Sunday, July 19, 2009

Half-Blood Prince

Had you asked me a couple of hours ago, I would have said that no, I would never post a review of a Harry Potter movie on my blog. Why not? — because I know the widely diverging points of view about the acceptability of these movies held by the three or four of you who still read my blog; in the face of those opinions, these movies simply aren't important enough to write about. However, this post does exist and I defend its existence by saying that this is not exactly a review; it, in fact, cannot be for the simple reason that there is so much about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that defies reviewing. This post is instead a reaction, not to the content of the stories, but to the choices made by the filmmakers in the creation of this entry in the series.

I have seen all of the first five Harry Potter movies (Half-Blood Prince being the sixth). Independent of any opinions about the content, I find them all to be entertaining and sufficiently well-made — they are all good, but none has anything spectacular that marks it as great. One thing that did always stand out to me about the five movies is that despite having four different directors, they all did a fairly solid job of maintaining a consistent tone and style. Even the darker entries in the series have the same earnest energy, and the same wide-eyed sense of adventure. The only way I can think to say it is that they are all crafted very much like a story being told in present-tense; I can only hope that later in this post I can make that statement sound less stupidly obvious.

In contrasting the sixth movie in the series with the first five, the only reaction I can have is that, for many reasons, it's just odd. I'm not even sure if that's good or bad, and I'll attempt to explain why. The first five movies form a 4.5 billion dollar franchise. It has always been in the studio's interest to make movies that have the best chance of cashing in on the interest of millions of readers of the books worldwide. That they have been successful is undeniable, and my instinct would have been to assume that for the three remaining movies in the series, they would try to stick to a pattern that works, i.e., maintain the same energy, maintain the same visual style, maintain the same musical style, etc. It seems like it would just be good business sense, just as much as it would be good artistic sense — a consistent style and feel makes for a unified series that flows well together (see the Bourne trilogy, for example).

Thus my perplexity with this sixth entry: it seems that in no way did they do any of these things. Where the first five movies emphasized humor and cheerfulness contrasted with the darkness of conflict, this movie, in spite of being the setup for the climax of the series, possesses a markedly subdued tone throughout. The tragic events which were in this movie addressed with powerful but quiet sadness would have been presented in the previous movies with far more violent emotion. As the book series progressed, the books only got longer, necessitating more and more plot cuts when presented in movie form; the first five movies always cut minor or less exciting portions of the plot in favor of the more action-oriented plot points. This sixth movie seems to do exactly the opposite, preserving the character-oriented and emotional story lines while sacrificing some of the most dramatic portions of the book's action (this is probably the reason why most negative reviews of the movie call it "boring"). In both visual and musical style this movie is also very much different from the rest of the series, straying away from the vivid colors, sharp focus, bright lighting and dramatic themes in favor of, again, a more subdued style. In comparison with my memory of the previous movies, the shift is abrupt; within five seconds of the Warner Brothers logo fading from the screen I was thinking, "This is very different." With a grittier look, more neutral colors and so much soft focus, I almost had to wonder if there was something wrong with the print or projector. The storytelling is also significantly different, in a way that is hard to describe: where the first five movies played out like a story being told in present tense, this story plays out like one of the characters' painfully sad recollections — it's possible that this impression is due in part to the visual style which at times had me wondering if the scene I was watching would turn out to be a dream sequence.

Is any of this bad? No. It's simply odd. It's especially so considering this movie came from the same writer who wrote four of the previous five movies, and from the same director who directed the fifth movie. I think if this were a stand-alone movie, I would like the creative choices that were made. Taken as a member of the series, I can only say that I haven't seen enough to decide, while I continue to puzzle over the possible reasons for the decisions that were made. What do I mean when I say that I haven't seen enough? I think that in any long-running franchise — especially one with multiple directors — there is at least one point in the franchise where a significant shift in style (and, as a result, subjectively perceived quality) occurs, and I think that often results in the viewer thinking of their favorite part of the series and wishing the rest of the series had been done to match (The Matrix trilogy and the Star Wars trilogies come to mind). I actually find it intriguing to wonder if this new style will remain consistent through the rest of the series, and if it does, which part of the series will we wish had been done differently? Another question I find interesting deals with the fact that David Yates, who directed the fifth Potter movie, also directed the sixth, and will also direct the final two movies in the series: I have to wonder if this significant shift in style came about (or was made possible?) when the decision was made to give this one director effective control over the rest of the series. I'll phrase it a little differently: the sixth book in the series is very much a setup for the climax in the seventh (on which both of the last two movies are based), and I have to wonder if this sixth movie is intended in much the same way for the last two movies. I have to wonder if, after completing the fifth movie in a style consistent with the previous, the director who would direct the entire remainder of the series was given the freedom to produce the last three movies in a way that presents them as a coherent stylistic whole. If it is, I am already fascinated to know how well this chosen style will work as the climax of the series. If it is not, I am curious to know exactly how much of a sore thumb this film will be in the franchise as a whole.

On a side note, I continue to be impressed by how many of Chris Columbus' (director of the first two movies) choices regarding design and casting continue to hold up through the subsequent movies. He cast a fleet of adult actors and a dozen or more unknown child actors (the oldest of whom was perhaps 13 at the time of filming the first movie) including an 11-year-old on whom the entire multi-billion dollar franchise would hang and eight years later I can't think of a single role that has had to be recast (with the exception of Dumbledore, due to Richard Harris' death), or a single actor who has failed to present a consistent character year after year. Even the plot developments of the later books in the series (unknown at the time of casting the first movie) continue to be believable with the original actors. So much of the work Columbus and his crew did continues to define the look of the series, from character and costume design all the way up to the look of Hogwarts itself. It's really a remarkably rare achievement, and those commonalities will serve to bind the series together as a whole, regardless of what stylistic changes may occur.



Blogger YASH said...

Yes you are write.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009 5:11:00 AM  
Blogger Jess said...

I totally agree with the labeling of "odd" for the 6th HP movie. Not only was it darker, but the plot, like you said, was missing more exciting elements the other movies possessed (in correlation with the books). However, I actually enjoyed it. I thought because it was changed and because it was darker and just melancholy in tone (compared to humor/happy tones from the other movies) that the movie fit into the franchise. This is the climatic part before the's sad, depressing, Dumbledore freaking dies! With him goes hope for the students. I can definitely see the change as a good thing. But alas, I will stop with this novel-like comment and just say great review!

Saturday, January 23, 2010 7:12:00 PM  

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