Tom Jolliffe picks up a Nimbus 2000 to take a trip back to Hogwarts for a newfound appreciation of the Harry Potter franchise…
When Harry Potter first came out, it felt like a shallow breath of fresh air. I’d grown up as a fan of fantasy films. My childhood was defined by Labyrinth, Willow, Krull, Legend, Masters of the Universe and of course that thing with the laser swords. The 90s was a wasteland for decent fantasy films, even if I was outgrowing that genre toward the end of the century, and when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it. Hell, I was probably a shade too old at 19/20. I really enjoyed it though. It was a ray of magic to a genre I once adored and could only still enjoy by watching films I’d seen countless times, over again.
A few months later, The Lord of the Rings came out and kind of blew Potter out of the water (for me anyway). It was even more like the kinds of things I used to love (as I had a particular predisposition for sword and sorcery). I then watched Chamber of Secrets which didn’t quite match punches with the first, and was then blown away by another trip to Middle-earth. Then the Prisoner of Azkaban suddenly veered us into a stylish time travel plot, elevated by Alfonso Cuaron, and the first signs that the cherubic cast of kids was growing up. Goblet of Fire was also dark, enthralling and great, but I never got round to the follow-up and – until last week – never went back.
I did catch the final film’s last half on TV a few years back and was suitably gripped. In more recent years my mind would drift to Potter infrequently, usually by association. Of course, there’s the furore surrounding the IP creator J.K Rowling that brings the Boy Wizard to mind. There was also the creation of the Harry Potter Studio Tour. In time, since severing my interest in all things Hogwarts, I did begin to consider that my appreciation of the films’ artistic merits had diminished (or I’d been generous back then).
As a moviegoer, I’ve found myself increasingly bored by the interchangeable spectacle of the MCU. I’ve slowly grown tired of the Fast franchise, the Star Wars output, and to an extent, Harry Potter was a significant IP power that contributed to studios persistently looking to launch tween books into film franchises, or to continually mine recognised IP for projects. I was becoming dismissive of Potter’s legacy, perhaps a little cine-snobbish around the idea of grown adults visiting the aforementioned Studio experience. As sections of non-fans sought to bury the franchise because Rowling was essentially cancelled, it felt like that whole thing was done with, old (sorting) hat. I’d made peace with the likelihood I’d probably never revisit.
Well guess what… life is unpredictable. My assertion that I’d probably never rewatch the franchise was blown apart. Firstly, my brother, who had even less affinity than I did, rewatched and found himself very pleasantly surprised. Secondly, my 5-year-old daughter expressed an interest in watching it, and frankly, the prospect of watching Potter rather than excruciating YouTube videos (Diana and Roma is the latest fascination or perpetual repeats of Miraculous on Netflix) was a big draw. I was onboard and Harry Potter was about to be rewatched.
We, of course, have gone in order. I’ve learned several things along the way. I’ve also grown to appreciate some facets more than I had done when I originally watched 1-4. Here’s the biggest takeaway I’ve learned from watching Harry Potter… it’s by a long fucking way (pardon my French), the most consistently good long-running franchise this century.
Okay, so eight films was a solid number to hit and it didn’t go as big as the MCU has, expanding into a three-film-a-year juggernaut. Of course, the MCU has had highlights, but there’s been a really distinct drop since Avengers: Endgame, which only promises to get worse. Regardless, Potter had its own massive event with the two-part finale, whilst the preceding films leading up to it built up the end of all things threat very effectively.
From the first film onward, what really struck me was a sense that the films felt, as I did feel on my original viewings, old-fashioned. A lot has changed in the methodology behind shooting blockbusters since the second part of Deathly Hallows brought Potter’s saga to a close. Potter’s world is beautifully constructed with sets and locations. Of course, we have CGI set pieces as you’d expect from a fantasy franchise, but it’s never excessive. Practical work is used wherever possible.
There’s something that pains me to see, with great regularity in Marvel and Disney behind-the-scenes videos. It’s the green screen studios. This often extends to not so much as a prop being physically in front of an actor. The extent of their immersion sometimes can be merely a costume, riding a green block in a green room, holding a green thing. There’s a kind of flatness, a CG blur that’s inescapable, even with the latest tech. A CG set and props filling the screen lack a depth of field, or finer detail the eye might pick up from something that’s physically on a set, within the camera frame.
Some things just never ever look convincing with CGI. They’ve yet to find the perfect way to recreate water, hair, fire, blood, skin and other things. Apart from anything else, actors have often found the process difficult in comparison to shooting on a hand-built set where you can look first-hand at a minute detail prop artists might have etched into a prop book (etc, etc). Hogwarts and the array of settings, throughout the series, often feel vivid, detailed and immersive.
Additionally, on-set cinematography and lighting bring a natural feel that is never successfully recreated by an all-green screen sequence, where all the light and shadow have to be created by CGI. Faking depth of field will never be as effective as having a set that goes 30 yards back, full of live extras. We buy into this world Potter inhabits, both the muggles’ realm and the wizards. As such when a slightly iffy CGI troll comes into play we’re more inclined to let it slide.
On top of this, I have a newfound appreciation for the principal cast of kids. From slightly precocious 10-year-olds in the first, they handled the ever increasingly emotional weight and maturing themes very well as the franchise went on. Daniel Radcliffe in particular was perhaps a little harshly evaluated at times for his rawness, but he progressively improved and really hit some emotional high notes.
The franchise hits some poignant emotional notes throughout. Some of the films occasionally meander, and some side plots might be clunky (Potter’s romance with Cho Chang felt a touch Grange Hill for example), but themes of loss, anger, fear and responsibility run throughout the franchise and he handles it well. Potter for me, hits more consistent emotional notes and moments that may stick with you more than those in the increasingly disposable entertainment we’ve been getting under Disney’s widening grip.
There’s always been an interesting relationship between Potter and Dumbledore, ably delivered by both the late Richard Harris and his replacement Michael Gambon. The death of Cedric Diggory was powerful. The reappearance (or first appearance of Ralph Fiennes as) of Voldemort was chilling (and scared the bejesus out of my sprog). All the bigger moments to follow, especially in the final instalments, hit equally hard. It just hit the target more consistently than what’s come since from tentpole franchises. Even though the MCU, largely through fine work from Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans particularly, has had some decent moments.
Tonally and narratively too, Potter just has a bit more consistency. Narratives aren’t preoccupied with working in cameos for spinoffs or other IP characters. There’s not this odd disposition for random exchanges of snarky humour, that has become a Marvel calling card. To a point, it works, but the tonal shifts in Marvel are often grating. Maybe fans don’t really mind that emotional moments are undercut by wisecracking because they’re not hugely fussed with those emotional bits. The atypical Marvel film, and indeed the last couple of Star Wars sequels, just jump from sequence to sequence without much connective tissue, and often to random shifts in tone (the less said about something as shockingly messy as Rise of Skywalker, the better but one thing I’ll give the consistently messy MCU films though is that they retain a sense of fun).
Still, Potter had fun within the franchise, but with more compelling storytelling, emotionally complex characters and sincerity. Above all, they’re genuinely good films and the very high points (one, three, four and Hallows Part 2) are enthralling (surprisingly so). The weakest part is the second movie, but that’s still engaging. In Voldemort, as played by Fiennes, they’ve got the kind of intense and fear-inducing villain that’s often felt like an afterthought in modern blockbusters. Great and interesting villains are all too rare. Despite 29 (?) MCU films so far, there’ve been only a handful of decent villains. One of the best is Willem Dafoe, and his Green Goblin predates the MCU era anyway. Still, I’ll give plenty of bonus points for Tony Leung in Shang-Chi, a stroke of casting genius there.
Finally, one of the key strengths of Potter’s epic story has always been the supporting cast. It’s a veritable treasure trove of memorable regulars and eye-catching cameos. It’s a collection of the finest talents from British cinema. Throughout the franchise, Harris, Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Richard Griffiths and Gary Oldman et al have always been superb. The late great Alan Rickman is particularly great as the enigmatic Snape, and as mentioned Fiennes is almost too terrifying as he who shall not be named. If there’s one big fault I can pick out from the whole saga it’s this… deleting Rik Mayall’s appearance as Peeves. Bring on the director’s cut.
All told though, Harry Potter has aged well. The score is iconic now too. The legacy and appreciation I now understand, and reacquainting myself with Hogwarts and introducing my daughter has been a pleasure.
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.