Thursday, December 03, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

(Movie Review)

Before I get started, quick recap of my Harry Potter related blogging to date.
Book Reviews:
* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
* Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ,
* Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and
* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
(The first 3 books in the series I read (or listened to rather) before I had started up my book review project.

Previous Movie Reviews:
* A review of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" here,
* Some thoughts on the Goblet of Fire here,
* A brief mention of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" here,
and everything else was before I started regularly reviewing movies on this blog.

Although now that I've gone to the trouble of linking to all my past reviews, I have to admit upon re-reading them that none of them are really all that great. Well, they were first impressions, straight off the cuff, and you can take them for what they are worth. As with this review.

At the risk of repeating myself too much from my previous reviews, the whole "Harry Potter" franchise is a bit of an interesting cultural phenomenon.
The movies make enormously huge money for the Hollywood studios, (this one broke records (W)). Which is quite a feat when you consider that none of the movies are really all that good--at least standing alone.

Don't misunderstand me, they're very faithful adaptations of the books, and act as a nice tribute to them. But if you compare them to block-buster movies of the past, "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" or what have you, then it's obvious by comparison that in the Harry Potter movies the pacing is all wrong, the plot isn't streamlined enough, and the climaxes are in all the wrong places.

The experience of watching these movies is a lot different than, say, "Star Wars", which was deliberately designed as a tour-de-force of cinematic story telling.

In other words, these are movies that are based on books, and they feel like movies that are based on books. But even though they're not great movies, the books have become such a cultural phenomenon that even non Harry Potter fans feel obliged to see the movie just to find out what all the fuss is about.
As I did with the first 4 movies, until I finally got curious enough to check out the books.

So the buzz from the books brings people to the movies, the movies convert new people to the books, the buzz behind the books gets greater, and the cycle continues.

[Speaking of the books, I've been re-listening to a couple of Harry Potter audio books this past week. It strikes me that the brilliance of this series is that takes many elements usually reserved for adult literature and makes them accessible for younger readers, such as careful plotting, character development, and an eye for detail. And perhaps most importantly, conversations that flow naturally, and the major plot points of the story are always revealed in dialogue rather told through the narrators voice. This is a big difference than a lot of the children's books I remember from my youth, where the narrator's omnipresent voice always directed everything.
Of course the movie doesn't have the luxury of spending time on all these things.]

All that being said, I liked this movie. It did a good job of condensing the story, and bringing it to the screen.

At 2 and a half hours, it felt a little long to sit through, and yet when it ended I couldn't help but feel sorry for all the things they cut out. (Well, such is always the case with movies based on books.)

For example:
These Harry Potter movies have assembled a very impressive cast of actors, it's a shame that as the story progresses each of them get so little screen time. The child actors who portray the Hogwarts students (now almost all grown into adults, but still passable as teenagers) do such a good job, but many of them have just been reduced to brief cameos as the story progresses.

The adult actors are even more brilliant, and even more criminally underused. Alan Rickman is perfect as Snape (and in fact, I believe he manages to bring more life to the character than is in the book) but it seems that in the past few movies we only get to see brief glimpses of him, even as he becomes more and more important to the plot.
Robbie Coltran, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Bonham Carter, and so on, all do such a great job it's a pity we get to see so little of them.

As for the plot and pacing:
The beginning of this movie did a good job of setting the tone, reintroducing us to all the characters, and establishing the story. Even though they had a lot of material to cover, they did this in a way that didn't feel rushed.

Unfortunately, it's the end of the movie that suffers as a result of this, where key plot points that should have had a more dramatic reveal are just rushed through. (I know movies are written in advance and then typically shot out of order, but one almost gets the impression watching this thing of the production staff saying "Oh no, we only have 30 minutes left to conclude this thing. Quick, rush through everything else!")

There were also a few missed notes.
The destruction of the bridge at the beginning of the movie was an event whose significance was explained in the book, but not in the movie. In the movie we just see the bridge being destroyed, and then it's on to the next scene. I know this provided a bit of excitement for the opening, but it's probably something they should have cut out since it had no relation to the rest of the movie.

Other events are underplayed.
The identity of the "Half Blood Prince" was a reveal that was a dramatic point in the book, but ended up being just mentioned in an off hand way at the end of the movie.

The action sequences in these Harry Potter movies always seem to suffer a bit, and in the last couple movies at least have just consisted of people firing wands back and forth at each other. I know it's a movie about wizards, but with a little bit of creativity in the choreographing I think they could have made these a lot more exciting.
The battle between Harry and Malfoy in the bathroom, for example, was rather lackluster. Along the same lines, the ending of this scene, in which Harry, experimenting with a new spell, horribly injured Malfoy, was a dramatic point in the book, but seemed underplayed in the movie.

The climax of this movie is a rather bizarre scene in which Dumbledore has to drink an entire potion. It is straight out of the book, but the first time I read the book I remember thinking, "That's a bit of an odd scene. It may work in a book, but it's going to seem strange in a movie. They should probably try and down play this when they film it."

On the other hand, the book describes a huge battle at the end which the movie completely cuts out.
I know these movies have a lot of ground to cover, but you would think a movie that is aiming for a summer block-buster crowd would want to include more of these spectacular action sequences, not cut them out.

I suppose it's to the credit of the story telling power that these Harry Potter movies have turned into such a huge franchise without even needing a big action finish at the end. But personally, I felt the ending was a bit boring, and I would have gladly put up with another 10 minutes or so to get a better climax.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Central America

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