I’m not prone to marathons. Special theatrical franchise events or TV series binge watching just aren’t my jams. I’m also not a Harry Potter diehard. I’m a fan; I’ve read the books and seen the films, but haven’t engaged either since seeing the last movie on its release five years ago. These aren’t stories I return to, let alone obsess over.
Yet there I sat at 11pm on a Sunday night, just having completed a 2 day, 8 movie “deep dive” back into Harry Potter’s wizarding world via a full IMAX experience, something I hadn’t expected to occur a mere 37 hours prior. But after being swept up by the (yes) magic of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone one again during a Saturday morning start to that two-day event, I decided to just go for it.
I’m glad I did. It was a thrilling way to get back into the Potterverse, especially with the impending re-entry on November 18th with the hyped Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. It also proved a unique way to reassess each of the entries. I wouldn’t suggest that a straight marathon is particularly the best way to evaluate them all, especially given the volume of material, but it does cause certain things to stick out in ways that they may not have otherwise.
So here’s a summary of my reaction to the marathon, as it happened, with every entry being my initial thoughts notched down following each film’s credit roll. I’m offering this simply for whatever it may be worth, especially as I have neither the energy nor fandom to do a full movie-by-movie review like I did for The Films of Steven Spielberg and the Original Cast Star Trek Movies.
In other words, this is not a comprehensive look at the Harry Potter films. Rather, consider this a formal version of live tweeting.
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The first Harry Potter movie has always been my favorite, and this recent viewing (after a long drought) only affirms my affection for it – primarily as a very moving orphan / adoption metaphor. It’s the fantasy version of what every orphan dreams of, to be a part of a world (i.e. a family) where you feel loved, nurtured, and valued. I find myself getting choked up throughout the whole thing.
Also, after seeing it again, I’ll strongly challenge critics who find the filmmaking by director Chris Columbus to be blockbluster-bland. I contend that The Sorcerer’s Stone is very cinematic, probably Columbus’s best effort. Not only did he create (and cast) the world as every fan had imagined, but Columbus struck the perfect emotional tone for the world as well. Plus, John Seale‘s cinematography gives it a sweep, scope, and grandeur.
2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The worst of the eight movies by a considerable margin, it’s a rehash of the book’s narrative that lacks the charm and inspiration of the first adaptation. Even as a story, it feels more dutiful than energized.
Indeed, it’s episodic in the literal sense, playing like a 5-episode marathon of a half-hour Harry Potter TV show, a trait most acutely exemplified by the fact that Tom Riddle (the key to this whole thing) doesn’t get his first mention until 90 minutes into the movie (or, basically, at the very end of Episode 3).
More about the plot mechanics and less about the characters, Chamber of Secrets plays like an overly-serious Scooby Doo mystery. Ron screaming a well-timed “Zoinks!” wouldn’t have been entirely out of place. It’s not that author J.K. Rowling’s source is dumb, but it’s been dumbed down (even as horrific elements attempt to overcompensate).
The longest of the eight movies (and needlessly so), the first hour-and-a-half could’ve been trimmed considerably; too many stand alone vignettes and ideas, all loosely tied together. This is what you get when you try to cram in as much as you possibly can from the book instead of streamlining for a narrative and flow that works in a film. The stakes are overplayed, too. When someone intones “This could be the end of Hogwarts,” none of us can take that seriously.
Everything here feels like a carbon copy, including the performances, in which the three core kids – Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermoine (Emma Watson) – all regress noticeably from the vibrant, sincere wide-eyed wonder of the first film, to performances that are more self-conscious and mannered.
For director Chris Columbus, the spark is gone. It’s all flat, merely going through the motions. The original movie’s inherent sentimentality is missing, save for the soulful presence of tender-hearted Hagrid. Kenneth Branagh is another bright exception; as Professor Lockhart, he flaunts his charming arrogance with a harmless winking flair. Branagh’s presence is a real treat.
Nevertheless, Chamber of Secrets still offers the best moral of the entire saga, and probably the foundational one of the whole mythology: “Our abilities don’t determine who we are, but our choices.” It’s a lesson given with paternal warmth by Richard Harris in his final turn as Professor Dumbledore, just before his passing.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
If The Sorcerer’s Stone showed us what this world should be, then director Alfonso Cuaron revealed what it could be.
Chamber of Secrets may have dumbed things down, but then Cuaron smartened them right back up. The Prisoner of Azkaban established a level of sophistication – cinematically and narratively – that set a clear standard moving forward of how to elevate the material for the screen. Though loyal to the source – both book and preceding films – Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban does not slavishly hold to them, pruning the novels’ multiple layers to have a Potter-centric focus.
After the perfunctory nods to family in Chamber, Azkaban brought back the necessary sentimental heart and soul, but then layered it with the melancholy that comes with age. The main kid trio clearly grows under Cuaron’s guidance, too, particularly Grint who learns that he should ham it up less as he ages.
Michael Gambon adds a mischievous, unpredictable spark to Dumbledore as he takes over the role from the late Richard Harris, and Emma Thompson follows in Branagh’s footsteps to add a truly memorable addition to the Hogwarts teaching staff. She is an acting treasure, and totally committed here to the bizarre eccentricities of Professor Trelawney. The same could be said for Alan Rickman, too, whose Professor Snape is one of the treasures of this entire series.
Cuaron enables the final act to unfold in a thrilling Rashamon-lite fashion, concluding what is – through its cinematic language, scope, and tone – the most well-made film of the saga.
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
It’s ironic that despite having the first British director of the series (Mike Newell, Four Weddings and a Funeral), this one feels the most like a pure Hollywood blockbuster.
My memory of this fourth chapter is that it felt like a rushed crib notes version of the novel. Now, further removed from having read the book, the film stands stronger as an effective adaptation. It also benefits most of all in the context of a marathon viewing as its structure is a stark departure from the normal “school year” format. After nixing the standard Dursleys opening, Goblet of Fire becomes the saga’s “sports movie” as it follows the high stakes action of the Tri-Wizard tournament.
We’re also at the age where we see these close friendships begin to strain and be tested. Jealousy and confusion become realities for the first time, a natural byproduct of this tween age (as are the guys’ mop head hairdos indicative of the mid-2000s when this was produced) . Hormones have kicked in, there’s a school dance, guys are asking girls out, and for the first time Harry and Ron begin to see Hermoine not merely as a friend but a young woman.
Brendan Gleeson and Miranda Richardson continue the tradition set by Branagh and Thompson of legendary Brit actors taking on new, key supporting roles with comic flair.
Goblet of Fire is equal parts action movie as it is coming of age tale (or, at least, the beginning of that life phase), and it balances those two elements well, even playing them off of each other, all coming to a head in a dark climax. Of the eight films in this series, Goblet of Fire is the most improved from what my previous impression had been.
5. Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix
Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint finally come into their own as actors, and the entire film series does too right along with them. Voldemort is finally on the move, and director David Yates synthesizes the strengths wielded by the three previous directors while eliminating their shortcomings. It’s no surprise that Yates would go on to direct the three remaining Potter films that followed (not to mention the new Fantastic Beasts). He doesn’t exceed Cuaron’s film but he does match it, and now with the actors fully formed (Grint especially, who leaves any traces of obnoxiousness far behind him), the stars completely align into a perfect Harry Potter movie.
This is perhaps best reflected in the fact that Order of the Phoenix is the shortest film in the series, despite being based on the longest book. Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (taking over for series regular Steve Kloves) cracked once and for all how to distill these mammoth tomes to the screen, and what to stay focused on – namely, Harry Potter. Everything else in the books is peripheral to him, so save it for the readers.
This one’s firing on all cylinders (including our evolving perception of Snape), right down to another casting stroke of genius with Brit legend Imelda Staunton as the nasty, ultra passive aggressive Professor Dolores Umbridge.
There’s a lot of the familiar Potter story beats but they’re expanded into the larger muggle world. Harry, too, finally embraces his role as leader, even as he still questions if he’s got what it takes to be The Chosen One. Voldemort, by contrast, begins to work as a rich allegory for terrorism, and our heroes express opposing ideological responses we all recognize of how to confront him. (And an argument could be made that the series actually embraces the unrepentent Bush neocon doctrine over the skeptical Liberal posture, which seems to be vilified.)
This whole shift and imbalance within the Wizarding World allows for some justified student rebellion, too, not just as the secret Dumbledore army but, in a particularly fun scene, a little bit of on-campus fireworks as well.
Order of the Phoenix has the biggest, most spectacular climax yet of the series with its full-on Wizarding World smackdown between magical gladiators, the kind we’ve been waiting five films to see.
But most importantly: for the first time, Harry Potter isn’t just a leader. He’s a man.
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
For all the mythology being unpacked and also fulfilled, what stands out in Half-Blood Prince is how much the film makes time for exploring the emotional complexity of young love, of how it’s often simply a victim of bad timing or cruel realities. Perhaps the cruelest at this age is one-sided attractions and unrequited love, and the emotional immaturity of taking advantage of people who are attracted to you even though you don’t feel the same way about them. As Dumbledore says, “Oh, to be young and to feel love’s keen sting.”
In previous films, budding emotions didn’t quite hold the same stakes. The kids were still young enough where, if they got hurt, you’d think, “Oh, they’ll get over it.” But now they’re at the age where it really leaves a mark, a lasting formative impression. This is the age when love actually starts to become real. It matters.
Given how much it’s developed here (along with the broader mythology) is to Yates’ credit, as it so easily could’ve been marginalized. He builds upon these themes from what the past two films began to explore, and then goes deeper – emotionally and psychologically. Emma Watson in particular shines, revealing new layers of talent as an actress.
Suffice it to say, the actual mythology continues to be well rendered, and Tom Felton‘s Draco Malfoy finally emerges beyond his one note snarling spite. Previously expressed at the highest possible obnoxious pitch, this time around Felton almost never goes there, instead internalizing the torment of where his choices and evil allegiances have led him. It’s nice to see him grow so much as an actor (and a welcome relief for us as viewers).
It’s interesting, too, how scenes committed to the actual school year are almost entirely stripped away, save for necessary exposition that occurs in a class context or a fun return to some well-crafted Quidditch play. But this further streamlining is a good thing. For the movies, at this point, the School Year framework is perfunctory and tired territory that needs no further exploration.
In the end, even with its welcome splashes of humor, Half-Blood Prince is the most consistently somber entry (visually, for example, the final act is almost entirely stripped of color), despite not having a single appearance of the Dark Lord.
7 (and 8). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2
Warner Bros. may have broken up the final book into two movies (ca-ching!), but I’ll meld my thoughts for both of them here.
Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the most idiosyncratic entry into the series (we never even see Hogwarts!), and actually plays better within a marathon than as a stand alone. Viewed by itself, the movie becomes a bit of an endurance test in the second hour. But within a marathon, it actually provides a refreshing narrative detour. The film’s first hour packs in fantastic Harry Potter style action, but then Hour Two plays like some intimate three-hander indie movie between Harry, Ron, and Hermoine. Or, in TV terms, it’s like a “bottle episode” in which the narrative stays specifically constrained to (essentially) one location and small group of characters, with no subplot tangents.
Sure, it’s stretched thinner than it needs to be (this book’s whole story would’ve been better told in one movie, not two), but it’s still a very interesting character-centric pause at a key turning point in the whole saga, focusing on the main trio, as it first tests their bonds before solidifying them.
Part 1 does end on a high note, starting with a hypnotizing animated sequence that tells the tale of The Deathly Hallows, followed by a final half hour of effective climactic action and requisite cliffhanger.
Deathly Hallows Part 2 fulfills – in spectacular fashion – the promise of where the entire series has been heading. We get Hogwarts back right off the top, but not for classes. Now, the legendary school becomes the final battlefield in the Potter saga, and its central hero emerges as the Christ figure he was destined to be. Nearly everyone gets “their moments”, just as we want them, except perhaps for Hagrid whose presence is brief. Thankfully, though, it works as a symbolic bookend for Hagrid’s overall arc with Harry that first began in the opening scene of The Sorcerer’s Stone.
It’s a fitting, satisfying end for the journey we’ve all been on, for its heroes, and for their future.
A couple of random, broad observations.
- After the clunky re-exposition in Chamber of Secrets of important facts and background (offered as clarity for the uninitiated, or even as reminders to fans), future installments would repeat necessary backstory information much more organically. Rather than being obvious, the subsequent screenplays allowed characters to make references of core mythology nuggets in ways that were natural, not forced. That’s not as easy as it sounds and requires specific intention by the writers to do so. So props to them.
- Though it probably goes without saying, it still should be: Alan Rickman is a real anchor to this whole franchise, and tracking the arc of Snape is one of the most rewarding aspects of the entire series – not just as a character journey, but even for pure entertainment value.
- Contrary to Rowling’s recently expressed regrets, I prefer where the budding romantic relationships involving Harry, Hermoine, and Ron eventually landed. I was satisfied by who each ended up with, and even found those relationships to be the best options. Rowling’s druthers seemed more obvious and typical, even if they did also reflect the hopes of many Potter fans, but what she initially chose as a writer is more honest, genuine, and true to life. To see relationships evolve that you wouldn’t necessarily expect (or even want) actually makes more sense. Life is usually more unpredictable that way, as are people. The actors really solidify these choices throughout the franchise (Grint especially, something I never would’ve thought possible after the first four films). Because of this cast, you believe these are the ones who should be together.
- Emma Watson has been able to be Hermoine and, soon, Belle. How charmed is her life?