MirrorMask and Harry Potter 6: two sides of British fantasy

I’m trying to catch up on the films I’ve seen over the last week, in which I was a bit unavailable and therefore couldn’t blog. As it happens, both were British PG-rated fantasy films, but while I wasn’t crazy about both of them, one was, oh, a little bit more successful than the other.

Dave McKean, UK / USA, 2005
Viewed on DVD, July 19

McKean, as you may know, is a collage artist known for his work with Neil Gaiman, particularly the covers for the seminal, bookstore-favorite Vertigo/DC adult fantasy series The Sandman. Indeed, Gaiman wrote the script for this, McKean’s first, and so far only, feature film. The other collaborator you may be interested in is the Jim Henson Company, known for some 1980s dark fantasy hits. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, so I didn’t have my nostalgia goggles on for this one.

I did enjoy The Sandman, however, so I was a bit surprised to see the PG rating on this one. In fact, it’s not just the explicit content that’s gone from this film, but the complexity and sophistication as well. McKean and Gaiman seem interested in presenting a very basic fairy tale, by presenting ordinary actors on a bluescreened, digitally created world with no shortage of visual inventiveness.

In fact, I don’t know if I have anything really to add to the existing reviews, which emphasize the interesting visual aspects and the somewhat-lacking script and simplistic themes. It is interesting and worthwhile for the film to center around the girl’s relationship to her mother, unlike, say, traditional fantasy, where the mother doesn’t even seem to have existed, but I have to say that while MirrorMask held my attention throughout, I can’t recommend it, mostly because it ultimately betrays the promise of an exciting, well thought-out fantasy world.

Instead, most of the things the heroine encounters seem arbitrary, and by the time you get to the end, you’ve forgotten how things started out. The production strives for a “dreamlike” quality, as the heroine does in fact just seem to be dreaming, but despite some attempts to play with the nature of dreams and reality, I’ve seen better attempts to do so on television (“Restless,” the fourth season finale to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, comes to mind).

Lest you think I don’t appreciate pure visual style, let me just say that I am big fan of movies like Dark City, which was pilloried by most critics for being “style over substance.” That film may not have the greatest script, but it strives for, and achieves, much greater thematic consistency in its set pieces. You may enjoy this film if you are a fan of the collaborators, but on its merits, it probably won’t even entertain the children too much.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
David Yates, UK / USA, 2009
Viewed on 35mm, July 23

You’ve probably of this one, right? I’m not even sure I can compare the two; it’s easier to watch in some ways, yet it’s also much more painful and more conspicuous in its squandering of potential.

The Star Trek series is infamous for its pattern of good even-numbered films and bad odd-numbered ones, but this pattern was decisively broken in 2002 and 2009. It’s just occurred to me, however, that Harry Potter has, at least in my opinion, become the latest mega-franchise to adopt this pattern.

I say this because I had previously attributed the quality of the films to the directors attached to them (Alfonso Cuarón equals brilliance, Mike Newell equals disaster), but just as Chris Columbus, hardly an auteur, managed to create a sense of wonder with The Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone before falling into an holding pattern with The Chamber of Secrets, David Yates, the only Potter director whose work I am otherwise unfamiliar with (in fact it seems that he doesn’t have a significant feature film career) struck gold with The Order of the Phoenix an exciting tale of adolescent rebellion against heinously oppressive “adult” forces, but mis-stepped considerably with The Half-Blood Prince.

But whose fault is that, anyway? I don’t blame Yates so much as I blame J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Pictures. Despite the surprisngly-positive reviews, I always knew this film would be trouble, if only because the book is possibly the worst of the series. Rowling isn’t exactly the greatest prose-writer in the UK, but book 6 is slack mostly because, unlike all the other books, she doesn’t  give Harry a quest to pursue in this one. Instead, he spends most of the book intermittently advancing his relationship with his love interest, magically witnessing flashbacks of the villain’s life story, and, eventually, attempting to pry some information out of a starstruck, weaselly new teacher. While the final sequence of the book certainly raises the stakes considerably, the problem is that it’s entirely set in motion by Dumbledore. Book 5 was about Harry trying to take control of his own fate to a greater degree than ever before, and although he made some terrible mistakes in the process, it’s nonetheless disheartening to see him as such a passive figure in this book.

For this to have been a good film, Yates and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, would have to have been willing to do more than just cut scenes from book; they would have needed to rearrange it entirely, to the point of creating a new plot line for Harry. Of course, they were either unwilling to do so, or not permitted to do so by studio brass, so what we have is a film that is very heavy on the “young love” as Dumbledore puts it, and not much else. Sure, it’s amusing to laugh at (definitely not with) the characters as they fumble through their immature attractions, but it’s not something to hang a blockbuster on). Meanwhile, all but two of the flashbacks are mostly gone, and while that was probably a good decision, it just makes the remaining ones seem all the more arbitrary.

There is one other way in which this film could have been saved; by not making it. Books 6 and 7 together should have been, together, two films the most, perhaps even just one film. Rowling seems to have written book 6 merely as set-up for book 7, which is why it doesn’t stand on its own. They could make a movie entitled <i>The Half-Blood Prince</i> that included the few relevant events from book 6 and the first half of book 7, then made a movie entitled <em>The Deathly Hallows</em> to finish the series.

Of course, quality is largely irrelevant when the money is coming in like it is, and it’s hard to see what motivation Warner Bros could have to forgo that cash, especially when most of the critics don’t seem to even object. Instead, the studio has taken the opposite tack, deciding to milk every last dollar out of this cash cow. They’re making book 7 into two films, to be released in 2010 and 2011, which honestly ruins my hopes that the series will have a good end. Book 7 has an solid quest structure and an exciting finale (if you forget about the epilogue) but it also has a lot of downtime; with Yates at the helm for the last two films, one can expect that he and Kloves will continue to faithfully represent even more of the aimlessness that Rowling increasingly indulged herself in as the editors lost all power over her. It’s enough to make me start waiting for the Blu-ray the next time(s) around.


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