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Directors make the difference for 'Potter' creativity

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Posted: Sunday, July 26, 2009 10:00 pm

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is in the process of setting global box office records, and has already situated itself as one of the most critically lauded entries in the long-running fantasy franchise.

This is puzzling to me, as it seems pretty apparent that this is easily the weakest film in the series thus far.

Of course, I'm speaking in a relative sense, as even mediocre Harry Potter is more entertaining and immediately engaging that the vast majority of other wide-release films, but is "passable" really what we should be aiming for when it comes to major summer blockbusters?

I certainly hope not.

This is officially a positive review. I understand that my disappointment and bitterness toward this sixth installment in the Harry Potter fantasy series may be misconstrued as a pan, but honestly, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy myself to a reasonable extent.

I mean, it's Harry Potter. These films are filled with so much visual splendor and painstaking detail that it would be ridiculous to actively dislike any of them.

However, while I did "like" the movie, I don't mind saying that I'm supremely displeased with the direction in which the series has been heading since the fourth installment, "The Goblet of Fire" (directed by Mike Newell).

The stories themselves are getting better - more serious and emotionally fueled, instead of goofy and somewhat disposable - but the movies are getting worse. I thought the situation was dire when the fifth, "The Order of the Phoenix," was released, but this latest entry actually manages to compound the problems associated with that film, also helmed by Yates.

I think it's simply a matter of creative talent. Just look at the third film, "The Prisoner of Azkaban." It didn't contain the most compelling of the Potter plots, but thanks to the keen visual eye and boundless creativity of director Alfonso Cuaron (the filmmaker's filmmaker who also gave us the unquestionably brilliant "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Children of Men), it emerged as the only Harry Potter movie that I would qualify as truly great.

Think what could have been accomplished with the rest of the series if the studio had stuck with Cuaron, or even another filmmaker of his stature, instead of slumming it with conventional Brits like Yates or Newell. (Did the head honchos really see "State of Play" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and think, "Hey, now these are some directors who are clearly suited to fantasy filmmaking!"?)

It would help if Yates had any sense of dramatic structure at all.

I've not yet read "The Half-Blood Prince" (I started the books years ago but petered out half-way through "Order of the Phoenix"), but I would assume that the novel is significant in some way, and contains plot details and/or character interactions that do something to move the overarching story along. Not so with the film.

Sure, there's always stuff going on - Harry cheats in potions class by using notes from a former Hogwarts student dubbed The Half-Blood Prince," Ron struts his stuff on the Quiddich field and deals with a crazy stalker, Hermione mopes around for two-and-a-half hours - but apart from some key developments towards the of the story, nothing ever actually happens. There is no central unifying element that brings all the story threads together - just some seemingly random occurrences that lead to a conclusion that has absolutely no build-up.

Now in theaters

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
*** (out of four)
2009, David Yates, U.S., PG-13

There has been some grumbling from fans about how much was changed in the translation from page too screen (my movie-going companion - a longtime reader of the stories - was chomping at the bit, literally twitching in her desire to scream out frustrations at the movie screen), but I don't mind that so much.

I realize that a direct adaptation of a novel is a somewhat absurd concept to begin with (Chris Columbus had success with the first two Potter films using this approach, but I suspect he just got lucky), as a movie is supposed to be a new creation, a fresh experience with its own unique details.

Hell, I would have been OK with it had Yates scrapped almost everything from the book, provided he delivered an original, compelling vision. Alas, he has not. However, he has at least given us something to enjoy well enough for 150 minutes, and these days, I'm willing to live with just that.


Just a few brief comments/observations on this year's crop of Emmy nominations:

  • NBC's "30 Rock" has made history with a record 22 nominations, including nods for best comedy, actor (Alec Baldwin) and actress (Tina Fey). This is understandable, as "30 Rock" is indistinguishable from magic. (Seriously, if you don't watch this show, there's something wrong with you, and I don't mind saying so.)
  • "Family Guy" got nominated for best comedy series. So … what's up with that? Emmy voters kept their mouths shut for seasons three through nine of "The Simpsons," seasons two through 11 of "South Park" and even the first three great seasons of "The Family Guy," only to finally decide to honor a cartoon when the latter has officially descended into borderline unwatchable nonsense? This is almost worse than that time I tried to martinize Abe Vigoda's meatball sandwich. (Cue flashback.)
  • HBO didn't get completely shafted, as "Big Love" and "Entourage" both got best series nods in their respective categories. But where's the love for "True Blood," especially for supporting actor Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse to fans)? And for that matter, how did "True Blood" star Alexander Skarsgard fail to get nominated for best actor for his role in the incredible, visceral war series "Generation Kill"? (The show itself was, at least, one of two nominees for best mini-series. So, yes, the Emmys have actually reached the point where they have two nominees in a major category. Need I say more?)

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.



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