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Darker, more hormonal, more teenage-angsty and sadly more boring, the Potter franchise is back. Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book, but antepenultimate movie. The seventh and final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is reportedly going to be divided into two films. But who knows? Maybe that second half will be split, and then the second half of that very second half will separate, and like characters in a lost paradox by the pre-Socratic thinker Zeno, moviegoers will never really reach the end of the Potter movies.
This latest Potter has some spectacular imagery, and director David Yates is a safe pair of hands; there are some nice moments and the tragic ending lands with a crash of timpani. But I feel an inexorable disenchantment with this series settling in, a sense of familiarity and stamina-loss amounting to a crisis of Potterist faith. Once, I believed that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film could theoretically convert newcomers to fanhood, but they are actually for signed-up fans only: competently managed big-screen renderings of a lucrative brand.
As drama, they are becoming more and more inert, crammed with tiny events and minor characters that are spurious, pointless and, frankly, dull.
Probably the only really good moment in this film is a whooshing camera-move at the very beginning that sweeps us, airborne, through London’s West End, past the Millennium Bridge miraculously through into Diagon Alley. It’s like a theme-park ride – perhaps that’s what each film is now.
Back in 2001, with Philosopher’s Stone, the series started with a colossal rush of excitement and attending that very first screening amid legions of ecstatic children was thrilling and even moving. But the reserve of goodwill is running low; the spell is wearing off, and it is tricky, to say the least, to remember how the previous movie is supposed to have ended and how this new one is supposed to advance some overarching series plotline. Every term at Hogwarts is Groundhog term. They’re all starting to look the same.
And as the books get longer towards the end of the saga, attempts to cram in all those disjointed episodes into a conventional feature-length film look curiouser and curiouser. There is a very surreal sequence here, when the main action is suspended so that Harry and Hagrid can attend what appears to be the funeral of a gigantic spider. Huh? That gets my vote for the 2010 MTV movie award: best WTF moment.
As Harry Potter comes back to Hogwarts – and oh Lord Jesus, how often have I typed out those last four words – he finds himself dealing with a redoubled threat of evil from dark Lord Voldemort, and a dark secret must be elicited from a new instructor, Horace Slughorn, nicely played by Jim Broadbent, and the powers of wickedness seem to reside, ambiguously, in Severus Snape, portrayed by Alan Rickman, and Harry’s hateful, pasty-faced fellow pupil, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). These spiritual battles are complicated by the burgeoning agonies of adolescent love, and there is some U-certificate copping off.
It all clocks in for a solid two-and-a-half hours, of which around 60 minutes is ridiculously superfluous. Yet due diligence has to be paid to the Harry Potter source, and to its hyper-alert fanbase. It is certainly extraordinary to think how the three cast principals have grown up, in real time, before our very eyes. But frankly their acting style and behavior haven’t grown up all that much here.
For all the saucer-eyed commentary about how much darker and harsher and realer the new Potter should have been, it is still really about as dark as the journeys of Timmy Tiptoes, and the young mains still look basically as demure and agreeable as when they were knee-high to a one-sixth scale model of Bonnie Langford. And, heaven knows I was a total suck-up at school, but I don’t remember ever calling the masters “Sir” quite as much as Harry does.
Perhaps it is ungrateful to fall out of love, or at any rate out of like, with the Potter films. Almost single-handedly, JK Rowling’s creation has saved cinema attendance figures in this nation and the British producer-wizards like David Heyman and Tanya Seghatchian, who spotted the big-screen potential of Potter 10 years ago, perhaps deserve some kind of industry medal. Respect has to be paid.
But faking excitement at what happens in the films themselves is now impossible for any sentient person. Having said that … maybe it’s a late-series wobble before a final sprint to the finish line. (Maybe the Narnia films will experience the same thing around the Magician’s Nephew stage.) And maybe splitting the final chapter into two will make each of the separate movies shorter, sharper and shapelier, and the finality of an ending will retrospectively confer meaning and dramatic potency on the previous three or four hours’ material. It could happen. But something needs to reignite that magic sparkle.