J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World finds itself in an odd place recently. On the one hand, it’s still a beloved brand with a regular stream of ‘must own’ merchandise and some thriving attractions to visit (twinning Watford and Florida, naturally). And yet, cinematically it has wobbled of late, with the two prequels (under the banner of Fantastic Beasts) capturing little of the magic of the Harry Potter years.
But one can’t diminish Rowling’s seven books and the world they’ve created. Across the eight-film series, the films raked in over $7.5 billion, launched multiple careers and paved the way for the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and countless teen-friendly adaptations. So what is it like to return to these works? I introduced my daughter to them and journeyed back with her nearly two decades.
The Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
What a throwback the first feels. It’s a curious mix of varying quality of child acting, cameos from the crème of British film talent (Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths and so on), gentle rompy japes and an almost complete lack of tension. In these strange and uncertain times, this acts as a warm hug of a movie, a technically impressive level of world-building. It’s all here, the characters, locale and roots of the folklore that will play out across the seven films that follow. But what it really lacks is any great degree of threat, with a rather uninteresting minor mystery playing out in the background and the final confrontation feeling oddly muted.
The Chamber of Secrets (2002)
One step forward and two steps back, Chamber of Secrets is a firm contender for the weakest of the adaptations. On the plus side, it has a stronger narrative with a more persistent threat as well as a delightfully scenery-chomping turn from Kenneth Branagh. There’s increased confidence here, aided by more comfortable acting from the younger performers. But it’s also, at times, a far duller watch; its nostalgic delights are less potent compared to its predecessor. Just two films in and much of director Chris Columbus’ touches begin to creak. By the end credits, you feel it might be time for a refresh.
Oh and hello to Jason Isaacs.
The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
And what a change the third entry is. Out goes Chris Columbus, in comes future Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón. Gone is the chocolate box twee quality, replaced by a melancholy and atmosphere sorely missing. The look and visual architecture of the series changes here, everything takes a crooked, angular feel.
Early on there’s an encounter with the Dementors that feels almost lifted from a horror film, as it crackles with tension. The new inclusions are expertly judged. The likes of Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and David Thewlis all bring their combined acting talents. At the same time, while Gary Oldman makes a fascinating inclusion, playing Sirius Black as a juxtaposition of warmth and danger. But the real shift is marked by Michael Gambon taking on the mantle of Dumbledore, giving a rugged charisma and energy to the part. Both Gambon and Richard Harris have a twinkle in their eyes, but Gambon’s seems to fit the direction the series is going. This is the first time all the components of the series seem to come together and sing. Prisoner of Azkaban almost singularly shifts the direction the series was going in.
The Goblet of Fire (2005)
The shifts in the franchise continue, as Harry Potter morphs to balance between teen angst and high-stakes blockbuster set pieces, all as it expands the parameters of the world we’re in.
Mike Newell takes Cuarón’s work, files it down and shapes it into a formula that will be repeated across the next few entries. The Goblet of Fire doesn’t quite have the revelatory feel of the previous entry and suffers from an episodic narrative. Still, as the film reaches its climax, the work achieved over the last 9 or so hours of film leads to an emotional impact that’s rather unexpected.
For those familiar with where all this is going, the arrival of the series’ big bad (expertly played by Ralph Fiennes) pushes the momentum forward as the world of Harry Potter marches on to that final confrontation.
Move onto part 2 of the Harry Potter rewatch…