Saturday, November 26, 2005

I’ll Show You a Magic Trick: Grading the Potter Movies

Don’t listen to critics and don’t pay attention to reviews—good or bad—when it comes to the Harry Potter movies, because they’re impossible to judge. There’s too much going on, and I’m not just talking about wizards and Muggles, here.
Go look at Entertainment Weekly’s “Critical Mass” chart that rounds up critics’ grades for various movies and you’ll find “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” received a “B” from seven out of nine critics polled. That’s hogwarts. The Potter films are such cultural touchstones, some of the only surefire blockbusters in the business, they’re either going to really succeed or really bomb (and that’s got nothing to do with box office numbers); most critics just don’t know what to make of them, I believe, so thus you get a bunch of “B’s” (and I should know, since I gave 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” a “B+” (check the June 2004 folder to find that review)).
No matter who is at the reins of these films, that person has essentially an insurmountable task. How do you condense several hundred pages of text into a workable movie under, I don’t know, four hours? And how do you condense said material without enraging an absolutely rabid built-in fanbase? And how do you then make said condensed text relatable and, most important, understandable to the Muggles who wander in off the street?
The answer is, you don’t. You simply make the best of an impossible situation.
But that’s what makes reviewing the Harry Potter movies so difficult, because they are so different from "normal" films; you have to throw out any typical “scale” by which other movies are judged.
In the year and a half since “Azkaban” hit theaters, I’ve finally read the first two books of the series. So when I sat down to see “Goblet of Fire,” everything on screen made a little more sense to me and had a lot more emotional impact; even though I hadn’t read this particular installment, I knew the characters much better through the books than the previous three movies, and I brought that deeper relationship with me into the theater experience.
And, as it would happen, this was my best time at a Harry Potter of the four by far. But would I feel the same had I not read a few of the novels? I’ll never know, and therein lies the rub.
“Goblet of Fire” is extremely entertaining—but here’s another problem for reviewers: Is it the source material or the filmmakers that make it so? Or is it simply because the series’ actors are all getting older and better?
It’s even difficult to compare one filmmaker’s work to another within the series. Sure, the first two Christopher Columbus-directed installments stunk (to this Muggle’s eye), but maybe he would have handled the more mature subject matter better than the lighter fare of the early novels. Then again, those that followed Columbus don’t even get to pick their own cast!
The only way to really judge the Harry Potter movies, then, is much different from your average screenplay-to-silver screen production. You have to determine how well the filmmakers successfully captured the essence of the written words in moving pictures. No one is going to be entirely happy—critics are always going to slam the films for following too closely to the text (although Columbus was ridiculously slavish), but critics aren’t the ones spending $100 million on opening weekend. Fans are always going to complain about leaving things out (from what I understand, there are significant chunks removed from “Goblet of Fire”), but a four-hour movie is simply untenable. The answer, then, is finding that delicate balance and creating a movie that will essentially stand on its own but gives more to those who know the source material well.
Given that extreme set of circumstances, “Goblet of Fire” director Mike Newell (“Pushing Tin”) and his predecessor, “Azkaban” director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y tu mama tambien”) succeeded where Columbus’ first two films in the series did not. I favor Cuaron’s directorial style above the others, but Newell’s “Goblet of Fire” is probably my favorite of the four based on overall excellence—even though it contains the series’ darkest material to date, I laughed out loud more this time around, too, and that’s an achievement.
Grade: A- (But this is one time I’ll tell you not to take my word for it)

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