Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and Resisting the Urge to Make a Pun on the Title

Until this week, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of a new Harry Potter film. The timing of the release could hardly be worse. It's been two years since the release of the final novel in the series, long enough for interest in the franchise to wane, but not long enough for a new film to spark feelings of nostalgia. Moreover, the films have varied substantially in quality but even at their best have not rivaled their sources' imagination and whimsy.

I thus entered the theater showing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with low expectations, and was thrilled at the film's impressive opening sequence of a Death Eater destruction of London's Millennium Bridge. Lord Voldemort's malice against the Muggle world, public despair and dishonest governmental attempts to combat this despair are crucial to the sixth Harry Potter novel, and this sequence promised substantial treatment of these themes. A delightful visit to Fred and George Weasleys' joke shop, and Harry's now regular arrival at the Weasley home rounded out a strong opening.

At the Weasley home, Harry is reunited with his great friends Ron and Hermione, and something truly remarkable happens. Ron makes a joke, the three of them laugh, and the laughter seems natural. It has taken six films, but the actors have finally eased into their roles and give off a real sense of camaraderie. The Harry Potter novels are fantasy novels, but they are also boarding school novels, full of classes, homework, punishments, infatuations and rivalries. The novels owe much of their charm to the conflict between Harry's desire to lead any ordinary schoolboy's life, and his obligation to fight Voldemort. To this point, the films have neglected the former aspect, and here is the sixth film's greatest success. It delves into the trials of late-teenage romance, but with a light comic touch, and these scenes remind us that for the magnitude of his destiny, Harry is still an ordinary boy. This film also exceeds earlier installments in its lite-gothic visual style and it subtler use of special effects.

Sadly, the film's running time is its great demise. Despite the page count, this is not a long novel, but it is heavily plotted, and the film is simply not long enough to accommodate many important plot points. Most importantly, the search to uncover the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, crucial bits of Lord Voldemort's history, and the climactic battle at Hogwarts are absent, along with many other lesser incidents. As such, the film borders on incoherent. Those familiar with the novels can fill in the gaps on their own, but I can't imagine someone who had not read the novel making any sense of the proceedings.

There remains the problem of the film's casting. The three teenage leads have displayed manifold improvement over the course of the series, newcomer Jim Broadbent is brilliant as socialite potions teacher Horace Slughorn, and Helena Bonham Carter's few moments on screen are deliciously lurid. Robbie Coltrane continues to criminally underplay Hagrid, and Alan Rickman's Snape is still too cold, showing none of the calculating sadism of the novel. There is the small problem of Ginny Weasley. She's supposed to be hot. She's plain as can be. There is the much greater problem of Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, who is gentle, grandfatherly and boring. He is a fundamentally different character from the Dumbledore of the novels, a wizard eccentric and brilliant, deeply loving but also a bit conceited. His death is remarkably lacking in impact, due in part to the decision to cut the final scene of the novel, his funeral.

Sadly, the poor plotting and misinterpretations of the actors diminished what is one many stylistic points the best film in the Harry Potter series. Most fans have probably already seen it, but I recommend against it for anyone who has not read the novels.

Not Worthwhile

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