Published at: July 11, 2007, 5:33 a.m. CST by Moriarty
You know what’s most exciting about HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX?
Thinking of what David Yates is going to do with HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. Because I’m going to predict right now, that movie is going to rock and roll.
Chemistry is the most important thing when you’re dealing with a film series. Chemistry is what brings audiences back. They have to enjoy spending time with the people, enjoy spending time in the world. And even with a great script and a great cast, sometimes that doesn’t quite click. You’ve seen it happen... you know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen movies where all the parts are there, in place, with the right people involved, and it just doesn’t come together.
Chemistry has definitely been important to the POTTER series so far. People give Chris Columbus a hard time, but he deserves credit for casting Dan Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson. The choices he made have remained the template for the series no matter who else has come in to direct. I enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s AZKABAN because there was such a particular energy about it... he got something very different out of the kids, and I think having a new director come in and push them must have been important for their development as performers. Mike Newell is a solid, workmanlike filmmaker, capable of making solid, workmanlike films. Some good. Some better than good. He made the most impersonal of the films, in my opinion, and I think that lack of chemistry is what ultimately made GOBLET less than great.
Well, chemistry is a fickle thing, and in the case of David Yates, it’s paid off for Warner Bros. What he’s brought to the film is a certain quality that, more than ever before, underlines the essential Englishness of the films. Check out the opening scenes of the movie, the way he shoots Harry Potter’s approach to a small neighborhood playground, the confrontation with Dudley, the storm rolling in. It almost feels like something out of THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER or an early Lindsay Anderson film. Harry’s becoming an angry young man in this film, and, historically speaking, no one does that genre better than the English.
I’ve read a few reviews this week that have bashed the POTTER series as something cynical, an ongoing cash grab. I would say that anyone who genuinely feels that JK Rowling created the series as a cash cow (A) doesn’t really know the circumstances around Rowling as she wrote the first book and (B) isn’t paying attention to the text of either the books or the films. You can watch the movies without ever reading a single Potter novel, and you’ll have one version of the experience. A valid version, too. I think the films are doing a better-than-expected job of bringing the world of the books to life, and Michael Goldenberg’s adaptation this time (the first in the series not scripted by Steve Kloves) does an excellent job of taking the least cinematic entry in the series and turning it into a compelling movie, first and foremost. And I don’t think these films are about just squeezing money out of the audience, at least, no more so than any other franchise. There’s something very fundamentally real about the structure of the series, the idea of following two developing threads over the span of seven years. Harry’s progression from scared boy to focused, powerful man, and the rising signs of war... by giving those two stories time to breathe instead of doing everything in one book or one film, what happens is you manage some real complexity. Instead of handling Harry’s anger over his role in the war against Voldemort as a few scenes in the middle of a film, instead we get to see the toll that constant attacks and emotional trauma has taken on Harry. There’s a moment in the middle of the film, in Dumbledore’s office, when Harry just snaps and bellows at this old man, presented in the first film as a sort of kindly Santa Claus, but who increasingly seems like a scared, fragile human being. Dumbledore isn’t some infallible superman, some picture-perfect all-powerful character. He makes choices, good and bad, in terms of how he handles Harry, and by this film, their relationship is far more detailed than the typical mentor-student dynamic in mainstream movies.
And even though I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the subtle stuff, the interplay of characters or the evolution of the archetypes that Rowling is playing with (not since Monty Python’s heyday has someone spent so much energy lampooning the pomposity of the English upper class so consistently), there’s plenty of visual fireworks on display, and Yates shows a steady hand with it, especially in the big IMAX 3D showstopper.
And honestly, the IMAX 3D is more than just a gimmick when it's used at the end of ORDER OF THE PHOENIX; it's the fulfillment of a promise that the studio made to Harry Potter fans when they started making these adaptations in the first place. Audiences have grown up watching these films and reading these books... they've been living in the world of Hogwarts for a long time, and now, finally, they're taken into this world in a way that no theme park will ever be able to equal. To suddenly step into the Ministry of Magic... to have a wizard battle between Dumbledore and Voldermort erupt around you... it's immersive and amazing, a genuine escape from reality at a time when 'escapism' has lost all meaning. The remarkable is commonplace in big-budget films these days, so it takes something extra to pin an audience to its seat.
It's bigger than real, and the 3D actually cranked up the emotional intensity of the sequence the second time through. Everyone's true natures finally come out here, and I really like how Lucius Malfoy, for example, doesn't give a rat's ass who sees him serving Voldemort. He's loyal.. I'll say that for him. Jason Isaacs never overplays a role that always teeters on camp, as so much of the POTTER world does. Because Yates gets the tone right for the film leading up to this scene, he has permission to play rough, to make it scary. The ending, the entire sequence from the Thestral ride till the return to Hogwarts, is probably the most engrossing sequence of the entire series so far, and certainly one of the most consequential. It makes sense that we see the scene in 3D, since Harry's entire paradigm by which he acts and behaves, shifts in this film. Harry goes from being a frightened child to being a decisive adult in this one, and for him to suddenly face up to the real world in a sequence that plays in this sort of deep-field immersive 3D (more impressive, in my mind, than stuff that jumps out at you), it almost plays as canny metaphor. Yates stages the action well, in a naturalistic manner that makes it more jarring and upsetting. The first time I saw it, I though it was effective. The second time, tonight on that giant screen, it felt really harrowing. It felt like being in the middle of it. And I love that the kids try to stand and fight, and do so as well as they can, but when the adults really dig in and do battle, even Harry has no choice but to huddle out of sight so he’s not killed.
Basically, what I'm trying to say is that if you have a HARRY POTTER freak in your house, and you are trying to decide if you should go to the IMAX 3D version or the regular version, stop thinking about it. It's not a choice. IMAX 3D. You shouldn't have to think about it: this is the sort of thing that you have to go to the theater to see, the sort of thing that not only can't be done in most homes, but shouldn't be done at home. This is an event, if only to see one of the best indications yet of what we can expect when Hollywood fully embraces technology. BEOWULF can't get here fast enough. And AVATAR... dear god, I can't even think about it yet. More giant-scale 3D for me, please... now, now, now!