Harry Potter: A Film Analysis
by Jeffery Tucker
Abstract: I wrote an essay on the “Harry Potter” film series after seeing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.”
The Harry Potter film series will soon come to an end and what better way to acknowledge that than by analyzing the series? What are the positive and negative attributes? What are the best and worst aspects? How well do the creators perform their task of keeping the audience engaged and intrigued? Read on to find out how I, a fan of no importance, answer these inquiries.
As a fan of the novels (the last five, anyway), I no longer compare the films to what author J.K. Rowling wrote because that tends to bog down legitimate criticism. This type of criticism does not consist of nitpicks and complaints on what aspects of the books should not have been excluded. It’s preferable that a critic of the films, who also happens to be a fan of their book counterparts, only discuss what’s present on the screen to prevent the discussion from becoming off-topic with irrelevancies and disappointments of inaccurate, minute details. Therefore, no comparisons to the novels will be made on my part. I also will not go into detail on the plot and story of each film as this analysis assumes that you have seen them and know the information.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
The only logical way to begin such an analysis is to start with the films that established the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Chamber of Secrets, both directed by Christopher Columbus. I will preface the discussion of these films by stating that I loved Stone when I first saw it, but over the years began to develop a love-hate relationship. The same can be said for Chamber, but I eventually came to dislike it.
What the first entry into the film series does well is setting up and establishing the wizarding universe. The film shows us the difference between the Muggle world and the world occupied by magical beings. Harry enters the unknown and is marveled at what he is seeing and has been missing all of his life. The problem here is that that wonder, for the audience, disappears quite quickly.
The main issues with Stone (this is true for Chamber as well) are the boring visuals and the eventuality of the film losing the audience’s interest. The performances by the adult actors and the younger cast members cannot be thoroughly enjoyed when their presence is heavily accentuated and marred by a bland-looking castle with very little pop, and some of the worst visual effects from that year. As John William’s sweeping score permeates the boat ride up to Hogwarts, one cannot feel what the filmmakers intend because the experience is ruined by looking at the castle. The same feeling is replicated with each exterior shot and is experienced again, but to a lesser degree, when we view the interior. Director Christopher Columbus didn’t direct a single visually exciting shot in the film, and it’s a testament to his skills when put into the context of later directors who came to helm the series.
As for the visual effects, it’s difficult to be immersed in the world when they look quite terrible. If you compare the budget of Stone with Fellowship of the Ring (released in the same year), it’s inexcusable that the former has inferior visual effects, particularly the fight with the troll and Harry being jerked around by his seemingly possessed broom. The trend continues with the centaur Firenze, and Harry chasing flying keys to progress further into the plot with the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Stone seems to slog along after the quite-eventful Quidditch match. We see the trio struggle to put the pieces together but it just isn’t entertaining enough and it feels like your standard detective fare. There are of course some interesting moments interspersed between those scenes, like Snape’s altercation with Filch, but that doesn’t fill the void of something left to be desired: an immensely entertaining experience. Steve Kloves’ script needed to be cut down and reworked to make things more interesting.
There are of course positives, most notably everything up until where the film begins to drag, excluding the visual problems noted above. Seeing Harry learn about being a wizard and coming to the realization that he isn’t a freak is wonderful. The score is excellent and really complements the source material. Williams continues to do this with the second and third entry into the series.
For Chamber, I’m not going to delve into the visuals, as they mirror the first with the exception of superior visual effects. I will instead focus on its longevity and immensely boring nature. The film clocks in at nearly two hours and forty minutes (with credits) and you can feel every minute of it. It’s sad that everything preceding Harry’s return to Hogwarts is superior to everything taking place within it. The humor present when Harry first visits the Burrow will elicit laughs from time to time, even upon repeat viewings. The same can be said for the moments at the bookstore in Diagon Alley when the audience is treated to the first appearance of Gilderoy Lockhart.
Just like Chamber‘s older brother, there are moments sprinkled throughout its runtime that are entertaining but do not make up for even more standard detective fare, which this time seems to go on and on. Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Lockhart is the highlight in these moments, along with Rickman as Snape. Kloves’ script here too needed to be cut and reworked.
Overall, the first two films range from “wholly mediocre” to “an overlong chore.” Stone creates the world for the audience, and even though it has problems, you won’t be wishing for it to end. Chamber, however, makes you wonder what happened during the creating process to disengage the audience so much throughout.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
The series starts to become interesting with Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The opening scene, even with the problem of inconsistency – the “no magic outside of school” rule established in Chamber – shows that the audience is in for something different. Everything about Prisoner differs from Stone and Chamber: the direction, the cinematography, the acting, the tone, the usage of themes, the music, and even the humor.
What Prisoner excels at most is its look and Cuaron’s direction. When both are coupled, it makes for a pleasant visual experience and puts the first two films to shame. Hogwarts is no longer bland; it’s rich with shadows and actually looks like a castle. Hogwarts’ grounds have been completely redesigned and that’s for the better. Yes, it’s an inconsistency, but not a bothersome one as it improves upon Columbus’ lackluster vision. Cuaron’s stylistic choices are a welcome relief. The camera actually moves in interesting ways as opposed to the cliche movements employed in Prisoner’s predecessors. The decision to show the passing of time through seasons and how they affect the Whomping Willow, while frowned upon by many, is simply marvelous and is further evidence that there’s a lack of creative imagination in Stone and Chamber.
In regards to the acting, and this is an unpopular opinion, Michael Gambon’s portrayal as Dumbledore in Prisoner is superior to Richard Harris’. He plays calm, collective, and cool all wrapped into one, and you don’t have to listen to a grasping voice hoping to be able to discern what’s being spoken. Gary Oldman’s performance as Sirius Black never fails to disappoint.
Unfortunately, all of this glowing praise for Prisoner must come to a halt as there are problems with the film. The humor is unfunny and the slapstick portions are quite grating. The repetitious nature of the humor during the Knight Bus scene is just as annoying as it is ridiculous. Another problem presents itself with the Time Turner sequences. Time travel by definition is ridiculous in every sense of the word and it’s rarely well done on screen, but the scenes in Prisoner are great upon first viewing. Sadly, they seem to drag with each subsequent viewing because you are going through scenes that have already taken place earlier in the film, although from a different point of view. Another fault lies in the visual effects and how Buckbeak simply looks unreal. The entire rendering looks soft and the lighting is completely off, giving the feathers on the hippogriff an unnatural, and wholly unrealistic look.
The final complaint I have saved for last and it’s a fault against Daniel Radcliffe and the director. It’s simply unbearable when Harry, crying, screams that Sirius Black “was [his parent’s] friend!” The lack of emoting properly on Radcliffe’s part and Cuaron’s choice to accept the performance is unacceptable. That line takes you out of the aftermath of a great expository scene because it’s so terribly delivered.
Overall, Prisoner of Azkaban is a worthy and excellent sequel. It quashes the main faults of the first two films in the series and fixes them, while leaving the audience wondering what else is in store for the boy wizard and his companions.
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
Hot on the heels of the splendid Prisoner of Azkaban, director Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire seems like a lovely film at first, but after paying close attention, it’s nothing more than mediocrity. It’s far better than Stone and Chamber, however. The opening is a great one and it, like Prisoner, promises the audience a treat in the visual department. Nothing seems visually unnatural or bland in Goblet and the only problems are the ones involving the pacing, creative decisions, and lack of exposition to inform the audience who haven’t read the novel.
One of Goblet‘s biggest problems involves unintentional humor, which is first seen after the Quidditch World Cup when the Death Eaters arrive in outfits that border on parody. Are they supposed to look like remnants of the Ku Klux Klan? Death Eaters are apparently a ruthless bunch but their entrance suggests otherwise. More of this type of humor is present when select students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang are introduced. The way the Beauxbatons enter the Great Hall and perform whatever those vocalizations are is ridiculous and completely laughable. It’s made even worse when magical objects flutter about near the end of the presentation. The Durmstrang entrance is doubly so as you listen to the terrible music accompanying a useless display of unimpressive acrobatics. These are some examples of terrible creative decisions by the filmmakers.
As for pacing, the film begins to suffer after the Triwizard champions are chosen; everything before it flows perfectly. We have to sit through Harry and Ron acting like stupid children when they aren’t on speaking terms, and even witness Hermione acting as an intermediary. More problems occur during the first task of the Triwizard tournament where Harry has an overlong altercation with a dragon. The entire chase is ridiculous, exaggerated, and difficult to sit through upon further viewings. How Harry manages what he did at his age, without the aid of magic (excluding his broom), is beyond me.
The best moment in the entire film happens after the third task when Lord Voldemort returns. Ralph Fiennes’ excellent acting makes sitting through what came before it completely worth it. He manages to act menacingly without being overdramatic, which can’t be said for David Tennant’s performance as Barty Crouch Jr. The duel between Harry and Voldemort is a visual feat but what happens confuses the audience who haven’t read the novel. This is where an expository scene would have been nice instead of Dumbledore simply naming the effect. The wands connected yes, but why did apparitions appear? Why did Harry’s parents appear? It’s possible that these viewers can put two and two together, but Dumbledore needed to tell Harry because he is completely confused by the phenomenon when he makes an inquiry.
Goblet of Fire is another worthy sequel in the series, even with its mediocrity. The series takes a slightly darker turn with this entry and that trend continues with the next sequel.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I
David Yates worked almost exclusively in the television medium until he helmed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He did such a wonderful job, at least enough to satisfy Warner Bros., that he was asked to come back for Half-Blood Prince and eventually the rest of the series. Thank God for that.
If there’s one complaint thrown at Phoenix the most it’s that it has the shortest run time at 2 hours and 18 minutes. It works and was clearly for the best because that extra twelve minutes to make it two and a half hours could have been filled with boring, tedious moments and would have mirrored every film that came before it. The pacing in Phoenix is impeccable. There isn’t a moment where I’m checking to see how much time remains. This is because Yates’ creative decisions and the series’ new screenwriter keep your eyes glued to the screen and wanting more.
Yates employs montages during the film utilizing the unique properties of newspapers in the wizarding world: pictures on the page move. Instead of short, repeated movements, the camera moves into the images and we see full-length video. This is such an improvement over the students sitting down in the Great Hall and reading the Daily Prophet (Prisoner). Another excellent decision was the changing of the look of Prisoner’s dementors; they actually look threatening and don’t resemble the Nazgul from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure it’s an inconsistency, but the change didn’t break a rule within the universe established in an earlier chapter.
More common complaints levied against the film include Nicholas Hooper’s score and the look of the Ministry of Magic. I couldn’t disagree more – when Hooper’s score is played over the film’s opening, we know that we won’t be hearing too many bombastic notes that the previous films have included. Instead, there are instances of subtle musical nuances that, when the time is right, erupt to complement the scene. Hooper’s cheery music is also excellent, especially Umbridge’s theme as it represents how she’s feeling after her successful attempts to take over Hogwarts. As for the Ministry of Magic, it looks stellar and makes sense when put into the context of how the new Minister of Magic operates. His ego is on display when we see the gigantic photo of him hanging in the atrium and fits with his desire for power.
The acting has also improved in Phoenix, especially Radcliffe’s. He convincingly acts like an angry teenager who feels abandoned by friends and prominent figures in his life. His performance after Sirius dies is such an improvement over that lone performance in Prisoner that I mentioned. Helena Bonham Carter’s introduction is menacingly great and her acting abilities are on display in the Ministry of Magic. She also has one of the best lines in the film, “Neville Longbottom, is it? How’s mum and dad” To say that to the child whose parents you tortured is darkly humorous.
One of the few complaints I have is that the visual effects are not always consistent. For instance, Grawp is simply not well-rendered and doesn’t fit in the scenes well with the cast. Another example of mediocre visual effects includes the centaurs taking Umbridge away after she insults and attacks them. The best effects sequence in the entire film takes place when Voldemort and Dumbledore finally duel. Seeing all of the glass in the atrium shatter after Voldemort deflects the two’s connecting spells is marvelous, and even more so when Dumbledore turns the shards into the sand as they race toward him.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the superior sequel up to this point in the series and the high quality therein continues with its successor.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the second-best film in the series to date. After taking a break and not scribing the screenplay for Order of the Phoenix, Steve Kloves returns and steps up his game. None of the problems that plague the first four movies are present here and it seems that the time he took off shaped his writing. The film is expertly paced and the dialogue is mostly sharp.
While Prince appears to be a tale of sexual politics, it is balanced quite well with the darker material, namely Draco Malfoy’s subplot and the plot of unraveling the Dark Lord’s past. The former is done very, very well and manages to keep you interested even during repeat viewings. Hooper’s score is perfect during those scenes, just like the rest of the film. The memory sequences are well crafted and show that Voldemort was devious as a child and a teenager like he is now, and wants to know all he can to become all-powerful.
Prince’s cinematography surpasses every film before it thanks to Bruno Delbonnel, known for his work on Amelie. He creates a dark, moody, and murky feel to the Potter universe that we haven’t seen since Prisoner. This feeling fits the film’s material perfectly, even during cheery and romantic scenes.
The acting is mostly top-notch. Actress Jesse Cave disgusts the audience with her ability to portray Ron’s creepy and obsessed love interest, Lavender Brown. Kloves and Yates respectively wrote and directed her performance to be over the top. Veteran actor Jim Broadbent makes his first appearance as the new potions professor, Horace Slughorn. Broadbent can play goofy and tragic at the drop of the hat. He has one of the most sentimental scenes in the entire movie: the recitation of a gift Lily Potter gave him before, as Aunt Petunia says in Stone, she “got herself blown up.” Tom Felton’s performance is superior to the acting of the trio. He gives off an heir of frightfulness as he scrambles to complete his assigned mission in time. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint didn’t step up at all in their performance which is completely unfortunate. Alan Rickman leaves a sense of ambiguity to his performance throughout, which is nearly flawless. For Dumbledore, Michael Gambon continues to prove that he is better than Richard Harris.
The outstanding Half-Blood Prince paves the way for the first part in the final chapter of the series. It all comes down to these final two to determine whether or not we have spent the last decade wasting our time with the film series. Will David Yates complete his vision and leave us satisfied? For Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, he most certainly has.
Part one of the final chapter is indeed the best film in the entire series up to this point, in every respect. Even with its faults, it manages to engage and impress the audience. There is very little to consider negative here. Kloves and Yates have outdone themselves with this installment. They both have created the darkest movie yet and it’s a great sigh of relief.
Hallows, Part 1 finally brings an immensely dark tone to the series that has been needed since Chamber ended. The sense of the trio’s isolation is felt throughout and emphasized by the prolonged period of them camping alone in the wilderness. The altercations and interactions they have with one another exemplify that even further. Consider the verbal and slightly physical fight Harry and Ron have. While Ron’s feelings are mostly brought on by the Horcrux, remnants of those feelings are there for it to feed on. He ends up leaving, abandoning Harry and Hermione. Harry tries to cheer her up but it doesn’t work well at all.
This uneasy, gloomy feeling about the world is given more prominence when you hear the names of the numerous dead on the radio Ron has in his possession. Their world is now erupting in war and no enemy is spared. The parallels to Nazi Germany, while unfortunately not subtle, show what the wizarding world is becoming with ruthless individuals in power.
After seeing Prince, I thought that the cinematography would never be surpassed but it has. The camera work in Hallows, Part 1 is quite shaky but that effect is used artistically to show the frantic nature of the trio’s journey. A perfect example would entail the scene where the actor playing the disguised Harry enters Umbridge’s room to look for the locket. As he’s scrambling through desk drawers looking for the locket, the camera begins to sway back and forth, up and down, showing that he’s anxious to find it. The camera then becomes mostly steady as he stares at photos of enemy combatants, including the now-deceased Dumbledore. More excellent camerawork is on display when the trio is trying to escape the Snatchers on foot. Things are chaotic for the trio and the shaky camerawork is used to note this.
Yates has managed to bring out the best performances in the trio. Watson has never been better and the opening scene with Hermione wiping her parents’ memories shows that she has it in her to do more. The breaking of the trio resulting from Harry and Ron fighting is expertly performed by Radcliffe and Grint. The latter convincingly acts like the Horcrux is feeding on his negative emotions. Helena Bonham Carter increases her sadistic Bellatrix performance as she tortures Hermione.
The visual effects and the score are top-of-the-line. The best effects sequence involves Harry and Hermione in a sexually-charged embrace. While a combination of live-action and computer graphics, it’s impressive and erotic enough to enable Ron to destroy the Horcrux housing the faux couple. As for the score, it is superior to every score in the series, including Williams’, which was already beaten by Hooper’s work. The music used for the Death Eaters is simply fantastic and when Voldemort gets his hands on the Elder Wand, his score erupts to let the audience know that the trio is in danger.
The only faults against the film involve Dobby and the humor associated with him. The Malfoy Manor scene, while outstanding, is jarring when he comes into the mix with stupid humor. The inclusion of Dobby is only there for fan service because, logically, it makes no sense for him to make an appearance after being absent for four films. I personally think Dobby should have been scrapped and replaced with Kreacher.
Yates is the best director in the series. He has an eye for visuals that surpasses every other director and he managed to direct the best performances the series has seen. With the work he has done on Phoenix, Prince, and Hallows, Part 1, I know that the final chapter in the saga will satisfy me.