As we approach the eighth and final installment in the “Harry Potter” series, what can I say? You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind’s blowing. The fans are already getting their tickets, while the less-committed have long since departed, especially since director David Yates has pretty much abandoned making sense of the plot for those who haven’t read J.K. Rowling’s books.
The fans will certainly find much to like in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” The exposition of “Part 1″ gives way to a climactic struggle in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) — no longer a boy, but a tough and resilient wizard — and his friends Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) must find and destroy the final Horcruxes (magical objects) in which dark magus Lord Voldemort has alchemically stored pieces of his soul to make himself immortal. The siege of Hogwarts is suitably apocalyptic, the long and oblique character arc of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) finally pays off, and Ralph Fiennes gets to be his no-nosed nastiest as Voldemort has a final face-off with his nemesis Harry. (And mercifully there isn’t any “I am your father, Harry” revelation in the denouement.)
The sceptics meanwhile can point to an opening scene where our heroes descend a roller-coasterlike track into a goblin vault, in what seems rather shamelessly like an ad for the inevitable Universal Studios theme park ride. There’s also a major life-or-death plot twist -no spoiler here — that is just flat out inexplicable based on what the film gives us. The Christ allegories, meanwhile, are entirely predictable, the fallback position of every fantasy film striving for significance from “The Matrix Revolutions” to “The Lord of the Rings.”
But after eight films in 10 years, and a $7 billion (and counting) box-office take, the “Potter” series is nothing less than historic in its success: It’s the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, right ahead of another British franchise, the “007″ series. It’s more than clear that the “Potter” films have been hugely influential on cinema, for better and for worse.
On its most fundamental level, the “Harry Potter” project represents the holy grail of modern commercial filmmaking: a movie based on a pre-existing property with an already enthusiastic fan-base. The search for such properties motivates projects like the “Transformers” and “Spiderman” series, and also the resurrection of old TV junk like “The Green Hornet” or “The Flintstones.” Furthermore, this tendency crowds out the development of new stories and ideas, and — as the above titles make clear — prizes material aimed at preteens at the expense of anything more mature.
Looking at the upcoming Warner Bros. lineup, it’s clear that they expect the DC Comics’ superhero roster to fill in the void left by the “Potter” series, although the underperforming “Green Lantern” (opening in Japan next month) does not bode well, and it’s not clear these films target the widespread demographic that turned out for the wands and wizards saga.
It’s worth noting, though, that while many have tried to bottle the formula that led to the “Potter” series’ success, the results have been mediocre at best. The obvious copycat move was to find another popular series of children’s fantasy novels to adapt. Yet “The Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, which started strong, crashed and burned with “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” in 2010, while a sequel to 2007′s “The Golden Compass” has yet to arrive. “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” (2010) also under-performed, despite the presence of original “Potter” director Chris Columbus. Perhaps it was the “boy wizard” angle, thought Disney, but “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” barely made its money back.
This underlines the fact that the “Potter” series did many things right. When they wanted light and cheery, they hired Chris Columbus to direct; when they needed a turn in a darker direction, in came Alfonso Cuaron; the series grew in intensity as its audience grew up. And yet despite the frequent changes in directors, the series managed to keep a consistent tone and largely respected the books. It also had the advantage of timing — after the success of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, every studio wanted its own fantasy franchise, but Warners was already positioned: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” opened in 2001 — a few weeks before Jackson’s film hit the screens, actually.
More than any other factor, though, the “Potter” films have employed almost every British actor of distinction, and with a few bold strokes, each of them has managed to etch a distinct presence on the screen. The best of them — Rickman’s sneering, inscrutable Severus Snape; Michael Gambon’s warm and wizened Dumbledore; or Helena Bonham-Carter’s gloriously wild and wicked Bellatrix Lestrange — overflow with color and personality. This is actually harder than it may seem; go back and watch Liam Neeson or Ewan McGregor — both fine actors — utterly fail to establish any sort of character in “The Phantom Menace” for a point of comparison. For all the “Potter” films’ great special effects — the Dementors get my vote — it’s the acting that has made the series stand apart.