Thursday, December 23, 2010

Film Review — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I

I finally went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I at a practically empty theatre in West Kendall. To quote the immortal Pauline Kael (reviewing another film), it would have been twice as good at half the length.

I get it that the target audience for this film probably tops out at people who are forty years younger than me (I’m 58), but I’m wondering how they thought that kids would sit through some of the long scenes full of meaningful looks that are meant to convey bridled teenage lust while the rest of the wizarding world is being destroyed by an evil wizard with a head like a turtle. But it does have the three things that Alan Alda says are necessary for a hit film with teenagers: blowing things up, people taking off their clothes (Daniel Radcliffe needs to hit the gym), and defiance of adult authority. So in those terms, the film works and guarantees that there will be a lot of kids lined up to see Part II next July.

I’ve read all the books and while I really admire J.K. Rowling’s capacity to tell a story that keeps you turning pages, I can’t help but think that they are written in disappearing ink. Each time I’ve seen a film version of the books, I’ve had to remind myself that, yes, I did read this before, but I don’t remember this particular plot point or this character. Contrast that with Peter Jackson’s versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I remembered every turn of the plot from the novels and it has to be at least thirty years since I last read the books. Maybe it’s me and my aging memory. Or maybe it’s that I really don’t care all that much about the characters in the Harry Potter books.

As noted, the final book has been split into two parts. The official story is that there is so much to be told that it would have made the film too long for one sitting. That may easily be, but I think that the real purpose of splitting it out was to stretch it out and double the box office take for the end of the franchise. (The same could be said for what they’re planning to do with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Come on; that story is shorter than the first volume of LOTR.) I think that with some judicious editing and tighter writing, Deathly Hallows could have been made into one film and be done with it. But Warner Bros is looking for a for-sure summer blockbuster in 2011, and if the previews of coming attractions are any guide, they and the film industry are going to need it. (Among other cinematic masterpieces, we have a Twilight-inspired re-telling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and Ryan Reynolds in a g-string as Green Lantern to look forward to. Oh yip yah.)

What I think has befallen the series is that it has begun to take itself too seriously. When the first film came out nine years ago, there was a light-heartedness about it that was reflected in the innocence and playfulness of the magic that the young wizards were doing; these were children and childrens’ books. The settings, even the scary ones, had a sense of lightness and wonder about them, as did the direction and writing, and the often-whimsical music of John Williams helped set the tone. But with each film another layer of darkness settled upon them until now they have achieved a level that tries to convey Serious and Deep Heaviosity going on rather than the lighter fare they started out with. There was not one moment of comic relief in this chapter; not even a crinkle of a smile. That’s a sure sign of trouble. Even Hamlet has a few yucks in it.

The Harry Potter franchise always relied on adult supervision and some amazing performances from actors like Maggie Smith, Alan Rachins, and Michael Gambon (preceded by the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore). Now the adults have barely a cameo — Maggie Smith isn’t even in it — and the whole soggy story falls on the thin shoulders of Mr. Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. They may be fine actors in their own regard, but they and their characters just don’t have the strength to pull it off.