Friday, July 15, 2011

Chris Columbus Was a Great "Harry Potter" Director

When Home Alone hit theaters, I was a 10-year-old white boy living in a small, heartland-America city.  To put it in business terms, I was what's known as the "target demographic."  I was the type of wide-eyed youngster who could most directly relate to young Kevin McCallister.  Relate, hell!  I was Kevin McCallister, as far as I was concerned.  I believed in nothing less than my ability to fend off a couple of hiss-worthy thieves with nothing more than my wiles and a bit of low-tech equipment.

Home Alone was a children's fantasy story, told simply and straightforwardly.  That's all it aspired to be, and that's all it was.

In a recent article praising the overall artistic accomplishments of the Harry Potter film series, Slate's Dan Kois does something that countless critics before him have done: he dismisses the first two films entirely, and he takes extra care to bash their director, Chris Columbus.  This puts me in an uncomfortable position.  I'm not a fan, per se, of Chris Columbus; and I certainly don't think a successful, multi-millionaire (billionaire?) filmmaker needs my defense.  But as a fan of Harry Potter -- both book and film -- I'm apparently one of the few people who thinks Chris Columbus was exactly what the Potter series needed to get off to the right start.  And my conviction in that belief is what I feel the need to defend.

"Artistic duds" is how Kois characterizes Columbus's Potter movies (his being The Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone and The Chamber of Secrets).  That's reasonable, but short-sighted.  "Art" has never been what Chris Columbus was known for, and it's not really fair to hold him up to expectations he was never meant to fulfill.

Columbus is now and has always been a populist film director.  We're talking about the guy who brought us Gremlins, The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire and, yes, the first two Home Alone movies.  Clearly it's never been his mission to challenge an audience's intellectual or moral beliefs.  He's out to give us a good time, take it or leave it.  And there's a place for that, and it's completely legitimate.  That's why I have a tough time allowing the Koises of the world to get away with saying things like, "Would [Warner Bros.] choose someone who could make a real movie?" or, "A real director could make something lasting" (emphasis mine).  Columbus is a real director making real movies.  If they're not to your taste, that's fine.  Just move on.  No need to invalidate his entire existence first.

To say that Columbus is a "safe" directorial choice is an understatement.  If that guy has any personal demons, he's never let them within a mile of his camera.  His idea of "dark and dangerous" is the occasional dutch angle in Chamber of Secrets.  His idea of a seedy, impoverished artistic community in New York is the rather pristine cityscape of Rent.  Was he ever going to create a sense of real danger for Harry Potter?  Were we ever going to think that Harry and his friends were actually in peril?  No, and that's the way it should be!  Let's not forget, Harry Potter started out as children's books.  They grew dark and forbidding and more adult later.

The fact of the matter is, the first two Harry Potter films needed a director exactly like Chris Columbus.  They needed someone with a broad approach and, more importantly, a broad appeal.  Would he bring subtext?  Would he bring complexity?  Would he bring deeper meaning that the more sophisticated members of the audience would walk away from the theater pondering?  No.  Nor should he!  He need only tell the simple, straightforward story of an orphan boy who discovers that his life is much more interesting than he'd previously known.  That's the fantasy of Harry Potter.  What kid can't relate to that; the belief -- the hope -- that you're something special, something different than the rest of the crowd?  That you possess a "magic" that puts you above everybody else?  (Hell, what adult can't relate to that?)

Simplicity, straightforwardness, and a lack of nuance are the hallmarks of a Chris Columbus film, and he delivered these things magnificently in the first two Harry Potter films.

The genius of J. K. Rowling's novels is that their depth and complexity grows with each book.  The maturity level ages in conjunction with Harry himself, and therefor ages in conjunction with the book's primary audience -- the kids who are roughly Harry's age, and who can relate to him most directly.

Let's try to remember, my fellow adults, how simple and straightforward the world seemed when we were kids.  Even those of us who suffered tragedies in our youths did not have the cognitive skills to fully comprehend what we were experiencing.  We were sad, yes, but our world was still filled with color.

That's what Chris Columbus brought to the Potter films.  A childlike comprehension of the highs and lows, the mysteries and the status quo of life.  This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it sincerely: possibly more than any other filmmaker, Chris Columbus is in touch with the simpleness of childhood.

When I was a kid swept up in the fantasy of outwitting a couple of grown-up burglars, should cultural critics have lamented the fact that Scorsese would have made a more artistic movie out of the same material?  Is that what my 10-year-old brain needed?  I contend that the Potter movies very deliberately grew with their audience.  Chris Columbus eased his young viewers into the series.  If the movies became more captivating for an adult audience after Columbus left, don't hold that against him.  Applaud him for it.  He gave the series exactly what it needed in its early days: a welcoming doormat for its child viewers.  That he stepped aside and allowed other directors to take over when things became more dangerous is also to his credit.  He knew his limits, and he prevented them from interfering.  Perhaps Chris Columbus is a more savvy filmmaker than most critics are willing to give him credit for.


  1. I completely agree. The first few books/movies are meant to introduce us to this brand new world that we're all seeing through the eyes of a child.
    The next few really push through with the story and the dangers that lie ahead for Harry.
    The final books/movies delve into the main characters themselves. We see each of their internal struggles and hardships - not just with their dealings with Voldemort, but with becoming adults.
    As the characters grew, so did the stories. Columbus was the perfect director for the first few books, as you said, as he offered the perfect childlike vision to introduce us to these stories.

  2. That was perfectly worded! And you have fully stated what I've been feeling for years. Personally, I would have liked to see him on 3 and 4. It's an adventure that I grew up with.


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