Saturday, January 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deadly Tedium

The seventh Harry Potter film (part one) was less exciting than watching a sloth. A sloth that trails behind all the other sloths because it can’t be bothered to keep up. A sloth that other sloths call ‘Mr. Lazy Pants.’ It was too long, too dark, and far too boring. Not much happened, then not much happened again. Something started to happen, but was quickly shamed into not happening by the other non-happening things. Every time I thought the engine was about to kick in and run all on its own it stalled right back to another ten minutes of Harry Potter and the Tent in the Wilderness. The Order of the Phoenix was pushing the boredom envelope—a great fight scene at the end but it was all of ten minutes long and you had to sit through two hours to get to it. I suspect many only saw that scene because their limbs were unable to get them out of their chairs. Deathly Hallows though makes seven years in Tibet look positively fast-paced and snappy; and I don't mean the movie—I mean seven years in Tibet.

Let me be clear, I am a Potterite. I have looked forward to each new Harry Potter installment. And they have, overall, done an outstanding job making the film versions. But my loyalty doesn’t stretch to praise just because it’s the latest addition to a franchise I’m a fan of.

Where to begin? (yes, spoilers follow, but they spoiled it for me first). How about the return of Doby the elf who is summoned by no-one yet appears at the right moment and saves the day stating that he “is always there to save Harry Potter” in a tone of voice that suggests this is a well-established and oft used catch phrase and that if you didn’t surmise it from the last four films during which he made no appearance, you’ve simply not been paying attention. It was also a bit of a fib. Doby’s method of saving them from a dungeon is to save everyone else in the dungeon and, with a “meet me at the top of the stairs in ten minutes,” leaves Harry and Ron find their own way out. And if he’s always there to save Harry where was this two-foot nothing bastion of salvation when Harry faced the newly embodied Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire, or any of the other myriad perils faced since they first met?

Or what about the lack of good character moments? In a franchise known for giving singular roles to its staggering line-up of world-class acting talent, this installment gave nothing to remember. Where was Snappe’s tour de force? Where was Hagrid’s comic relief? Where were the one-movie wonders of the Gilderoy Lockhart or Rita Skeeter mould? Any new faces (and all well-known ones) were instantly forgettable because the screen time for anyone not named Harry, Ron or Hermione amounted to less minutes than it takes to soft boil and egg.

Humor has been an element of all the films so far but here the funnies are only half attempted and seem out of place. Unexpected use of magic in everyday life (not to mention action sequences) has also been a staple up to this chapter but both are as absent from this film as our teenage heroes are from Hogwarts. There was great potential for an incredible action sequence with dozens of wizards battling on brooms but it happened, apparently, just off the edge of the screen I was watching. The special effects budget was instead spent on multiple Daniel Radcliffs in various states of undress. And not a white horse in sight.

The plot (boys meet girl, girl has tent, they all go camping) is decidedly holey. Potter and co. as Dumbledore’s army have taken out death eaters but when the clearly less powerful snatchers show up our heroes run, chuck a couple of token ‘poofs’ in the bad guys direction, get surrounded and...give up. The kids couldn’t travel by apparate at the start—which justified the wizards on brooms fight that no-one saw, but once that was done, they could travel by apparate because, well, frankly, we now need them to so Harry suddenly has had a birthday and that explains that.

And if they had to open the Horcrux locket in order to destroy it with the sword, why didn’t they open it when trying to destroy it before they knew they needed the sword?—because it would have wiped them out, silly. More to the point—why wear the locket? If you come into possession of a locket you know contains part of the very soul of the Dark Lord neither your first or last thought should be “I know, I’ll put it on; it goes great with my hiking boots.” Even after they knew it made them grumpy and irritable no one said “shouldn’t we wrap it in a Kleenex and carry it around in a pocket,” they just kept wearing it.

I’m sure many Potterites are currently preparing a statement along the lines of “there’s so much more in the books that explains all this.” And “Ooo” say the filmmakers “there’s so much to pack in,” presenting those as excuses for dull, bite-ridden, jerky, story-telling. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell the story well on film. Lord of the Rings did—and the HP franchise has done it successfully more than once (with the director of this film too—even more baffling). A film should explain itself internally and not rely on some outside source. If I have to read a book in order to understand a film why bother seeing the film?

And I don’t accept it’s because this one is darker. A darker plot does not mean a film needs to retain nothing of the reasons we originally became fans of the stories. “This film is darker” the Pottersville creators say with each new installment, as if convinced that’s the only thing that will get audiences in to see it. Where are the things that made us love the franchise in the first place? Many a good series on TV and film has been ruined because the makers tried to fix what wasn’t broken and I fear that has happened here.

Nor do I buy the argument that “the books (and films) have had to become more adult as the readers of the series have gotten older.” Readers of all ages enjoyed the first ones and no one said it wasn’t dark enough or that there wasn’t enough undressing. “But the characters were younger then” Yes, they were. So? Older doesn’t inherently mean darker. At this rate if any of them survive till their twenties the plots will be so dark they’ll need Ingmar Bergman to direct.

And the argument that the plots and characters have matured to accommodate the ageing of the generation that grew up with them, excludes every following generation that starts the series (and every one before). The fact is most Harry Potter fans have not and will not grow up alongside the Harry Potter characters, so that argument is an excuse for making a darker film not a reason.

Yes, I shall be in line to see part two, because I am forgiving enough that one bad film (and a less exciting one) in such an immense franchise is allowable. But I find this one more alienating than entertaining. So much time spent being moody and sullen without any of what made the first movies watchable and interesting. Here’s hoping Harry Potter and the Perpetual Doldrum is not coming to a theater near me soon.