Celebrating #HarryPotter20: How Harry Potter and his blockbuster films came of age on screen
The Boy Who Lived has cast his spell on the box office since “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first film in Warner Bros.’ blockbuster franchise, hit theaters in 2001.
The bestselling, seven-book series was adapted into eight record-breaking films -- and a two-part play -- as the boy wizard ventured through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the wizarding world with his pals Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, taking on the enigmatic Lord Voldemort and his magical henchmen each school year.
As J.K. Rowling’s debut novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” -- the first of the books from which the decade-spanning films were adapted -- marks its 20th anniversary, here’s a reminder of how Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan reviewed the “Harry Potter” films. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t always like them.)
As his 11th birthday approaches, orphan Harry Potter learns that he’s a wizard and enrolls at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where his reputation as the Boy Who Lived precedes him during his magical training.
“The result is a remarkably faithful copy of the book that treats the text like holy writ (hence its 2-hour-and-33-minute length),” wrote The Times’ film critic Kenneth Turan. “From the gold in Gringotts, the safe-as-houses goblin-run bank, to the centaur lurking in the forbidden forest that adjoins Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, so much is presented just as written that ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ starts to resemble one of those fiendishly exact replicas of great works of art that Sunday painters can be seen working on in galleries of museums.”
In their second year at Hogwarts, Harry and his pals Ron and Hermione contend with a celebrity author professor and a well-meaning house elf named Dobby who thwart the trio in unexpected ways.
“The darkness that invades ‘Chamber of Secrets’ underlines how well the books managed to exactly balance good and evil, dark and light, so that within their pages you seemed to be experiencing both at the same time. Not so here,” Turan wrote. “Because ‘Chamber of Secrets’ can’t seem to get the balance right, it ends up broadly overdoing things on both ends of the spectrum. The film’s scary moments are too monstrous and its happy times have too much idiotic beaming, making the film feel like the illegitimate offspring of ‘Alien’ and ‘The Absent-Minded Professor.’”
The wizarding world gets markedly darker as convicted murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is believed to have killed Harry’s parents, escapes from the Azkaban prison and the soul-sucking Dementors are loosed to chase him down. Director Alfonso Cuarón takes the helm from Chris Columbus, who directed the two previous films.
"[T]he final hour of the two-hour-and-21-minute ‘Azkaban’ is the closest any of the films has gotten to capturing the enormously pleasing essence of the Potter books,” wrote Turan, adding, “Those three leads (Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione, Rupert Grint as Ron) play characters who are now 13, an age when anger and frustration are more publicly expressed. One of the benefits of Cuarón’s direction, his expertise with younger actors, means that the constant determination and occasional fury exhibited by the characters, especially Harry and Hermione, are completely convincing.”
Harry’s surprising inclusion in the prestigious Triwizard Tournament, as a fourth-year student, raises concerns and brings danger to the Hogwarts castle.
“It’s taken them long enough, but the movies have finally gotten Harry Potter right,” wrote Turan. “It has fallen to the veteran [director] Mike Newell, eager, in his own words, ‘to break out of this goody-two-shoes feel,’ to make the first Harry Potter film to be wire-to-wire satisfying.
“Though memorable acting is neither called for nor delivered on the part of ‘Goblet’s’ collection of juveniles, Radcliffe’s Harry does get one thing exactly right. Watching him face myriad challenges, we’re convinced that Harry’s heart will lead him to do the right thing. He does good in the most natural way and, like so much of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ that’s just how it should be.”
With the Ministry of Magic refusing to acknowledge Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) return, fifth-year Harry is brooding at school as he contends with spooky visions and Ministry transplant Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). His knowledge of the dark magic-fighting organization, the Order of the Phoenix, and a prophecy further complicate matters.
"[Director David] Yates and his team handle the film’s visuals well, including the impressive sets for the atrium of the Ministry of Magic and its Hall of Prophecy, as well as fine flying sequences involving either broomsticks or equine creatures called Thestrals,” Turan wrote. “The director also works well with the film’s juvenile leads, which is important, because these are the raging hormone years at Hogwarts School, and that is especially true where Harry is concerned. Looking so disgruntled in his gray hoodie that you fear he might start rapping, Harry comes off as more Grumpy Potter than the bright light of the wizarding world.”
As dark magic spills into the Muggle world, Harry’s mentor, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), tasks him with bringing down Lord Voldemort. But Harry’s discovery of an old textbook teaches him more than he expected about his past.
“Now in its sixth episode shot over an eight-year span, with two more features still to come, this one-of-a-kind film cycle has become as comfortable and reliable as an old shoe, providing a degree of dependability that’s becoming increasingly rare, Turan wrote. “As directed by David Yates, who did the previous film and is on tap for the final two, ‘Half-Blood Prince’ demonstrates the ways that the Potter pictures have become the modern exemplars of establishment moviemaking. We don’t turn to these films for thrilling or original cinema, we look for a level of craft, consistency and, most of all, fidelity to the originals -- all of which we get.”
The penultimate film sees Harry, Hermione and Ron venturing out into the real world to locate and destroy Lord Voldemort’s soul-encapsulating Horcruxes as Hogwarts and the wizarding world fall to He Who Must Not Be Named.
“Much of the plot of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ involves the attempt to find and destroy a series of Horcruxes, and if you haven’t a clue about what they are or why they’re important, you might as well stay home,” Turan wrote. “There is something different, however, about this Potter movie, and that is the words ‘Part 1' that end the title. Understandably distraught about ‘Hallows’ being the last of the phenomenally popular J.K. Rowling novels, Warner Bros. has split the final effort into two films and is likely kicking itself for not having thought of that with the earlier books.”
(It should be noted that the studio reboots the wizarding world with the forthcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” series. The first film hit theaters in 2016.)
Harry goes wand-to-wand with Lord Voldemort, concluding Harry’s final year at the wizarding school with the epic Battle of Hogwarts.
“In a classic storybook finish, however, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2' turns out to be more than the last of its kind. Almost magically, it ends up being one of the best of the series as well,” Turan wrote. “The Harry Potter films, like the boy wizard himself, have had their creative ups and downs, so it’s especially satisfying that this final film, ungainly title and all, has been worth the wait. Though no expense has been spared in its production, it succeeds because it brings us back to the combination of magic, adventure and emotion that created the books’ popularity in the first place.”
For more of The Times’ “Harry Potter” anniversary coverage, go here.
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