Harry Potter films: Alfonso Cuarón saved J.K. Rowling's movie franchise.

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July 13 2011 4:52 PM

The Real Wizard Behind Harry Potter

I just watched all eight films—one director saved the franchise.

After you've seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, check out our Spoiler Special discussion:

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Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Two Slate editors and their kids discuss Deathly Hallows the book. Plus: Two " Potter virgins" go see the final film without having seen any of the previous movies or read any of the books.

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Perhaps the most important decision of all was who they chose to direct the third film in the series: Cuarón, who, even though his picture underperformed (relatively—I mean, it still made $250 million), jolted the series to life and built a scaffold on which director David Yates could construct the four films he's made.

Following the second film, Chamber of Secrets, the series was at a crossroads. A lead actor, Richard Harris, passed away after the filming of Chamber, forcing the producers to recast Dumbledore. Financially, that film made $50 million less than its predecessor; artistically, both films were duds. The director Chris Columbus built the world of Hogwarts without delivering real magic. There was never any doubt that the series would continue; of course it would, with so much money to be made. But in which direction would it turn? Would the producers and the studio choose someone who could deliver product just like Columbus? Or would they choose someone who could make a real movie?

Compare the Potter franchise's situation with that of another Warner property, the Batman series. In 1994, with Tim Burton leaving after Batman Returns, Warners replaced him with Hollywood vet Joel Schumacher. It must have seemed like a safe choice at the time; Schumacher had turned John Grisham's The Clientinto a nearly $100-million hit, and had a string of solid dramas behind him, from St. Elmo's Fire to Flatliners. He was a creature of the studio system. The result? Two terrible movies,  Batman Forever and  Batman and Robin, the latter infamous among Batfans for its benippled Batsuit and generally despised by everyone for its obstreperous stupidity. * It took an indie auteur, Christopher Nolan, to reboot the series 10 years later with Batman Begins.

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With Harry, though, Warners didn't make the safe choice. Alfonso Cuarón had made only a handful of movies, most recently a sexy Mexican comedy-drama, Y Tu Mamá También. He'd never shot anything close to the scale of a Harry Potter. But Azkaban was fantastic: bold, smart, teeming with magical ideas from the very start. The movie opens not with a scene from the book or a beauty shot of Hogwarts but with a moment of the film's own invention: Harry hidden under his covers at the Dursleys' house, practicing lumos maximus, his glowing wand illuminating the room. Each time his uncle checks on him, Harry feigns slumber; each time his uncle closes the door, he's back at it with teenage enthusiasm. It's a funny bit of business, but it's also a potent piece of image-making—resonant with the secrecy of Harry's talents, his excitement about mastering them, and a curious tinge of shame at his 13-year-old lack of control when the spell goes haywire and lights the entire house.

Cuarón made marvelous use of Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint, and populated crucial adult roles with gritty actors Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall. He cast Michael Gambon as a younger, sprier replacement Dumbledore. Azkaban was the first of the Potter movies to show a director's vision walking alongside J.K. Rowling's, not trailing behind. Suddenly a Harry Potter movie could be something more than a by-the-numbers cash machine. It could be ambitious and creative. The kids could push the storytelling along, not weigh it down. A real director could make something lasting.

Not all of them succeeded; Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire botched too many great set pieces, and David Yates's Half-Blood Prince felt overstuffed by half. But without Cuarón's success, a BBC veteran like Yates probably doesn't get selected; without Cuarón's casting bull's-eyes, Mike Leigh favorites Imelda Staunton and Jim Broadbent might not be playing Umbridge and Slughorn so perfectly.

Most importantly, without Cuarón, it's hard to imagine Yates would have the freedom to make the Potter movies his own: to make the Ministry of Magic an automated nightmare straight out of Brazil; to shoot action sequences as loud and surprising as gunfights; to let Harry and Hermione dance to Nick Cave, even though it's not in the books, because it turns out that's just what the audience needs to see.

"Why are you here? All of you?" Harry asks a quartet of beloved figures from his past near the very end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. At a recent screening, the question seemed directed not just to the specters onscreen but at the teary-eyed fans in the audience, for whom the final movie in the series represents one last chance to live in the world J.K. Rowling created—and that Warner Bros. managed, somehow, not to screw up. It didn't matter whether we were fans of the books, or the movies, or both. And so the answer Harry receives in reply to his question felt like it came from all of us: "We never left."

Correction, July 14, 2011: This piece originally had the two Batman movies directed by Joel Schumacher in the wrong chronological order. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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