumbledore more abrupt, Gambon's acting experience won people over as the series progressed. Harry and his friends face dark times when spiritual creatures known as Dementors take control of Hogwarts in order to find escaped prisoner Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Harry learns about Black's possible involvement in his parent's deaths and vows revenge while at the same time learning of a crucial spell that could help him in his fight against the Dementors.

Adding to Michael Gambon's arrival to the film world of Harry Potter, more acting experience came in the shape of Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall and David Thewlis as Professor Lupin though the big signing was Gary Oldman as the escaped prisoner Sirius who plays a huge role in Harry's life during the series. Cuaron succeeded with adding his gritty touch to the series adding dull colours to make the film look less light while adding scary elements such as the werewolf transformation scenes and the Dementors. The time-travel locket in the film's final 20 minutes give the film a sort of Back to the Future-style paradox which adds to the genius of the story as well as one hell of a punch by Hermione on Draco, one of the cheery moments of the franchise. Admittedly there are times where the film suffers from its dark edge by dragging in certain scenes plus Radcliffe fails to take advantage of meaty material when he finds out about Sirius's involvement in his parent's deaths but most people agree that it is the best adaption though I think it's slightly overrated. But thankfully it did turn this franchise around and gave it the scope needed to make it all appeal to the right audiences.


HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005) - 4 STARS


After Alfonso Cuaron's dark take on the previous film, another director came into the production, a Brit this time in the shape of Mike Newell who like Cuaron was making just the one film in the series. For some reason however I consider this my favourite of the series probably due to how much action there is in this one plus there's a more epic feel about it though there are some who ridicule its differences from the book. After witnessing the Quidditch World Cup being gatecrashed by Death-Eaters, Harry and friends find that Hogwarts is hosting a Tri-Wizard Tournament while competing with other schools. Three challengers are selected in the draw but Harry's name pops out too resulting in his shock participation in the tournament which sees several friends including Ron disown him for a while. Once the challenges come along, Harry faces battles with fire-breathing dragons, mer-people and of course an explosive showdown with his enemy Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) who is now back from the brink and ready to wage war on Harry in the next couple of films....


The action-packed scale of Goblet of Fire made this a more interesting film to watch though its clear the series had started to grow up with its 12A rating for intense scenes, as well as a beautifully made ballroom scene with Hermione looking lovely and even Hagrid finding love. All three challenge sequences are spectacularly done with the Voldemort showdown riveting as well as more light-hearted humour notably the Weasley twins as they started to establish themselves as a formidable film duo. The new casting additions kept coming with Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort), Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack as Barty Crouch Snr), Doctor Who (David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jnr) and Edward (Robert Pattinson as the doomed Cedric Diggory) from Twilight contributing to the Potter film world. There is still the odd few problems from the young cast mostly Emma Watson who gives her weakest performance in the dark films but she would eventually get better. But for young Harry, the return of the dark lord was to prove significant with the final four films in the franchise set to build up something huge, this was no longer a series aimed at little kiddys....


HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007) - 4 STARS


From this film onwards, David Yates added his own personal touch to the ever-growing popularity of the Harry Potter film franchise two years after Goblet of Fire. With the final book The Deathly Hallows being released in the same year, it left some fans distraught at the book series ending but at least the films would continue the magic it'd appealed since 2001. This particular outing is almost as good as GOF with the epic feel of it continuing here as Harry faces questions from the Ministry about whether his encounter with Voldemort actually happened with some believing that he was lying. He starts foreshadowing dreams about what Voldemort's next plans are, as his godfather Sirius Black urges Harry to help reform Dumbledore's army to confront the evil which the dark lord threatens to unleash. During that time Hogwarts is complicated by the arrival of super-strict Minister Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) who completely alters the rules of the school to make it more moral, but Harry and friends arrange secret meetings with other students to reform the army behind her back. Though the army is halted by Umbridge finding out, Harry and the others find themselves at the Ministry where an enthralling confrontation with death-eaters and Voldemort himself, sees Harry lose a beloved one while the Ministry are left looking foolish when they realise that Voldemort is back.


The story seems to reflect on a more political stance as the Ministry are seen as corrupted and it sets the basis for the thrilling final half hour as the dark tone of the series continues. This is only further supported by impeccable castings with Imelda Staunton playing such a devious and authorial role as Umbridge while Helena Bonham Carter is simply terrifying as the evil witch Bellatrix. However perhaps a real coup, talent-wise, was the casting of young Evanna Lynch as loopy student Luna Lovegood, whose Irish spark just shines from here. It's also great to see actors from previous films pop up including Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson and Gary Oldman, who add significant importance to this outing. The kids continue to improve with Harry getting to share his first kiss with Cho Chang while the chemistry between Ron and Hermione becomes more obvious. Negatively though, there are criticisms of how this film like GOF misses out key points from the book which are significant for the story. Nonetheless the thrills of this film, keep the franchise going, though another two-year wait was addressed with Half Blood Prince being just round the corner....


HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE (2009) - 3 1/2 STARS 



 Patient Harry Potter fans were rewarded with the arrival of the sixth film in the phenomenal franchise, which was a little less exciting than the previous three films but was still just as effective overall. Like GOF and OOTP, the death of a major character would prove significant for the story, as Voldemort's plans to confront Harry would gather pace in time for Deathly Hallows. The young wizard finds himself a marked man in this story with Dumbledore knowing that he is at great risk at Hogwarts and seeks to try and protect him with the help of a former colleague Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who it turns out taught a young Voldemort many years ago. Harry comes into possession of a book owned by the 'half-blood' prince and tries to uncover more bout Voldemort's past with Draco Malfoy being groomed to try and confront the wise wizard. At the same time though, Harry encounters his second romantic moment getting together with Ron's sister Ginny whilst Ron becomes a Quidditch star and falls for fellow student Lavender Brown. Importantly though a crucial mission for Harry and Dumbledore sees them track down a Horcrux which could destroy the dark lord, only for a tragedy in the climax to change things forever for Harry....

For some reason I disregard this film for the fact not much really happens plus a couple of key parts are left out from the book. There isn't a showy feel about the film compared to the previous three installments but it still does a good job surrounding the Potter universe. There's more humour but another grim ending too, as certain characters come up trumps with Michael Gambon giving his best performance as Dumbledore while Tom Felton improves drastically as the tortured Draco. Jim Broadbent gives solid support as Slughorn though the absense of Ralph Fiennes is a slight disappointment as Helena Bonham Carter plays the 'big' baddie role in this outing. Another downer is the failure to reveal more about the background of the 'half-blood' prince who reveals himself in the climax but only briefly. But there's still action aplenty with the destruction of the Millennium bridge being well constructed while the final 20 minutes make for exciting entertainment as Harry learns what has to be done for the final outing of the saga. Or should I say final outing of the saga split in two!


HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART ONE (2010) - 4 STARS


And so the final book of the Harry Potter adventure had come to the big screen....though only as a split film with Warner Bros making the decision to separate the Deathly Hallows into two films. Possibly to make more money and make us suffer a little longer, it didn't matter when the trailer for both films came out, plenty of anticipation was made with Part 2 obviously the more action-aimed film. However Part 1 was to take us away from Hogwarts and instead focus on the isolated journey Harry, Ron and Hermione have to take in order to find the missing Horcruxes. Following Dumbledore's death, Harry knows that the Horcruxes must be found to try and stop Voldemort who is trying to track down the Elder Wand which could prove significant in the war for evil. The trio embark on a perilous quest to find them by wandering through countrysides and forests but at the same time encountering problems with Death Eaters and even each other. Ultimately the kids are reunited towards the end and learn of the Deathly Hallows which holds the key to finding the Horcruxes. However after being captured and interrogated by Bellatrix and the Malfoys, they are rescued by a recurring character who sacrifices himself to save them leaving Harry distraught while the dark lord finds the Elder Wand which will lead to the huge and dramatic showdown taking place in Part 2....

Focusing this film away from Hogwarts proved an interesting if slightly boring move by the filmmakers but it worked nonetheless as reflected by the darkness of the series as the trio become distanced from everything and everyone they care for. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson all excel again, though newcomers Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans fail to really add anything to the series. Continuity is well preserved here as the likes of Imelda Staunton, John Hurt and Brendan Gleeson return to the films though disappointingly for some Potter fans the deaths of Mad-Eye Moody and the owl Hedwig are mentioned briefly but lack serious emotional impact compared to the book. The return of Dobby is also crucial particularly for the final scene which left many in tears but gives a strong meaning for the bitterness we all feel about characters who've been killed off during the series. The action is minimal though the flying motorbike sequence (filmed inside the Liverpool tunnel) is cleverly made as is the tale of the three Brothers from the Deathly Hallows which is beautifully designed. This gives the franchise its epic setting as the battle for good vs evil was to finally come to head on July 15th. Not since Return of the King had there been a more eagerly anticipated finale to a film saga....


HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 (2011) - ? STARS


 You shall all have to wait till next week to find out my review for the hugely awaited finale to one of the great series in film. Will Harry save the day and finally defeat Voldemort once and for all or will evil prevail in this adventure? Whatever happens, the Harry Potter series has truly spell bounded me over the last 10 years where despite some of the films not always being honest with the books, the entertainment factor has been magical. So many beloved characters, good or evil, it's just what you want from a story as epic as Harry Potter and it is to the great credit of J.K Rowling and David Heyman and EVERYONE involved with the films, that they have created something fantastic that will pass on for generations to come! Harry Potter is the boy who lived, and no doubt the film series will live forever!

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