It must be some otherworldly spell that brings me back to the Harry Potter movies again and again, considering I’ve never completed one Harry Potter book. Warner Brothers’ prized franchise, the Harry Potter films, not only propelled J.K. Rowling’s character into cinematic history, but further cemented the young wizard’s status as an international icon. Nevertheless, with a franchise now spanning five movies, Harry Potter has always grappled with his cinematic stamina: can Harry Potter not only overcome He Who Should Not Be Named, but also the crippling sickness that arises when a franchise falls pray to its own trite formulas? So, today, Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire battles it out with Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix to see which, if any, infuses the Potter franchise with enough cinematic art and energy to propel it through the rest of the franchise.
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Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix marks English director David Yate’s first crack at Rowling’s powerful spell-casting prodigy. In the film, Harry Potter grapples with Voldemort’s psychic-penetrations as the very institution that regulates magic, The Ministry of Magic, finds itself imploding, while denying Voldemort’s return. From its dark and tense beginning, the film establishes a less-childish tone for Hogwarts students, and instead, lounges in the uneasy development of its adolescent characters as they face some very adult situations. Although light on spectacle and magic, the film instead makes a fancy dazzle of Daniel Radcliff’s well-practiced portrayal of Potter — a young wizard who must watch the world fall behind him as he alone nears the deadliest moment of his life.
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The Defending Champion
In 2005, after plodding through three films, audiences finally met He Who Shall Not Be Named, courtesy of director Mike Newell. Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire follows an under-aged Harry Potter as he’s forced into a dangerous competition of magical games designed to test the various wizards of Hogwarts. Packed with dragons, aquatic creatures, magic, and enough pubescent hormones to make the most liberal Baptist cringe, the film takes the safety of the first three Harry Potter films and leaves it at the door of its third act, when Voldemort is resurrected in all his reptilian glory. Finally, Harry Potter comes face to face with the visage of his destiny — only to retreat back into the false safety of Hogwarts and a rather shoehorned happy ending which betrays the film’s tragic climax.
To be honest, when Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban premiered, I felt that the franchise was heading into its downward slope. The films were quickly becoming a routine of Harry meeting a challenge, arguing with his friends, whining about Voldemort possibly coming, and then saving the day. Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire began in this same vein. Harry Potter is forced into a multi-wizard cup and deals with his friendships falling apart due to typical “school drama.” All the while, Voldemort is supposedly coming, and something mysterious is happening behind the scenes that Dumbledore won’t talk about. Sound familiar?
However, at the end of the film, as Potter ventures with his friend Cedric into the foliage maze to retrieve the prize, things take a nasty turn. Cedric is killed and Potter tortured at the hands of a resurrected and amazingly portrayed Voldemort. It really is the film’s crowning moment, because it is so different than what has come before with these films. However, after Harry returns, the film quickly recoils into safe and familiar territory and forces an upbeat ending of “everything is changing.” This tone is instantly cast aside with the very opening of Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix.
At the beginning of Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix, Harry is lost and angsting over his future destiny. Instead of us waiting thirty minutes to get into any real conflict, David Yates shoves Harry Potter’s potential expulsion from Hogwarts into our faces, instantly putting us in Potter’s corner. From there, it’s a tense journey. Hogwarts falls apart when the Ministry of Magic attempts to control news of Voldemort’s return, and Potter’s friends force him to secretly teach his fellow classmates how to defend themselves against Voldemort. This works nicely, as it allows Potter to finally grow into a mature male who reflects on his accomplishments. Harry Potter is becoming something of a legend. However, this is brutally contrasted with Harry not being able to cope with that legend’s price — Voldemort invades his mind, tortures his memories, and tempts Harry with the idea of using his power for evil. Oddly enough, as these familiar institutions begin to crumble for the sake of throwing Harry Potter into a dangerous situation, so does the predictable formula of previous Harry Potter films.
Unlike previous Harry Potter films, the main action occurs only at the end. Here, an all-out battle between wizards erupts on screen, culminating in an elemental showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore (the fight plays on all the right cues). What’s most fascinating is that this erupting climax funnels down into a very personal moment, as Harry is possessed by Voldemort and must use discipline and will to expel the Dark Lord. The following scene is truly powerful as Harry’s friends arrive just in time to see an exhausted and crippled Harry lying among the battlefield debris of Voldemort and Dumbledore’s showdown, a flesh-and-blood legend rather than some idealized boy.
For some reason, it finally felt like these children were learning what it meant to be adults. The childish Harry of the previous movies is gone, replaced with a darker, edgier, more determined Harry who actually seems like he has the potential to beat Voldemort. This is a welcomed treat after four films of a Harry who’s reliant on others to succeed — although Harry’s cowering presence during the fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort was slightly annoying.
Let’s get to it. The winner is:
It’s difficult comparing two films that both attempt to do the same thing: push Harry Potter into a more serious adult. However, if even by simple virtue of being the latest, Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix truly pushes Harry into a situation that is not only more serious, but also more emotional in that the legend of Potter becomes flesh and blood. While Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire introduced Voldemort, it’s Harry’s latest adventure that sets Harry on the path to becoming a serious adult ready to face not only himself, but also the cinematic responsibility that comes with being a well-developed character.