August 24, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Flick

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This article was originally published online on Jul 29.

There is a curious breed of person for whom Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which opened Wednesday, is new material. Bleary-eyed, paranoid, misguidedly noble, this breed has halted all Potterland talk over the past few months, perhaps with a slight twitch: “I’m waiting for the movie to come out.” It is for him that the traditional review would be necessary, but then he’d probably never read this anyway, out of a desire to avoid “spoilers.” A Sisyphean task, usually, but I think he’s up to it — illiteracy has its advantages.
That settled, we can address each other like adults. Just who are we, exactly? And what’s become of us? Harry’s development used to mirror our own; the question of House Sorting wasn’t so much a knowing piece of kitsch as a speculative necessity (Dumbledore may have been a little late, but he was definitely coming — we would have to be ready). Now, thanks to publicity ploys on the page and screen, not to mention the ever-growing girth of successive installments, wizarding chronology has slipped a few years. Harry’s still toiling away at Hogwarts, but we’d be studying post-secondary witchcraft, if such a thing exists. With each release, we return to the series a little more overgrown, a little more exposed. Impossibly, the books hold up. Why, then, does the sixth movie feel like the belch of a patchy tween focus group, all Degrassi dialogue and wizard snogging?
Half-Blood Prince is the darkest installment of a series long derided for its rosy moral simplicity. But what Anthony Lane expertly calls the film’s “bruised, lead-and-sepia” aesthetic is no more than a gloomily beautiful cover for an adaptation in which all murkiness is ignored or neutralized, in which even the slightest complexity is thoroughly Jonas-proofed. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves content themselves to heavy-handed, and heavily calculated, emphasis on angsty couplets: Harry-Ginny, Ron-Lavender, Ron-Hermoine, and, angstiest of them all, Harry-Ron. While the approach highlights Jessie Cave’s clingy Lavender Brown as the film’s best character, it blunts the impact of the political and extra-political power struggles that keep the series intriguing, especially when we’ve got our own Chosen One here in Muggleville.
The film is particularly nervous about the book’s darkest point — the creeping similarities between Harry and school-age Voldemort. When Harry and Dumbledore enter the memories stored in Dumbledore’s Pensieve, we’re supposed to learn that Voldemort’s childhood was no easier than Harry’s, and that Voldemort was just as talked-about and charming as a student, not to mention a whole lot smarter. But the film’s adolescent Dark Lord comes off just as creepy as its adult Dark Lord, if not quite as reptilian.
And there’s a sound we can hear amidst the snogging — an equally-awkward realism that feeds on the film’s preoccupation with lockerroom-ish love. The blockbuster adaptation of the century’s most successful work of children’s fantasy is somehow anti-escapist; where are the flashy spells, where the billowing cloaks? These Hogwarts students look familiar. They look, in fact, like the oversmug highschoolers in line at the film premiere, with equal obligations to Diagon Alley and Urban Outfitters; they look like Gryffindor hipsters. The movie is full of Muggle-centric plot tweaks, beginning with the opening scene. The sixth book opens with a very funny conversation between the new Minister of Magic, lionlike Rufus Scrimgoeur, and the desperate Muggle Prime Minister. Perhaps thinking that bit a little too political, or a little too magical, Yates opts to begin the film in a London metro, empty save Harry, Dumbledore, and a very attractive young waitress. Instead of sending Harry, Ron and Hermoine in the Invisibility Cloak to tail Draco Malfoy, Yates has them peer down at him from a rooftop. What, does Yates think the Invisibility Cloak would have broached our collective sense of believability? Hadn’t the whole ability-to-do-magic bit already taken care of that?
I admit that there’s something dishonest in judging a movie based on a book. But when that book has been read by a solid majority of the movie’s audience, and when it’s essentially a 650-page shooting script (if not a towering work of literary artistry), one cannot help but be drawn to the deviations. The series’ allure is in the lushness of its created world, and when Yates dims that world in an effort to bring it closer to our own, he castrates himself. Save for the Pensieve and the stunning Inferi sequence, the film is oddly straight-faced. Yates’ most fetishized object is Malfoy’s magical cabinet, a decidedly un-sexy artifact which calls to mind the humbler part of The Prestige.
When the first Potter films came out, I told myself I would never see them for fear of encroachment on my own flat-footed imagination, and I was right. Now, when I picture Quidditch or Hagrid or Hogwarts, it’s with the Warner Bros. stamp of approval. But after seeing Half-Blood Prince, my meek inner artist is undented and emboldened. Horace Slughorn, the gamesmanly new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, is supposed to look like a walrus. Unable to picture that, I substituted in William Howard Taft. But the film’s Slughorn doesn’t look like a walrus or William Howard Taft. He just looks like some guy.
What we’re to take away from all this is that magic can happen in our own lives. As we know from Disney Channel original movies and cable news, the film’s brand of magic — patronizing, unimaginative — really can happen. But does anybody want it to?