A year or two ago, I was sitting in a screenwriting class when the professor made everyone pair up into groups of two and come up with ideas for a screenplay we’d be writing that semester. It was the first day, so we didn’t know each other and I ended up with some random guy. Neither of us were sure what we wanted to write about (it was literally the first day and we had no warning we’d be starting that quickly), so we ended up talking about what kind of movies we liked. Luckily, we had similar interests; after agreeing that the Star Wars prequels and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were both underrated, we starting talking about the Harry Potter series. Then he said something that has stayed with me ever since:
He said that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (of course Philosopher’s Stone outside of the US) was the end of an era – and it really was the last of that certain kind of blockbuster. Over the past week, I rewatched the entire series (inspired by a recent trip to Universal Studios where I experienced the amazing addition of Diagon alley to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter). This was my first time doing a marathon of the series and only the second time I’d seen the last two installments, but what that kid said to me really stood out while watching the series this time around.
Even though it came out in 2001, the first film has a timeless feel to it. Horrible CGI aside, Sorcerer’s Stone feels like it could’ve been made in the 80s or 90s. It has an amazing John Williams score, full of recognizable themes and melodies that we don’t hear too often in film compositions anymore – there’s no pounding drum beats or Inception style “bwuuuungs” to be found here. Director Chris Columbus has been criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for creating a boring looking film that lacked any real bite, but the cinematography in this film is my favorite in the entire series. There is little to no actual handheld camera action; instead, Dutch angles and odd looking zooms are employed, helping to create that story book quality. I won’t say it feels exactly like an Amblin film – it’s too British for that – but Columbus did get his start writing movies like Gremlins and The Goonies. Whether intentional or not, it just might be part of his filmmaking DNA.
The second film didn’t hold up as well for me. It was less whimsical and less suited for Columbus’ sensibilities. After having not seen it in a couple years, I now understand why many prefer the third film. It is great, but about five minutes shy of perfection. A few things from the book should’ve been left in to clear things up, but that is the unfortunate nature of adaptations. Four might be my second favorite film of the series. What can I say? I love the absurdity of a film that involves fighting dragons and resurrecting evil wizards, but also has a solid forty minute block in the middle that plays like a CW teen drama. Five and Six have their moments, but both have scenes that either feel too rushed or too drawn out. The seventh film, with its much maligned camping sections, plays like an indie film at moments. Take away the wands and the spells and it’s not hard at all to imagine it being a film that would play at Sundance. The last film is a satisfying conclusion to the franchise. It might not function well as its own singular film, but one out of eight being unable to stand on it’s own ain’t bad. I will say this: The last two films unfortunately cut out some great character moments with Dudley and Malfoy. After spending a decade with these characters, it would’ve been nice to see them have a more satisfying ending.
I never was the biggest Potter fan, but being of my generation (born 1994), it was hard not to get caught up in the franchise at least a little bit. In one of my favorite scenes from Boyhood, the characters go to a Harry Potter book launch. Even if you only saw the films, those book launches were such a big deal to people my age (Mason was two years younger than me while his sister was my age). I used to be upset that the films got so dark and looked more and more like modern day blockbusters, but now I understand why they got so dark – they grew up with their audience. I remember seeing the first film in the theater with my dad. As a matter of fact, I ended up seeing all the films in theaters. Eventually, I started going with my friends, and that group of friends changed over time. That being said, I actually remember who I saw each film with. I still maintain that Star Wars is the Star Wars of my generation, but Potter had a similar ability to infect the popular culture, especially in the minds of children. Anyone my age can tell you that it’s “leviosa, not leviosar” or “you’re a wizard, Harry.” Most of us have attempted Dobby impressions and when (spoilers) he died, it was like our childhood died a little with him. I had a similar feeling to that which I had after seeing Toy Story 3. Andy was growing up, and so was I. Childhood was over. Now, of course I don’t think these films belong to Millennials/Generation Y (or whatever you want to call it), but when characters are close to your age and growing up with you, it gives you a different connection to them. We see this on television all the time, but not as often in film.
Aside from the films themselves maturing, an argument could be made that the films were consistent in representing the conventions of the typical blockbuster films at the time in which they were made. The Deathly Hallows: Part II had scenes where I couldn’t tell what was going on between the shaky cam and the editing, along with music that I couldn’t hum to you a minute after it ended. Instead of a gorgeous Drew Struzan painted poster, the last film had a boring Photoshop job. With that said, what other movie from that year didn’t have that kind of poster or music or editing? That’s just the way blockbusters were made at the time. Now, I want to make abundantly clear that I’m not one of those people who believe that popular films now are any worse or better than those of years past; the prism of time allows us to forget those worth forgetting while modern duds are more likely to linger in our minds. There are still great films being made today, but one can’t argue that they are incredibly different.
I can’t think of another generation that had films grow up alongside them like mine did. Harry Potter and Toy Story are the only two examples I can think of, but they are two powerful examples. Sadly, I’m not sure new generations will have the same luxury, because films like Sorcerer’s Stone just aren’t made anymore. Now, this is probably because the market was flooded with lesser attempts to capture that lightning in a bottle, but major blockbusters with younger protagonists are few and far between as a result. They do appear from time to time (Super 8, Earth to Echo), but movies like these are more of a tribute to that kind of film than they are actually that kind of film, if that makes any sense. Unfortunately, a series like Harry Potter probably wouldn’t be made today. Even its prequel series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them cast Eddie Redmayne, who is older than the leads of the original series.
The argument that franchises have grown up with their audiences and left children in the dust is hardly an original argument; heck, I remember this being said when the first Transformers film came out. The original cartoon was for children and the film was for those same children who had grown up, but what were their children to watch? A watered down retelling of the same story? (I haven’t seen a Transformers cartoon since Armada, so save your hate comments, this in no way is a slam against the quality of modern Transformers cartoons). I’m not trying to restate the overused and overblown talking points that there is no originality and sequels and remakes will be the death of us all, but rather that children are no longer thought of as the primary market. Sure, kids love The Avengers, but is The Avengers made for those kids or people Joss Whedon’s age? The “hide the zucchini” joke in Age of Ultron makes me think the latter is the case.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is last of a certain kind of film, but also the beginning of a series that does something that could very well never happen again. It’s a pretty amazing phenomenon that happened at the right place and the right time, but with a story that would’ve been great no matter when it was published.