Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Official Black Owl Review of the “Harry Potter” films: All of them.

Let me freely admit, I am a little late to the party on this one.  I read the first book when it became available in the States and was decidedly…ambivalent.  Sure, it was cute, but there was nothing particularly new here, and Harry came off a little too coddled for my tastes.  The book was a child’s book meant for children and that was fine, but it didn’t draw me in the way something like a John Christopher story, or early Heinlein—also meant for children—would.  I saw the movie when it came out, and left it feeling about the same way.

So I didn’t go back.  It’s not like there was any shortage of entertainment; hell, I think Entertainment is going to be the Western 20/21st Century world’s cultural legacy.  That’s for another blog though.  Suffice it to say I didn’t think I was missing much.

Then, about a year ago I got a bug that if soooo many people were into this, that maybe it got better.  Some friends told me this was so, so all the movies went in my Netflix queue.  And then the Lovely Jennifer and I kept bumping them down, until finally about a month ago, we let the first one hit, since I’d not seen it since it came out.  As of last night, we watched part II of “The Deathly Hallows” and I am struck enough by the series to make some comments.  Please keep in mind, I have not read any but the first book.  I likely will now, so please save your “the movies suck next to the books” comments.  I have experience with what it takes to convert a narrative prose into a visual medium, and it’s far more difficult than you think.  I’m judging the movies here, and the movies only.  And if YOU have not watched the films, spoiler alert.

I don’t think I am going to become a PotterHead, or whatever it is they call HP Fandom.  However, I was quite entertained by the series, and really appreciate the fact the stories grow up with the lead characters.  By the third (Prisoner of Azkaban) the universe that started out pretty derivative of any magic based story has become a fuller tapestry of specific adaptations of those old standards to a new world.  The threats are far more than just which house wins the Quidditch cup this year.  Larger themes of death, betrayal by authorities in which we place our trust, loyalty, and legacy are now entwined with the stories of characters who are not cute little kids with magic wands, but troubled adolescents making life or death decisions, living in a world dictated to them by the generation gone before.  That’s a great allegory for life in general, and I came to understand that that first couple of books use familiar artifacts—magic wands, broomsticks, witches and wizards—as a shorthand.  It’s a similar trick that Lucas uses in the Holy Trilogy: we know the Jedi are a chivalric order because they are “knights” who wield sabers.  We know Darth Vader is bad because he’s dressed like a dark Knight.  We know Leia is good because she’s a Princess locked away in an evil castle, and she’s all dressed in white.  Those old, old concepts are in place so Lucas doesn’t have to describe the world step by step; he can bring the audience in with some base knowledge and then build on it with “Sith” and “Wookies” and for whatever reason “Ewoks.”

The HP story does the same thing.  We know unicorns are special, so when someone feeds on one, we get it.  We know if someone is so bad they cannot even be named they are likely going to be the heavy.  That’s fine.  We’re pulled in with the shorthand so the story can hit the main theme: Death. 

These movies start with the death of Harry’s parents and Harry’s journey only ends when he has rejected the Deathly Hallows, trying not to overpower death with the Elder Wand, avoid death with the Resurrection Stone, or hide from Death with the Invisibility Cloak.  He walks right into it, and in doing so finds victory.  Throughout, Harry loses people he loves, sometimes senselessly, while people who deserve death live on to cause trouble in subsequent films.  Even people like Gandal…uh, Dumbledore whom Harry trusts, are leading him to his own death, or themselves succumb to the Reaper.  This may sound like that makes the whole narrative pretty much a downer, but not really.  We see death is part of life, it is capricious, but you keep going.  One may die, but life continues.  Harry, the very Messianic figure in these films dies, is resurrected, returns to defeat Vade...uh, Sauro...uh, Voldemort and then…

…gets married, has kids, and sends them off to school too.  Life goes on.  And those kids will have adventures and love and have their own kids and life goes on.  It’s not about the futility of life that death hangs over us and will eventually claim us all, but rather the joy that comes from the chance to have faced life and death on your own terms, and how well you treated the ride when you were on it. That’s a neat theme, and it ties the films together nicely.

That tapestry I mentioned is neat.  It’s an intriguing world in which details matter.  Hints in “Sorcerer’s Stone” (ha ha, Harry can talk to snakes in the zoo!) come to play in “Deathly Hallows” (because he is one of Voldemort’s horcruxes, yikes).  “Order of the Phoenix” finally tells us why Quidditch exists when Mad-Eye leading the Order to help evacuate Harry from his Aunt and Uncle’s house mentions to everyone on a broom, “stay in formation.”  If you grew up playing Quidditch, you know exactly what he means.  The slowly revealed backstory of Harry’s Parents and Tom Riddle and Severus Snape, all lend a credibility and depth to the overall narrative.

Along with that, you get some deep and intriguing characters, which develop nicely.  I am still wondering if Severus Snape is my favorite in the series.  He’s at first glance a heavy, not really nice the whole time, apparently betrays the heroes, but in the end is acting out of love and for the greater good.  I like that.   I also want to give a shout out to the Wedge Antilles of the HP movies, Neville Longbottom.  From goofy looking kid, to knight wielding the Sword of Gryffindor against Voldemort’s giant freaking snake, Neville isn’t a child of destiny like Luk…uh, Harry; he’s someone who steps up because he can, and makes all the difference.  I have heard in the books he goes on to become a professor at Hogwarts.  Good on him.

So in the end, I don’t know if I will ever watch all of them again, though I do have Grandkids on the way and the series is certainly something I would think should be part of a kid’s life.  Should they decide to emulate Hermione’s studious nature, Ron’s loyalty, or Neville’s sense of duty and responsibility, there are role models to be found, and the series deserves to be considered among child and young adult classics.  I am pleased if not blown away, and now understand a lot more of the jokes on Tumblr.  I do think though on any subsequent viewings, I will watch “Deathly Hallows” in one sitting; the second half suffers as a film on its own when separated from the first half.  Nonetheless, I am glad I watched, and would recommend them to those who have not.  They get pretty dark from about “Order of the Phoenix” on but spin a good tale that grows with the characters.

Now where’s my Neville spinoff?