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Fantasy Movies Reign Supreme: Reviews

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, written by Steve Kloves from the novel by J.K. Rowling, directed by Mike Newell, 145 min, 2005

Science fiction and fantasy movies have dominated the top-spending slots in the movie ecology for so long that we hardly think about it any more. These are the types of movies that cost big bucks, mainly because of the special effects, and they have been, generally speaking, the movies that cause a spectacular splash at the box office. But the vast amount of money involved warps the creative process in a number of ways.

Any smart business person wants a return on investment, and there are a number of strategies in the movie world to recoup money spent. One of them is to base your movie on proven property, and this means a proliferation of sequels. As the most cursory glance at this logic indicates, sequels are rarely great, even if -- perhaps especially if -- the original is a compelling work. Another common bastardization of this logic is to remake the original itself, which is probably an even worse strategy than creating a sequel. More on remakes once I get to King Kong.

Another common strategy in the movie business is to find a bestselling book and adapt it for the big screen. Writing is a field that can take risks, at least relatively; say a novel takes a year for one person to write, while the movie version would take 100+ people a year to make. Books outnumber movies by a few orders of magnitude, which makes it easy for the suits to grab up the books that stick and ignore the rest.

This process isnít a guaranteed winner either, since it's not easy to adapt a book to the big screen with any level of excellence. Honestly, Iím glad there isnít a guaranteed strategy because Hollywood (along with everyone else) would be beating it to death.

Into this situation came two fantasy movies, both adaptations of blockbuster novels: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Iíve written about each Tolkien movie here on Challenging Destiny (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King), and made brief comments about the Harry Potter series. Even if I didnít care that much for the last two Tolkien movies or the first two Harry Potter movies, the fact remains that they were surprisingly solid. Against all odds, here were some fantasy movies, adapted from books, that didn't, well, suck.

It may be hard to remember now but Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Philosopherís Stone came after a long drought in fantasy movies, if indeed there ever were any good ones. While science fiction movies were not consistently stellar, there were at least a couple of examples of great ones. Not so fantasy. To counter the SF examples of 2001 and Blade Runner and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, fantasy could claimÖ what? The mind shudders to think of Conan, a pair of movies that matched their star's intelligence, or Dragonheart, some smelly faux-medieval dragon-as-My-Little-Pony cheese, or even the much-beloved Labyrinth, a treat for younger viewers but not the fantasy that grown-ups (or readers of written fantasy) might have been hoping for.

By 2005, the situation was almost completely reversed. Science fiction blockbusters, long the staple of the summer movie season, busted no blocks this year. The failure in big budget SF was a long time coming and probably a deserved fate -- the lesson I would draw is that you ignore quality at your peril. One qualification: Iím not talking about written science fiction, which has been humming along in all kinds of glory and diversity, but rather science fiction in the movies and in the particular form known as the big budget blockbuster which is the one most associated with science fiction in the public mind. I will be writing more about this in the future, because the onscreen SF spectacular was always a bit problematic. But the artistic depths plumbed by Star Wars Episode III can serve as the exemplar of what happened.

So... science fiction movies are dead, for the moment, and fantasy movies are the next hope for the genre fan? Not so fast. The success of the Rowling and Tolkien movies have brought their own imitators and sequels. Are these new ones solid adaptations and not typical franchise crap? We will proceed with fingers crossed.

Harry Potter is a young orphan who discovers that he is from a family of wizards, that he can go to the magical Hogwarts boarding school each year, and that an evil sorcerer named Voldemort killed his parents and desperately wants to kill Harry too. The series will finish with the seventh book, each book representing a year at Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has Harry back at Hogwarts for the 4th year of his magical education. He and his friends Hermione and Ron are growing older, growing up. As the movie begins, the three friends go to the Quidditch World Cup, which is interrupted by the Death Eaters (in the first of a few confusing sequences in the movie). Harry and his friends survive but an evil omen has been set.

Back at Hogwarts, there is a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Madeye Moody, fated not to last out the school year, of course. The big news is the Tri-Wizard tournament: two other wizard schools have arrived, and a champion from each is selected by the titular goblet of fire to compete for fame and glory. And somehow Harry gets his name in the cup, even though heís not supposed to.

The bulk of the story is made up of the three tournament-related tasks. Goblet of Fire is about as episodic as the other stories, in either Rowlingís book versions or the trimmed down movie versions. Dumbledore, the head of Hogwarts, warns the competitors that the tournament is dangerous, and I see this warning as symptomatic of the entire series and the typically episodic and demented plot structure. I would say that a Harry Potter story is more like the Darwin Awards than an understandable plot; as others have commented, there is some inherent sadism in the way that the dangers of wizardry are magnified and reflected in the boarding school setting. What kind of lousy wizard/upperclassman are you if you don't risk life and limb in a strangely useless tournament? Group pressure to do insane stunts makes Hogwarts like a years-long frat initiation.

Just like the last movie, there are moments here that feel disconnected -- the previous movie concentrated its confusion in the climax, while this one spreads it out (the ending itself is deadly clear). The kids have a Yule Ball that contributes greatly to this disjointed aspect -- the ball had some character moments that were trying too hard, and nothing seemed to follow except by non sequitur.

Harry Potter is clearly growing up. I like how the shock of seeing these child actors as gawky adolescents makes this more obvious than in the book. Ron in particular is turning into a surly git. This contributes more to Rowling's stated theme of Harry's passage through adolescence than some of Rowling's plotting. Apart from a rite of passage, what does the Harry Potter series mean? Rowling doesnít seem to go in for the big statements, which can be a relief. The point is something like stay true to yourself and to your friends, be loyal and bold; none of this is new, but and Rowling doesnít stint on the bad situations for Harry, thankfully. Iíve complained too much about the need for a well-told adventure stories to not give Rowling kudos for what sheís done, and what the makers of the movies have accomplished.

The special effects continue to be used in a heartfelt, integrated way. Iím feeling hopeful that movie makers are finally figuring out what to do with the CGI effects. But perhaps itís harder to integrate them into live action? I would point out the example of Pixar (and the excellent The Incredibles), but now that I think about it there have been plenty of pure CGI movies that havenít been that great either. No surprise: it comes down to the power of your story.

So the fourth iteration of the Harry Potter series in movie form is not as inspired as the third, but itís at least better than the first two. I would attribute this partly to the direction and partly the growing skill of the main actors (only partly, otherwise this one would be the best of the quartet). Iím glad to see a series like this defying the general rule that sequels get progressively less interesting -- and, more pertinently for the studio, less financially rewarding.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire clocks in at about two and a half hours. The running time is between that of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and King Kong, and it feels long -- in fact all three do. Iíll be grumping about this more in relation to King Kong (see below).

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from the novel by C.S. Lewis, directed by Andrew Adamson, 2005, 130 min.

I read the books of C.S. Lewis obsessively when I was younger, especially the seven books in the Narnia series. When I revisit the Narnia books as an adult, I remember all the bits and pieces, right down to the illustrations by Pauline Baynes (which still show up in most modern editions). As a child, I didn't worry about the allegory, or get upset about Lewis' kitchen-sink approach to creating a fantasy world. The books are written with undeniable skill... for a specific age group.

As I grew up, I didn't care as much about the Narnia series, partly due to overfamiliarity, but also due to the fact that I found books that suited my age more closely. The truism that children's and young adult fiction should have a protagonist just a few years older than the reader doesn't quite fit here; Lewis presents a wide range of ages in his protagonists in this series, but overall the series keeps its focus on a young reading age. This is his goal, and he fulfills it. All the same, rereading the books now, I don't have the same fondness for the stories and situations, probably because I can see some of the machinery clanking away behind the scenes. I see this as a big part of Tolkien's objection to the Narnia series; the books function well enough, but from a writer's point of view, a certain elegance is missing.

The movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe captures this sense that it is a vehicle for a clunky message directed at children. It's a faithful adaptation, which is more than we could perhaps have hoped for, and the counter-argument is that Lewis, a skilled writer, knew what he was doing. Fine, but I prefer works of art that have less of a gap in their focus of attention. To compare apples and oranges, I think King Kong would be fine for older kids but it doesn't feel child-directed in the same way (as mentioned, this is related to the fact that the main characters are grown-ups). But Harry Potter has young adolescents for heroes and heroines, and it still feels more sophisticated.

And do movie adaptations have to have a contentious relationship with the source material? Is it really a criticism to say that the writing and directing team here didn't recognize all of Lewis' faults and correct them in the process? A book or a movie is a weird bit of alchemy, and taking out one ingredient or replacing it could fatally affect the recipe that produced the magic in the first place. True, and again I'm glad that this is a faithful adaptation that doesn't mess things up too much. Neither does it risk much. An adaptation can go wrong for many reasons, and one of them is a misjudged sense of what to change. I've come to see that application of judgment is key to making a stellar adaptation, with Peter Jacksonís The Lord of the Rings as the clearest example. Jackson and his team made some bad calls in those three movies, but other changes elevated them far above expectations. I'll return to this issue when I discuss King Kong, because I see it as an example of some notably erroneous judgment calls. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there doesn't seem to be any of these higher-level judgment calls at all, and that makes it a lesser film as I see it.

The story follows the template of a visit to a magical realm: first establish our mundane reality, then take the protagonists through a portal of some kind. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starts with the mundane but terrifying: it's World War II, and the Blitz is striking London. One night, four children barely make it to the bomb shelter in time, and their mother ships them out to the countryside for their own safety. The children are Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy; Peter and Susan are a few years into teenaged life, Edmund is the middle child, and Lucy is about six. They arrive at the estate of an elderly Professor, whose housekeeper has the serious mission of making sure the kids don't disturb the great man. They are immediately bored. One advantage of the film is the relationship between the kids; it is convincingly strained and petulant when it needs to be, and charmed and touching when required.

Lucy discovers the wardrobe of the title while they are playing hide-and-seek. Being magical, it sometimes leads to the otherworldly realm of Narnia; Lucy meets a faun named Tumnus, while Edmund meets the evil White Witch. All four kids go through at the half hour point in the movie, which feels about right in terms of pacing. They soon discover that Tumnus has been arrested and they are next on the Witch's list. The kids are sheltered by a pair of friendly beavers, but Edmund betrays them.

Edmund's betrayal is the heart of the movie. It's serious stuff, since it has life and death consequences for all of them. In the logic of the book and movie, Edmund throws away his family ties because of his treatment by his siblings and because the Witch offers him some Turkish Delight. When things are patched up later, at great cost, an unspoken part of the dynamic is that the siblings choose to treat him better than they did in the past. But he also did fall for the wiles of the Witch without much thought.

Two major threads run through the rest of the movie: a battle between the good creatures and the bad, and the redemption of Edmund. The central good character is a lion named Aslan; Aslan gives his life as sacrifice to reclaim Edmund, and then comes back to life in time for the climactic battle. The children are prophesied to lead the forces of good, and they duly do so. It's a bookend for the war scenes that begin the film -- the kids are no longer cowering in a bomb shelter, they now have the ruthlessness of adults and can stab and shoot people without much in the way of compunction. The schematic division between good and evil changes the lesson away from a warning about war towards a more problematic triumphing of raw power. Sure, they have to fix up the relationships on their own side, but upon his apparent cleansing Edmund becomes just another cog in the machine of war.

I liked the previews for this movie a lot better before the animals started talking -- this is not something the film-making team can leave out, considering the source material, but it does feel more fake than it needs to. The special effects are notably patchy, with some very obvious bluescreen in the middle segments. The character of Aslan also feels wrong, not having half of the believability of King Kong, effects-wise.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe made a fair amount of money at the box office, and so we can expect to see at least a few more entries in the series. I will likely go see subsequent movies, due to my childhood attachment to the books. However, my expectations will be low.

King Kong, written by Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson from the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, directed by Peter Jackson, 2005, 185 min.

What is the artistic fate of a remake? Almost without exception, the movie remake can be considered as a soul-crushing exercise in money-grubbing, the creativity of movie making transmogrified into bar-coding a new batch of product. Well, how does this differ from the normal process of the film industry, you ask? I would say that a remake is far more constrained, by its nature a straitjacket that doesn't attract the type of person who could create something original and appealing out of the situation.

So my comments about King Kong will need to be taken with a grain of salt, because Peter Jackson has clearly tried to do the impossible: retain some of the shape and texture of the original 1933 version of this movie, while injecting some of his own personality and style. His ambition is enormous, and this is to be commended.

Unfortunately, ambition is not the same as execution. In the pursuit of making King Kong all things, Jackson has made it next to nothing. The pieces don't fit together, and this situation is made all the more obvious because of the movie's running time. At over 3 hours, there's too much time to ponder what the heck is going on -- going wrong -- even with all of the action setpieces.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had a disjointed feel to its narrative, but that movie at least had an excuse, based as it was on 750-page book. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came from a considerably shorter book, but suffered from other problems. There's no comparable length excuse for King Kong -- the original movie is only 100 minutes long.

I can see how Peter Jacksonís King Kong happened, though. Itís the impulse to go big, to light off the fireworks, to provide a splendid show. I would call it spectacle vs. showcraft (for lack of a better word). By which I mean to say: itís relatively easy to throw ever more grand spectacles around, but to make them memorable or interesting or worth the audienceís time, there has to be some craft involved. Peter Jackson has proved he can do it, particularly with The Fellowship of the Ring, but the pressures involved in outdoing the seminal 1933 version seem to be too much for him.

Basically, this movie is at least an hour too long. Jackson had the power to release a long movie, but I would argue that some strictures are almost always artistically helpful. See lean and mean Terminator vs. the flabby and self-indulgent Terminator 2. All art is self-indulgent in one way or another, of course, but the key is to have a balance, to earn the right to indulge from the audience. Jackson tries hard, but he's flinging his efforts in all directions.

Let's examine the structure of the movie to see what happened. King Kong divvies up roughly into thirds. The long first section takes place in Depression-era New York City, introducing the down-on-her-luck vaudeville girl Ann Darrow, the scheming director Carl Denham, and the playwright and sometime screenwriter Jack Driscoll. Carl has a mysterious map, and he wants to shoot his new picture on this map's Skull Island. The voyage happens next, and we don't get to the ominous island until 1 hour and 10 minutes in. In the middle section of the movie, the natives of Skull Island sacrifice the beautiful blonde to Kong, and the men determine to get her back, led by Jack who has fallen for Ann on the trip. It's a pretty high body count in this section, with plenty of chases, spills and close calls, involving dinosaurs, giant slugs, scary bugs, even three t. rexes. Ann and Kong form a relationship of sorts; he protects her from the plenitude of dinosaurs and she amuses him with her vaudeville routines. Another hour and 10 minutes go by (which means we are now at the 2 hour and 20 minute point), and Kong is captured. The narrative skips ahead to a Broadway show with Kong as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Needless to say the chromed steel chains can't hold the mighty King Kong and he soon rampages through New York looking for Ann. The famous climax happens atop the Empire State Building, just like in the original.

Jackson really seems to be ignoring the fact that, yes, character development is important, but more is not necessarily more. A certain amount of stockness is ok in a genre piece, and all of the leisurely character moments in the world wonít necessarily make King Kong anything other than a genre piece. Strictures are important, and a good genre movie will take what it can get, or slip things in a sly manner, or, in rarer cases, turn expectations completely upside down and focus on characters entirely. With this in mind, it's clear that the situation is made worse by how intense and frightening the monster segments are. A giant ape fighting a t. rex would not really be appropriate in a character piece like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- in fact it would unbalance the movie and make the character moments a source of restlessness. If Jackson wants it both ways, he has to take a different approach than the one has taken here.

Iím not arguing that every movie has to be internally consistent to the nth degree, or that every movie has to be the same. But these liberties on the part of the audience's attention have to be earned, and not taken for granted by the creators, as I've mentioned.

I think that Jackson knows all this, because later in the movie we cut from Skull Island to the Broadway show without the same painstaking setup of every single bloody element. The ship is pulling away from the dock, the ship is sailing, the ship is caught in the fog, the ship is on the rocks, and so forth. The return voyage happens later in the film when there's some dramatic momentum to prop up, but that doesn't seem to stop Jackson earlier, when some initial momentum would be nice.

We buy the transition from the island to the Broadway show -- why not use this technique earlier on? Cut some flab, and we'll never even notice it was gone. The team that adapted Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire tried this approach, but it backfired, since we have to know a lot about the characters and their histories and their motivations to make heads or tales of the storyline. King Kong strikes me as having a different type of plot than Harry Potter. In King Kong, as much as the writers protest, it's more like this: movie director's megalomania = excuse to move the action to a "deserted" island. Some schematic qualities to the characters would not have gone amiss in this situation.

What does King Kong mean? I donít know, actually. Iím not convinced by critics of the movie who say that itís a vision of racism or colonialism, although there are some disturbing moments in the depiction of the natives of Skull Island. I actually see these things as empty signifiers, rather parched of meaning at this point, like a kind of postmodern adventure story taking old fears and symbols out of context. At one point, the big hairy primate threatening the glowing blonde white woman would have had more impact than it does now. And sure enough, the original King Kong from 1933 was a horror movie and this time around itís ostensibly a love story. Symbols out of context indeed.

On a slightly different note, Iím happy that we are finally at a point when special effects are entirely merged into the story. And what a character portrait of Kong! While the human characters were often given too much time and attention, I was always fascinated by Kong. I think it was a mistake to go the Jaws route and not show the main monster/creature until so late in the story. Kong is indeed king, and he has emotions as much as he has mightiness. The special effect work here blows anything else I've seen out of the running; never mind Gollum or anything from Star Wars, Kong is entirely convincing, and itís a fabulous performance by Andy Serkis and the animators who transformed him from human to giant ape.

I think this movie has many problems, but appropriate use of special effects is not the issue here. King Kong cost a whopping pile of money, which dictates, to a certain extent, that it be an overblown spectacle. Iíll be more interested to see what happens once the cost comes down and freedom of imagination can correspond to freedom of moviemaking. Although I bet that a low budget piece, like Primer for example, would be totally destroyed by any special effects of this scale.

Iím also curious to see what Jackson will be doing next. I think he did a heroic job with The Lord of the Rings, even if it spun a bit out of control by the end of the third movie. That extended ending was perhaps a portent of unbalanced storylines to come in King Kong.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa.

Last modified: April 11, 2006

Copyright © 2006 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #22

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