Sunday, November 28, 2010

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 1: A Review


Wanding Down...

At least this can be said about the Harry Potter series: whatever whimsy, whatever lightness, whatever cuteness, whatever sweetness, whatever child-like innocence there was in the franchise is completely gone (along with Dame Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and John Cleese as Nearly-Headless Nick, the latter not having been seen since Chamber of Secretsfive films ago.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I  is a dark, unhappy, and very self-important film. The fact that it is still thought of as a children's film is absolutely boggling to my mind. There is killing, there is torture, there are Nazi overtones, and yet somehow because it is a fantasy world, it is considered Juvenile Cinema.

It is not.

In fact, I would be hard-pressed to take my child to see Part I no matter how much he/she begged, and I would not allow my child to see it as part of a field trip. Yet I digress.

Part I is a long, slow intro to Part II, and whatever enthusiasm I had built up for the previous Potter films is also gone.

The Wizarding World is under siege. The Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has reunited his coven: Lucius (Jason Isaacs), Narcissa (Helen McCrory) and Draco Malfoy(Tom Felton), along with Narcissa's sister Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Baldy-mort (as I lovingly call him) is still trying to get at Harry Potter (Daniel Ratcliffe) and stop him from getting the remaining horcruxes (objects that contain parts of Voldemort's soul...I think).

With this Dark Group having taken over the Ministry of Magic, aided by non-Grease Pink Lady Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) Harry, along with his best best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) eventually set out to find the remaining horcruxes (of which there are four or five). To destroy the horcruxes, they need the Sword of Gryffindor (last seen in Chamber of Secrets as well). Once that's found, we then find that they now have to look for The Deathly Hallows: three objects (The Elder Wand, The Resurrection Stone, and The Cloak of Invisibility) that will make whoever possesses all three the Master Over Death.

In short, Part I is essentially a gigantic scavenger hunt, and the overview I have given is an amazingly abridged version of the actual film, where all this is spread out over an incredible two-and-a-half hours.

If Part II is just as long, and if we are to consider Deathly Hallows to be one film, that would make the whole thing an astonishing five hours long, which is about the equivalent of the first two The Lord of The Rings films (Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers) combined or half the length of the original cut of Greed.

It is an indication of how for such a length as this very little actually happens that in said running time, our trio manages to find exactly one horcrux (and there at least three if not four more to go). Part I suffers from frankly too much going on and too many characters flitting in and out, sometimes for no real purpose other than to please the hard-core Pot-Heads who won't be satisfied unless every word of J.K. Rowling's magnum opus is put in.

Take for example, the wedding between the characters of Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) and Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson). My first question while watching was, "Who's getting married?" My second is, "How is this relevant to the overall plot of Part I?" The fact that Fleur came from Goblet of Firethree films ago, and hadn't been seen or heard from since (at least to my memory) because she wasn't relevant to the plots of any of the following films has the non-reader asking, 'Where'd she come from and why is even back in the first place?'

I figure their romance was something expanded upon in Sprawling Rowling's work, but given she wasn't important in Order of The Phoenix or Half-Blood Prince, couldn't it have served to shorten the film by just cutting out their wedding? That is, unless they serve a greater purpose in Part II, which would then reduce Part I to merely a trailer for another film that will be in 3-D for no reason other than to make Rowling & Company even richer.

I bring up 3-D for a reason: Part I was suppose to be in 3rd Dimension, but the technical aspects couldn't be worked out by director David Yates in time for the premiere, so the idea was abandoned. I would argue they should never have attempted to make Part I (or Part II) 3-D in the first place, and I digress to say how vociferous I have been in my furious objection to having 3-D in any recent release.

Whatever my problems with Avatar and James Cameron, to his credit he always intended Avatar to have been in 3-D: he conceived it, planned it, and executed it with that intent. All other recent films (Part I & II, Clash of the Titans, Despicable Me, Megamind, the upcoming Yogi Bear) were either hurriedly converted or shaped to merely cash in without much if any thought as to how the effect would work for the overall plot.

The after-effects of this misguided idea are apparent in Part I; there are at least three moments when the planned 3-D effect was obvious, and when seen on the flat screen it's also apparent just how silly and pointless it all looks: when we see a snake for the first time leaping into the camera, when our Troubled Trio meets a ghostly figure lunging at them at a safe-house, when Bellatrix throws her wand at the fleeing group; it all looks so fake and dumb and such a waste.

Back to my original complaint. It's a sign of the chaos in Part I that I was completely unaware that two of Harry ex-girlfriends, Cho Chang (Katie Leung from Order of the Phoenix) and Padma Patil (Afshan Azad, first seen in Goblet of Fire but at least in all succeeding films) were even in the film. I did recognize Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), but let's be honest: it was a cameo (and frankly, given the chaos going on about them, why would any student calmly go back to Hogwarts on the Hogwarts Express to begin with).

Given that Longbottom actually had something to do in Order of the Phoenix but nothing since, why was he even here for his thirty-second appearance is a mystery (unless, again, it's because it's important in Part II, which means Part I is again, just a trailer for something half a year away). Also mysterious is the sudden need to have wand-maker Ollivander (John Hurt) in the story, given we haven't seen him since The Sorcerer's Stone, six films ago.

He hasn't shown up since the first movie, and now, now he shows up?

We also have the Sprawling story to contend with (again, adapted by Steve Kloves). What Part I is a series of searches, but we soon start getting searches within the searches. Ostensibly, the Trio are looking for the remaining horcruxes, but then they have to start searching for the Deathly Hallows. I started to wonder if the Deathly Hallows were also horcruxes, or were they needed to destroy the horcruxes (which I figure they weren't since the Sword of Gryffindor fit that description, although we needed to search for that as well).

Soon, it becomes all a jumble as to what exactly they are suppose to be looking for, and the various searches take so long and take them so many places one soon starts forgetting where and when they are in the story. Near the end, when they go look for Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and her father Xenophilius (Rhys Ifans), and I digress to point out how I hate these elaborate names Sprawling Rowling gives her characters, although I suppose his name is to signify he is a Lover of Foreigners, unlike the Xenophobic Voldemort & Coven, I actually wondered out loud, 'Have they left The Shire yet?'

When Ron returns after leaving the group, Hermione states that they've been wandering the forest for weeks. Weeks? I thought. Just how long is this journey? I though it was a mere days, not weeks.

Given that the story was so sprawling and expansive, it's difficult to give a fair assessment of performances since the screen was dominated by the three leads (which gives me pause to wonder if my thoughts that the adults weren't all that necessary has proven accurate). With the exception of Grint, they were bland, blank, and boring. When Harry & Ron fight and Ron walks away from the quest, I didn't believe a bit of it; they hadn't fought because they'd reached a point where they couldn't tolerate each other anymore. They fought to give them something to do. Later, when Harry & Hermione dance in the tent (magically provided by her never-ending pursue), it all looked so mechanical, so forced, so glum and unhappy. There was no joy in their dance, and no rhyme or reason for it.

The audience didn't think so: they were laughing at this point.

While I figure this dance bit was done to lighten the heavy and dark mood of Part I, it didn't have that effect. Never have the three leads felt like puppets being pulled as opposed to real people. Watson, Ratcliffe, and even Grint did what they were told to do because they were told to do. Frankly, they all looked exhausted, as if they just want to get the film done and over with (don't blame them).

As stated, Rupert Grint, who has been the most consistently effective of the three, continues to delve deeper into the conflicts within Ron: his genuine love for Harry in conflict with his growing passion for Hermione coupled with his own fears for himself and his family. When he travels with Harry & Hermione, Grint manages to show how Ron is spent both physically and emotionally with his eyes and face as well as mixing in a strong anger and jealousy at his perception of a romance between his best friends. Sometimes it can get a bit silly: when we get to the horcrux, the imagery Ron sees borders on pornographic. I was taken aback at how that moment pushed the boundary of 'children's entertainment', and if you see it, you'll know why I say it put the 'whore' in 'horcrux'.

As for the adults, Fiennes was still all breathy delivery as Baldy-mort. Bonham Carter clearly relishes being a villainness, and her Bellatrix is one of the better performances: she looks delightfully deranged. However, they are they exception. Given that the adults from various other Potter films pop in and out so quickly, one can't accurately gauge their performances for brief appearances. The fact that house elf Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones and last seen in Chamber of Secrets) gave the most emotionally compelling performance should tell you where most of the characters (and the actors who portrayed them) fit into the scheme of things.

There ARE good things in Part I. The animation for the telling of The Story of Three Brothers, telling us how the Deathly Hallows came to be, is remarkably beautiful (and sadly, a far better and more interesting story than Part I overall). It was reminiscent of shadow puppets, and it was far more unique than recent animation, which made it more spellbinding (no pun intended).

There was also some very good camera work in the final chase in the forest before the Trio are captured and taken to the Malfoy's lair. Part I may also be the first and only film to show the Dursleys in even the slightest sympathetic light; again, given they disappeared within the first seven minutes at the most, it's hard to say, but it is the first time Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley aren't abusing Harry in one form or another. They actually look...sad.

There is a strong undercurrent of the struggle between multiculturalism and Aryan/Nazism in Part I, which I figure is in the book and one of the many reasons Rowling's books are so well-praised. The obsession Voldemort & his crew have about the purity of the blood is very Nazi-like, as are the uniforms worn by guards at the Ministry of Magic, which looked like SS or SA outfits. When Hermione has the word 'mudblood' appear on her arm, it brought to mind memories of concentration camp prisoners tattooed with numbers on their arms.

Whether Rowling or the filmmakers made this a deliberate part of Part I or whether it just grew out of the story I have no way of knowing. However, it does indicate that there is a deeper story itching to get out, but unfortunately Part I drowned in so much searching high and low for various things that it we could only get inferences from what was on the screen.

I have two points of logic from Part I. Assuming that Draco (Felton, unfortunately underused) really didn't recognize Harry after Hermione altered his appearance somewhat, wouldn't he have easily recognized Hermione and Ron? Am I suppose to guess that Draco, who always appeared conflicted about being part of the coven, was secretly working in his own way to save the Trio? Will all this play out in Part II?

Second, how is it that Dobby can easily find a way in and out of the Malfoy's lair? This last one is another one of those Deus Ex Machinations Rowling simply can't live without. It would be a Harry Potter film without something suddenly popping in out of thin air to save our heroes as oppose to having our heroes actually do anything to get themselves out of their scrapes.

It's sad that a series I was starting to slowly embrace has so quickly pushed me away. My mind started wandering more that our Trio. I started writing verse to match Jo's work. Here it a rough draft:
History will not record/The Darkest Deeds of The Dark Lord
The Pure in Heart cannot perceive/The Weak of Mind, so easy to deceive
The wicked work of the Family Malfoy/United in their love to kill and destroy
First draft, folks, so be kind.

Part I is an unhappy production: bored performances, quick cameos that didn't add much if anything, a massive story that really tells very little, and endless scenes of nothing going on. In the end, I found that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I was more Deathly Hollow.


Next Harry Potter Film: Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II

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