Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and The Teenagers Making The League Uncomfortable

I keed, I keed.

But, there certainly was a lot of teen romance in that movie, wasn't there? And to see it played out by humans who, despite magical powers and soft lighting, slightly resemble actual teens versus what one sees on television was sort of... I dunno. It sort of made me not really feel like I should be there.

To put things in perspective, I saw inexplicable pop phenomena "Twilight" at Doug and Kristen's in Berkeley, and that movie downright made me sad. It's like wish-fulfillment-crack for adolescent girls. Something that I have learned, no woman in my immediate circle seems to truly be immune from at any age (reportedly, The Karebear has even read the entire series). That's a movie that I certainly knew wasn't just NOT aimed at me, but openly challenged me to stand up and tell 13 year old girls that when your paramour admits to wanting to kill, that shouldn't be a huge turn on. I'm just saying.

But, yes, Harry Potter was, indeed, a Harry Potter movie. And I confess that with this 6th installment, my frustration with the limited point of view of the Harry Potter universe increased exponentially. At some point, one begins to wonder "Where the hell are the adults in this, and why do they repeatedly lean on some kid over and over?" At some point, one gets over the formula Rowling painted herself into with focusing on Hogwarts, and wishes to see what the adults, who've already SEEN Voldemort on a rampage, are doing about his attempts at a return. The hints one gets make the supposedly powerful wizarding community seem like the worst sort of surrender monkeys. That, in fact, not a one of them deserves to be saved.

The biggest issue the 6th installment has is that its also a bridging chapter between what came before, and what's going to be the big sham-wow in the 7th book/ 7th and 8th movies. Like, say, Empire Strikes Back, this movie has no real denouement, but sets things up so that, one assumes, we're seeing Harry and Co. go on the offensive (which one suspects adults should be managing, but whatever).

Many of the cuter trappings of earlier films are gone in this installment. No more endless-flavor jellybeans. No more talking paintings or moving staircases. We're much more down to brass tacks. But still find time for the required allowance of Quidditch and completely believable distraction of who is "snogging" with whom and "Butter Beer".

It's not necessarily a bad movie. The acting is very good from most of the young cast. Its beautifully shot, has nifty FX and the pacing is mostly good, considering there's no overarching plot that isn't dragged in from a prior movie. And, in fact, one suspects the movie's structure is entirely necessary, but something about the whole thing just felt oddly perfunctory. One is left with questions that don't need to be left, such as "now, what... Half-Blood Prince... what?" And "now... why weren't Malfoy and Harry both bounced out of school after their altercation?" It can be a bit maddening, and I can only guess what wound up on the cutting room floor to keep the running time at 2.5 hours. But without that information...

I guess at installment 6, I sort of was hoping for a bit more. Such as "The Half-Blood Prince" to mean a damn thing in the context of the film.

On the other hand, it was light-years less creepy and dumb than "Twilight". Which has a sequel coming soon, whose trailer was met with howls of laughter in our theater.


Michae said...

I wanted to like it more. I did think the teen romance worked well (a surprise to me I normally despise all such things) they did dumb down all half blood references until the revelation was quite meaningless.

J.S. said...

To be honest, I never really got the Harry Potter thing altogether in the first place. It's a bunch of wizard stereotypes plastered on top of a bunch of boarding school stereotypes. Well, I guess Harry Potter is entertaining, but I've heard a number of critics compare it to the original Star Wars trilogy, and I just can't get behond that. Star Wars created a whole new universe that seems pretty darn unique, while the universe of Harry Potter feels like it's cut and pasted together out of pieces of other things (although in a very skillful way).

The League said...

Well, there's certainly an argument to be made that Star Wars (Episode IV) isn't much more than a Samurai movie (specifically: The Hidden Fortress), mixed with a WWII fighter pilot movie, borrowing aspects of The Searchers. But I agree that the whole is stronger than the sum of the parts when it comes to Star Wars.

As per providing a mythology for a new generation, I more or less have to agree that the Potter books/ movies are providing a cultural touchstone and world. It may not be as far-reaching as the STar Wars universe, as it focuses inward on a few characters in a smaller area than a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

But, to be fair, Rowling's depiction in the books is far more complete than what appears in the movies. A throw-away line in the movies can be a page description in the book.

Simon MacDonald said...

I have not yet seen the movie but I will agree that the previous ones have not been as good as the books. This really isn't a complaint as most movies are not as good as the books their based upon.

Sadly this movie couldn't hope to be anything more than a setup for the 7th and 8th movies.

J.S. said...

Yeah, there are definitely derivative elements of Star Wars (even Lucas himself admitted that he based episodes 4-6 on Joseph Campbell style archetypes), but there they really are used to derive whole new ideas and concepts (you've got Jedi Knights with lightsabers and superpowers, tauntauns, the whole idea of "The Force", jawas, and so forth, and so on, and so on...). Rowlings takes Merlin and just sticks him in prep school.
I'm going to leave this alone, now, though, before I incur the wrath of a legion of Potter fans.
What I meant to say is that Harry Potter rocks.
But it ain't. No. Star Wars.

Simon MacDonald said...

@Jason Yeah if you've never read Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces it is well worth it. It is cool to re-read Beowulf to see how far back the hero's journey trope actually goes.

NTT said...

I can answer why the Harry Potter series is such a phenomenon.

It all boils down to the fact that Young Adult fiction, particulary Young Adult Fantasy before JK Rowlings was atrocious. And the good ones were complete downers.

When I was growing up I read every single young adult fantasy novel in the public library. Every Lloyd Alexander, Robin McKinley, Ursula LeGuin, C.S. Lewis and Diane Duane. And those were the above average ones. There were terrible complete crap novels not being listed. In particular, the characters in the young adult novels were almost always:

1. Helpless
2. Idiotic and stupid
3. Magic was always performed "at a great price" and took "sacrifice" and "loss".
4. C.S. Lewis was a terrible writer. Even in 7th grade I knew his prose sucked.

Did I mention most of them were downers? Wizard of Earthsea -- downer. So You Want to Be a Wizard -- Complete downer.

Harry Potter was a breath of fresh air. Magic was something to celebrated, learned and encouraged. You could shoot lightning and fly, it gave real fantasy and the characters were proactive! Magic is routine, it's part of the culture. You don't have to sacrifice a human soul just to summon. Hermione wanted to be the best! Read a Lloyed Alexander novel and you will throw the book at the stupid acts the protagonist does. Adolescents are smart. We are good at looking at the fastest most efficient way to solve a problem for our desires. Most of the characters exhibited such stupidity with their abilities and their resources. Harry Potter may be a milquetoast in the first few novels but at least he was trying to learn and achieve. And he kicked all sorts of ass at the end of the novels. The Potter series actually satisfied wish fulfillment for young readers.

Magic actually was established with a real ontology in the Potter series. Half the past writers couldn't write a magical framework to save their lives in their novels.

There is a different generational shift post modern cinema that the old YA fantasy novels didn't encapsulate.

So yeah, Harry Potter did it better and more commercially. The books may not be great literature but they are great fantasy genre YA novels bursting with ideas and concepts that an adolescent will eat up. And I have dozens of criticisms of Harry Potter but I'm not going to reduce it as a bunch of wizard stereotypes on boarding school stereotypes. Because it has much more originality than that.

There are better though. The Golden Compass trilogy is miles better than Harry Potter but it isn't as frothy or commercial. In fact, child wizards learning together was actually published prior to Harry Potter. Diane Duane's So You Want To Be a Wizard series predated JK Rowling. But if you look at what Diane Duane did and how JK Rowling amped the magic up to 11 in her books, you will see exactly why Rowling is a bestseller.

The League said...

The idea of NTT in Hogwarts robes warms the cockles of my heart. Most. cynical. wizard. ever.

I hadn't thought about it much, but what NTT describes is a lot of why I didn't enjoy YA fantasy as a kid and turned to novels written for an older audience before I was terribly interested in following any particular author or series.

Having read only the first Potter book, I can't comment too much. But I can say that Rowling seemed to at least respect her own characters and let them be the driving force rather than the plot. The characters go through recognizable phases, make decisions which DO make sense to the reader or viewer, and their trade-off for the magic in the context of the books, is the omnipresent threat of the Bad Guys.

I don't know how many kids ever wished they were the kids from The Chronicles of Narnia, but they have whole day camps set up where kid splay Quidditch.

And that @#$% is real, yo.

J.S. said...

Yeah, I only read the first Harry Potter book, too, so I'm by no means an expert on the books, and it's really not fair to be judging the series on the basis of the movies. In reference to the "idiotic and stupid" protagonists from some of the stories that NTT referenced, I think that what you were seeing there is an example of those Campbell style heroic archetypes, although some of the authors take them too far. Campbell's heroes go through definite stages, and the first one that they typically go through is "The Fool"- the unwise, uneducated, unexperienced doofus who overconfidently sets out on some dangerous adventure with an overinflated sense of self and a lack of appreciation regarding the danger he will be exposed to and the possible sacrifices that may be demanded of him (e.g., Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Ep. 4). You get these exaggerated fool type characters put into play at the beginning of books so the audience can bear witness to the transformation that the hero will undergo during the course of their journey.
Unfortunately, a lot of authors sort of overplay the whole foolishness aspect, and probably even moreso in books designed for kids (most authors don't give kids enough credit in terms of being able to understand subtlety).
Anyway, Harry may be smarter than your average Fool, but he still has some of the Fool's traits (including having treated his friends sort of questionably at times and internalizing some anger in a way that almost "turns him to the dark side" [for lack of a better phrase).
And I liked the Lloyd Alexander books. That pig keeper grew up to be an ass kicker.
Also, total footnote, but I'm not sure magic needs well establsihed ontology. At some point that just turns magic into another form of technology, and then it don't seem so magic anymore.

tachyonshuggy said...

I've never seen a HP movie. I have nothing against the franchise I just haven't done it yet. I've had the first one at the top of my Netflix queue for a long time but I guess it's in high demand cause it never shows up at my house.

The League said...

We have them all on DVD collecting dust. I can drive them over at some point if you promise Keora will be responsible for them.

mcsteans said...

tachyonshuggy, just so you know, the first 2 HP movies are kind of crappy. This is largely due to the directing of Chris Columbus. I would recommend reading the books (I own them all if you'd like to borrow) or just skipping to the 3rd movie.

Michael Corley said...

Clearly, Harry Potter gets folks talkin'... if nothing else.

NTT said...

I like Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces but sometimes I think his influence is overblown. In addition, his scholarship isn't as rigorous as it should be.

I would say that Harry Potter is definitely more original than taking Merlin and sticking him in prep school and is about as original as Star Wars.

And again, the HP series is a bestseller because it caters to the desires of the modern cinema generation. The Lloyd Alexander books...while well written...not so much. Ask any young adult reader and they will have no clue who Lloyd Alexander is.

Jeez I can't believe I spent all this time defending Harry Potter. It's not even that great. If I had my way, every YA reader should be reading Huckleberry Fin, My Antonia and Something Wicked This Way Comes. In that order. While walking to school. Both ways. And get off my lawn.

The League said...

I'm going to stay out of this debate as I can kind of see both sides.

But I cannot disagree about "Something Wicked This Way Comes".

Kids today don't get enough Ray Bradbury. Why, when I was a lad, if we weren't worried about evil carnivals, it was martian colonization or accidentally building a society that saw books as a threat. Also, get off MY lawn, sir.