Below: Why Christians can like Harry Potter (and wish the movies were better). Plus a few other reviews, and more coming soon. Lots more. Like The Hunger Games. Click on each title to see casting info and plot synopses on IMDB.
Let’s start with the big picture before zeroing in on specific comments on each film. I gleefully, unabashedly, wholeheartedly (though not unconditionally) love the Harry Potter series and am profoundly grateful for J. K. Rowling’s imagination, her characters, and her multi-book Christian fairytale.
Now, I know that many Christians shy away from the Harry Potter movies (and books) because of all the witches on broomsticks and waving of wands. They should calm down. Many more Christians are blind to the problematic aesthetics of Rowling’s magic, and they should get some discernment.
A good start for both camps would be listening to this quick interview between Doug and N. D. Wilson or, if you have more than eight minutes, reading Charles Williams’ excellent historical study Witchcraft. Both Wilsons argue that it isn’t a question of magic vs. no magic. God uses magic; so does the Devil. It’s a matter of 1) who is using the magic and 2) for what purpose. If you’re Moses parting the Red Sea, go for it. (And if you don’t think that’s magic, what is? Walking on water? Raining bread down from heaven? Raising the dead? Go for those, too–in the name of God.) But if you’re a sorcerer in Pharaoh’s court turning sticks into snakes, well, that’s bad.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the clearest treatment of this biblical view of magic. Evil magic (sorcery) seeks to manipulate physical matter in order to control human beings and master the world that belongs to God. Good magic is still an act of power, but it’s about service, not domination; it’s all about countering and destroying the tools through which evil would exert control. Good magic is a gift from above; sorcery is always demonic.
That’s where Harry Potter is a bit off. Scripture refers to witches and wizards as evildoers who exercise the sort of power-hungry hocus-pocus which God damns, whereas Rowling uses the names to describe anyone who has magical abilities, and the question then is how they use them. Within the world of Hogwarts, it’s fortunately rather obvious who’s good and who’s bad, but the basic terminology is still unhelpful. So are the trappings traditionally associated with satanic power: broomsticks, pointy hats, crooked wands, and lots of black clothes.
But with that complaint aside, Harry Potter is a terrifically fun and overwhelmingly biblical saga that I would hand to any kid old enough to spot the blemishes. Yes, it’s bedecked like Halloween, but look at the story bones and tell me you don’t see good and evil duking it out like we’ve seldom seen before. Tell me you don’t see heroes that should guide our children. Tell me you don’t see Satan. Tell me you don’t see Christ.
The movies themselves are a splotchy mix of uneven talent. The casting, largely solid. The directing, hit or miss. (Hint: the last four films…miss.) The main musical theme, composed by John Williams, is genius–the single biggest piece of fairy dust lending the films their wings. As for the screenplays, well, they pretty consistently fail to work apart from the books, instead forcing fans to supply missing information and emotional resonance from our memories of how Rowling wrote it the first time.
All in all, I love the Harry Potter movies more for the story they tell than the way they tell it. I love the sprawling narrative of the boy who lived for the same reason it has resonated with millions of people the world over: because it’s true.
Bright, sparkly, and age-appropriate. Story weaknesses are the same as in the book (see quibbles above) and the fact that it’s a kids’ movie is no excuse for the sub-par special effects, but Diagon Alley, Dumbledore, and Hogwarts are so spot-on, the movie charms after all. By the way, if you’re a soundtracks buff of any sorts and enjoy music’s hypnotic ability to shape stories, check out this quickly thrown-together video I made that reverses the mood of the film’s final scene–just by swapping the music.
The second, fourth, and seventh books are my favorite. Same with the movies. Harry Potter is a bit older and so able to do more dangerous stuff. Dobby is great. Ron’s faces are worth all kinds of money. Meeting Tom Riddle and dueling the basilisk and ALMOST DYING are the stuff that gives me goosebumps and makes me cheer.
I can only compare the film’s editing to the Knight Bus: too rough, too fast, too jerky. Awkward pauses, weird silences, unreasonable beats in dialogue–it’s not a screenplay problem or a directing problem (we all know Alfonso Cuáron can direct; see Gravity) as much as it’s a post-production nobody-bothered-to-smooth-it-out problem. The other nightmare introduced in the third film is the totally miscast Michael Gambon. I realize he can’t help not being Richard Harris, but he can help being Dumbledore. Just say no. That said, Emma Thompson almost makes up for him. Best stuff in Azkaban is the knottier plot, Buckbeak, Daniel Radcliffe’s haircut (always changing; this one’s the best), Professor Lupin (it’s hard to dislike David Thewlis in any movie), the fact that it’s John William’s last hurrah in the Harry Potter world, and I have to say, the werewolf scene…pretty cool. (Though it needed better CGI.)
Okay. THIS ONE. The best movie of the lot. Goblet of Fire is so nearly perfect, it makes me shiver. It’s a thrilling story to begin with (and adapts super easily to screen with its ready-made three-part structure) and director Mike Newell handles it all just splendidly. And Patrick Doyle’s brand new musical tone plays a huge part in creating that shift from the three initial, fairly lighthearted films to this–the first truly serious installment, the dead-center climax, the hinge upon which the whole series turns. It also features the first real looking special effects, demands the strongest dynamic acting from multiple characters, and boasts the most competent script. And by competent, I mean it finally captures Rowling’s written word and allows the movie to stand largely on its own, besides improving the action scenes–which are never Rowling’s strong suit. The dragon? The maze? The graveyard? When I say I like the Harry Potter movies, I really mean I like Goblet of Fire.
The Order of the Phoenix is lame sauce of an astonishing ferocity. The book has its problems (biggest of which is the fact that Harry becomes a girl–a weepy, hormonal, adolescent girl who needs a strong father and a lot of swats), but at least it managed to establish a measure of tension throughout. I remember the fat middle section being grim and nerve-wracking as the toadish Professor Umbridge takes over the school and Voldemort takes over Harry’s brain. The movie is neither grim nor nerve-wracking and Umbridge is cute and pink in an infuriating, cat-fluffish way, but nothing menacing whatever. As for Voldemort inside Harry’s brain, talk about painfully unelectrifying. Director David Yates knows little about suspense and even less about letting it all climax; composer Nicholas Hooper knows half as much about either. (Where are the doggone trumpets? Did Hooper fire the entire brass section?) The whole movie–from dementors to the Ministry of Magic to I must not tell lies to Dumbledore’s army to the dorky centaurs to Sirius’s death to exorcising Harry–shuffles around without a clue about how to make us give a cotton-pickin’ darn. About anything. Except Luna. I cared about Luna. Luna was fine.
Loads better than the fifth. Harry (mostly thanks to Liquid Luck) regains some badly needed personality, Tom Felton is surprisingly strong as a newly nuanced Draco Malfoy, and Snape starts to really come into the fore as a character we should reckon with–and still don’t quite understand. But they utterly ruined Ginny. In the book, she is smart, capable, and with-it. In the movie, she’s a giddy, awkward distraction. As for the directing/writing, the plot-builder scenes are generally more dynamic with everything from humor (Ron in love) to quite miserable (the drink of despair), but as always, the action scenes pull their punches and the climax crumbles like old elastic. Sectum sempra had me yawning. So did the Weasleys’ house on fire. Dumbledore’s death is criminally underplayed and where the heck is his funeral? That is such a crucial scene to the story: everything has changed with Dumbledore gone and we need that moment of mourning, of taking stock, of getting ready for the tough fight to come in the next film. Of all the brainless omissions to make, this one was the absolute worst.
A somber, slowly coiling prequel in desperate need of a shot of adrenaline from the book. David Yates has improved his character-development scenes–those moments of downtime where we get some really solid insight into the people we’ve already loved for six movies–but they just go on and on. I get it: the journey is often a drag for Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they plod from one horcrux to the next. But it shouldn’t feel like a drag for us. It feels like the screenwriters were high on Ambien and the cameras set on slow motion. The action scenes fizzle instead of pop. Again. The snake in Bathilda Bagshot’s house was…frighteningly unfrightening. I don’t even remember the other action scenes. I remember balling my fists in a rage that they murdered the climax. AGAIN. In the book, Bellatrix uses the cruciatus curse; in the movie, she scribbles on Hermione’s arm. Puh-lease. And with Hermione screaming her head off (what? cuz the scribbling?), can anyone tell me why Ron and Harry aren’t going berserk listening to this down in the dungeon? The movie should grip like a vise and it slips really…really…slowly… like a lotiony handshake. Not even Dobby’s death meant anything.
This is far from the worst of the Harry Potter films, but it is the most frustrating in many ways because it fumbles Rowling’s most spectacular climax, the climax that was the most important to get right–for theological reasons, if for nothing else. I do enjoy the movie, just not as much as the book, which riveted me to my seat for six and a half hours in one nearly uninterrupted sitting and brought a fierce, panicked beating to my heart as I raced to find out whether the boy who lived was really and truly going to die.
Good stuff: The pacing has improved since Part I (which felt like it was weirdly saving all the adrenaline for later…and later never came). Alexandre Desplat, the fourth composer to join the HP music world, contributes some of the series’ most stirring pieces–“Courtyard Apocalypse” king of all. Griphook is particularly well-played. The siege of Hogwarts thrills in parts (mostly thanks to the music) and Snape’s death is a top scene. So far, so par.
What irks me is the bewildering changes to Act 3. Director Yates, no surprise, still doesn’t give the action enough oomph, but I can live with that. I can live with ho-humming while a blasé Harry bids a nonchalant farewell to his bizarrely okay-with-it friends (is real tension never in season for Yates?) and I can live with not really caring while Harry calmly face-times with the parentals via resurrection stone.
What I can’t live with is how they mussed up his death, resurrection, and duel with the devil. Sins of omission, commission, and klutzmission (not particularly in that order). The book makes it clear why Harry died–and why he must rise again. He cannot defeat Voldemort simply by dying and obliterating the last horcrux with his own body, he must come back in order to bring death to death itself, “the last enemy to be destroyed” (as was inscribed on his parents’ headstone). At King’s Cross, Dumbledore says that both he and Voldemort tried to be “masters of death,” but that only Harry truly understood how and why to master it: “You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.” As the Master of Death, Harry must return: “If you choose to return, there is a chance that he may be finished for good…. You may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart.”
What Dumbledore is hinting at–and what the final duel later makes clear–is that resurrection isn’t just “yay, I’m back.” Resurrection changes the world. It turns things upside down. Everything is profoundly different. Voldemort is terrified; Harry, untouchable. I’m not saying he’s immortal; he will age and die “a natural death like Ignotus” (as he himself says). But the point here and now is that “death has no more dominion over him.” He’s beyond Voldemort’s reach. Their final confrontation isn’t even a proper fight, it’s a spectacle like Christ’s over Satan: a marvelously public, breathtaking spectacle where Harry vindicates the righteous (Snape) and mocks Voldemort and shows all the watching world the coward that Voldemort really is–a coward who is killed by his own curse.
It is finally here. After six books of charms and tricks and curses, Rowling plants a cross and kills a man and rolls away the stone in a stroke of Deep Magic from the dawn of time. But in the movie? Dumbledore’s conversation with Harry at King’s Cross isn’t condensed so much as cleanly decapitated. No sense of what’s really going on, no strong need to go back, just a phlegmatic “if you want to.” Harry’s showdown with Voldemort is a traveling circus, a lackluster slapfest, a private and powerless scuffle wherein resurrection has worked nothing new. No audience, no vindication, no Deep Magic revealed, no thundering victory. It all just shrivels up and floats away.
I don’t know whose fault that is–Steve Kloves (who worked with Rowling on the screenplay), Rowling herself, David Yates, or even the editors playing with scissors in postproduction. But it’s clear that somebody either didn’t like or didn’t understand the Christ-parallels in the book, and consequently didn’t think they mattered. It’s more likely they just didn’t understand, which bears a particular kind of guilt. At least Edmund Pevensie knew it was a lion he was scribbling on.
Hart’s War (2002)
I remember just enough of this twisting, multi-layered Law and Order/Great Escape hybrid to want to watch it again.
Hatfields and McCoys (2012)
A bloodier Viking story you’re not likely to find so well done on the modern screen. It’s not a happy story, but it is an instructive one, showing the hell you reap when you water the seed of unforgiveness in your heart. You find yourself sucked down the crazed, downward spiral from offense to resentment to bitterness to hatred to murder upon murder and revenge upon revenge, you and your children and your children’s children, until someone decides to bury the hatchet. The ceasefire between the Hatfields and McCoys comes about in a striking way: when the most innocent family member between the two clans is hanged for what really isn’t his fault (relatively speaking). All of a sudden, neither family can go on. Neither can complain. Neither has anything to fight over, because the least blemished among them just took the blame for their sins and buried it with him in the ground. Great production, really fun time-periodish music, and some terrific acting–especially from Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, and Mare Winningham.
I don’t like it when guy movies are all brawn, no warmth, so how often would I watch a zero-empathy chick kick tail for 90 minutes? Just once. And I wish I could undo it. Steven Soderbergh (as usual) has a lot of fine technique that should inspire other directors, but the story itself is just too coldhearted and gristly.
I like Michael Mann when he’s on a tighter leash. Heat boasts a fine ensemble cast and some rich dialogue and character studies, but it’s too long, too slow, and too heavy with little but villains and smirchy antiheroes that make you long for someone, anyone, as unsubtly, one-dimensionally decent as Captain America.
The Help (2011)
Heroes: Episode 1 (2006)
High School Musical (2006)
The Hollow Crown: Henry IV (2012)
The Hollow Crown: Henry V (2012)
Home Alone (1990)
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
The Hunger Games (2012)