Prisoner Of Azkaban
There’s an intrinsic link between Harry Potter and age. So many of its readers have grown up with Potter, although hopefully they’ve not aged at the same rate, as the seven years of the characters took ten for both the books and the films. There was also, when it first started, an issue around the credibility of Potter, especially if you were reading it and weren’t the same age as the young wizard and his friends. Sadly, neither the Mr Men books or The Very Hungry Caterpillar have been published with adult covers to allow you to read them on public transport and to pretend you’re retaining your street cred – and if that ever changes, let me know as I’ve always wanted to read Mr Tickle again – but as Pottermania buried itself deep into the public consciousness, then you became lacking in credibility if you weren’t obsessed with finding out the latest misadventures of a boy and his wand. Ahem.
From a personal point of view, it marks the end of a peculiar journey for me. I saw the first one at the cinema with my nineteen year old girlfriend at the time, so felt comfortable from a perspective that (a) I hadn’t read the books, and (b) I was just going to keep her company so watching some tiny wizards wasn’t going to affect my life one way or the other. Fast forward nine years, to 2010 and three things had changed. My nineteen year old girlfriend had become my twenty-eight year old wife; she had read all of the books on day of release, so had known the final outcome for some time; and I had started a film blog, so felt compelled to see the events to their conclusion. So compelled, in fact, that when I missed Half-Blood Prince at the cinema, I bought the DVD from my local Asda’s bargain bin so I could be up to speed before watching Deathly Hallows. How times change.
Yes, the first film came out only two months after 9/11, and in that time the lives of anyone who’s watched it have been changed, although in all likelihood unless they’re the most rabid obsessive their lives have not been changed by watching the films themselves. I’m a moderate Potter fan, and have gone from being able to take them or leave them to being able to slightly more take them than leave them. But looking back, I do wonder how many of them have actually been great films? There’s only one way to find out.
It’s impossible to look back now without a sense of fondness and novelty at the original film, but looking back it’s also impossible to escape the slightly perfunctory nature of the whole enterprise. It did an acceptable job of setting up all of the elements, but was no doubt significantly overlong and the young nature of the cast and the slavish adherence to the book meant that there wasn’t anything more than the mildest of perils, a very linear plot which established the main characters and little in the way of genuine excitement or tension. The one good thing to come from the first film is John Williams’ fantastic themes, which have thankfully survived all the way to the end of the series. No doubt enjoyable if you were a fan of the books, the thrill of seeing the characters on the big screen may have been a little lost on those coming cold to the films. 5/10
The second year, and as with so many franchises, free of the requirement to establish the key elements, the plot can flow better and characters can start to develop. Yes, there were problems; the plotting was still a little too flabby, and the series did itself a favour by making this the last time in the director’s chair for Chris Columbus, and of course the fact that it’s the second in a long franchise means that there can’t be too much development. But Kenneth Branagh’s Gilderoy Lockhart was a delight, the tension and threat level increased nicely and it felt like the franchise was becoming well and truly established. (At this point, Daniel Radcliffe still hadn’t quite learned how to act properly, sadly.) 6/10
Wow. The move to a new director not only breathed new life into the series, it saw it soar to new heights, both literally and figuratively. Finally the youngsters had reached an age where the material could be properly dark and Alfonso Cuaron was absolutely the right choice to explore that. Everything, from the Dementors to the scenes in the forest with Buckbeak has a scope and breadth that has been sorely missing from the previous films. The wider plot and the characters of Sirius and Remus give a bolder feel to the series as a whole, and although densely plotted the film manages to remain easy to understand and compelling through all the tricks and turns of the narrative. A high point for the series, but one that sadly it would never quite reach again. 9/10
Another new director, but the series maintained its course and achieved again a good balance between the demands of portraying events of the school year, this time given variety by the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and then the darkness of the last half hour with the return of Voldemort, and the realisation that no-one is safe and that the consequences are real. There’s a good sense of fun as well, though, as the first flushes of adolescence come to bear on all of the characters and some jealousies rear their heads. Mike Newell takes what looks to be a very dense and story-packed book and pares it down to the bare essentials, but the streamlined plot and the later action make this another well worth watching. 8/10
So the Dark Lord has returned, and the battle truly begins. Some of the best characters of the series, including Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange, make their first appearance, but we’re in a slight holding pattern and consequently there’s a feeling of familiarity beginning to set in, despite the fresh faces and the increased focus on the youngsters and their rebellion plans. David Yates is the third new director in as many films, but while he does a perfectly acceptable job the scale has once again gone missing, and only the final battle at the Ministry of Magic really stands out. At least Daniel Radcliffe’s voice has now fully broken and he’s starting to show signs of becoming a quality actor. 7/10
The plot wheels turn ever more slowly, and this one would be better titled Harry Potter And The Endless Exposition. A means to kill Voldemort is arrived upon, but by the end of this one you may already have begun to have lost track of exactly how close to achieving that goal our heroes actually are. The magical world intrudes dangerously on the real world for the first time in the series, and then promptly fails to follow that up with any real sense of threat, and even the climatic death feels somehow strangely undersold, as events aren’t as earth-shattering as they should be. The fact that most of the material from the trailers released happens in the second half of the film is revealing in the sense of how little happens here, and apart from the main death we’re just biding time before the finale. 6/10
And finally we come to the Deathly Hallows, split into two films because the makers couldn’t work out what to cut. And for these two, as I’ve seen them since I started the blog, both have received full reviews, but for the sake of completeness here I will say that thankfully the downward trend was reversed over the last two films. But check here for the full reviews of Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2.
So, the series managed to serve up one excellent film, two great ones, two good ones, two moderately good and one resolutely average film. Not bad for an eight film series, and while it won’t be held in the same regard as the original Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings trilogies by most fans, or this middle-aged blogger, this franchise has been great for keeping just about every British actor in work for the last ten years, and is a worthy addition to anyone’s film library. It will be fascinating to see where Messrs. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are in another ten years…