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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 21, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Pooh, Potter, Practical Jokes

Disney bravely opened the new Winnie the Pooh on the same weekend as the final installment in the Harry Potter saga. Were they thinking that people whose children were too young for the thrilling wizard adventure needed someplace to go?

Well, we made a double feature of it -- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, in an early afternoon showing; early supper of heirloom tomato salad at Green Valley Grill, and then an early evening showing of Winnie the Pooh.

It was a happy summer day, because everything was very good.

Winnie the Pooh has a slow pace, in keeping with this gentle franchise's earlier entries.

Sterling Holloway, who voiced the chubby bear of little brain in the classic 1966 short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree and its successor, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), died in 1992.

His voice is truly inimitable. Though Jim Cummings does a plucky job of keeping the tone and personality of Holloway's Pooh, he simply can't duplicate the timbre of Holloway's voice, and I heard the difference with regret.

However, that unavoidable disappointment was more than made up for by the just-right line readings of all the actors -- including Cummings.

The only exception came after the credits, where for reasons passing understanding, Huell Howser voices a completely-expected "surprise" character with an Arkansas accent! It was jarring and unpleasant.

Yet until that moment, the credits were one of the best parts of the movie. In fact, I was quite moved during the first portion of the credits, when the camera pans across a real-world tableau of Christopher Robin's bedroom, where we see the stuffed animals, arranged as they would have been after he put them through their paces in the story we just watched.

There is such a poignant nostalgia for the life of a lonely child with a rich imaginary life that it brought happy tears to my eyes. I remembered my own childhood imaginary life (which I now continue on a for-hire basis, with more art and, sadly, much less faith and joy). I remembered the games of my children, for we often saw the residue of their play as well.

Is this children's-feature-length Winnie the Pooh worthy of what has gone before? Almost. Close enough. It's certainly better than Disney's cynical series of made-for-video sequels to their hit features.

A studio that has earned a reputation for not caring at all about the quality of their children's offerings has managed to stir up their corporate memory of what it was like back when Disney stood for quality.

Adults whose children play this movie over and over on DVD at home will not go insane or be forced to flee the room. This is actually a very high standard which few made-for-children features can meet. There is no screeching or screaming. The jokes made with the letters on the pages of the book are often quite amusing, and they're there mostly for adults.

And if you doze off a bit here and there ... well, isn't that a rather pleasant gift to receive from a children's movie? It's a movie that little kids will be able to watch before bedtime.

*

The final Harry Potter movie is not so dreamy in its pace; in fact, the tension never lets up until the climax, which writer Steve Kloves and director David Yates bring off perfectly.

It's almost impossible to review this movie by itself. I deliberately did not reread the books or rewatch any of the previous films, and so I can affirm that the filmmakers do a good job of reminding us of everything we need to remember for this story to make sense.

Yet every moment of this movie depends on things that went before, and if you don't know the story, I think you'd find there was little enough in this film. Rather like watching David Lynch's hideous version of Dune, it's the all-climax version.

But we do know the story, and the characters, and so this movie is exactly right. Why apply a foolish standard ("stands by itself") to the eighth film in the finest sustained series in the history of film?

For make no mistake, that is what this is. Not Lord of the Rings, for its author was dead, and the filmmakers marked their territory by seriously botching the story.

Harry Potter's author, J.K. Rowling, is alive, and while she has problems of her own as a writer, the very fact that the filmmakers had to please her kept them faithful to the story.

Keep in mind that having a living author has never, in any other case (except, perhaps, the small film Holes), worked to the benefit of a film. Either you get a weirdly over-faithful botch like French Lieutenant's Woman or the filmmakers do what they want.

Rowling got what other authors don't get -- total veto power -- because her series made more money than the economies of most U.N. member nations. Money has authority in Hollywood, and nothing else. Everyone knew that it was Rowling alone whose work would deliver a huge audience to the first film. That audience was theirs to lose. That gave her power, and the result was all to the benefit of the films.

And Chris Columbus, the first director, did his best to botch things. A director who has never understood what "character" and "relationship" and "story" mean, he has brought his utter soullessness to such empty films as Mrs. Doubtfire, Nine Months, Stepmom, Bicentennial Man, and, as a writer, to Gremlins, Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes.

Sometimes, good-natured actors have transcended his incompetence as a director of human beings, and we've rather liked a Chris Columbus film -- to the tune of millions of dollars that gave him the clout of a director of "hits."

Because of Columbus, the first two Harry Potter movies were merely so-so. Everything we liked in those movies came from the books -- and from the actors, who were, in the main, brilliantly cast.

That was Chris Columbus's one real contribution to the series: casting Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, and Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. It is impossible to know, when casting children, whether they will actually grow up to be smart and/or talented enough to give the kind of excellent performance that was required in the two Deathly Hallows films. But they brought it off.

More important, however, was the decision to change directors from Prisoner of Azkaban onward. The scripts got better, in part because the novels did, too, for a while; but the whole look and feel of the movies changed from the sunny plasticity of Columbus's work to a darker, realer, and more compelling manner.

In short, they finally started taking the movies and the books seriously. And the result was a series of films that grew up along with the audience.

Unfortunately, Rowling herself followed the trajectory of most bestselling writers. Her early books were happy accidents -- she had no idea what she was doing, but her instincts were good and the audience embraced her dumb puns because there was a real story at the heart of the books.

Later, she began to learn her craft and the books got better. But because the sales were so phenomenal, she became a deity to her publisher, and she stopped getting (or at least stopped taking) the editorial advice she so desperately needed. The books gradually became pretentious and self-indulgent, twice the length they needed to be for the amount of actual content.

In the end, Rowling had become the sad and lonely creature we saw weeping in a courtroom because some eager fan had dared to make a little money in her shadow. She had to have it all, all, mind you, in a very Voldemortish way. So sad.

But the self-indulgent twaddle that marred the last few books was stripped away from the movies -- there is not room in a film for such nonsense. So a series of films that began by coasting on the books turned out in the end to be better than the material they were based on.

I'm happy that, in absolute numbers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 had the largest opening weekend in movie history. The whole series deserved to be crowned that way.

I don't know if it will receive the Oscar that was granted to the final Lord of the Rings installment. LOTR, despite the hideous story decisions made by the tone-deaf Peter Jackson, was based on the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century.

The Harry Potter films do not have so deep and rich a core. We loved the Harry Potter books, but it was more for the dream than the reality. Rowling is no Tolkien -- not even close. She lacks the depth of knowledge and the personal wisdom that Tolkien brought to every page of Lord of the Rings.

Talent is part of a writer's success, but who you are as a human being, and what you believe in -- those are just as important, perhaps more so. Rowling found a good story and spun it out very well; but in the end, she was working with material that she cribbed from her reading rather than drew from a wise, courageous, generous soul.

The result is that while these films have earned every penny they're earning, I can't honestly say that they have the majesty of a film that ought to win the supreme award.

Then again -- this is, so far, a rather miserable year for movies, and look at some of the absolute drivel that has won Oscars before. This movie certainly is better than twaddle like American Beauty. I suspect I'll end up rooting for this film at Oscar time, if only for lack of a better candidate.

Do you really need more of a review than this? After all, you already saw the movie, or if you didn't, your decision won't be based on anything I say. And there's no shortage of clever reviews out there.

My favorite line is from Eric D. Snider's review: "Harry's first line of dialogue is 'I need to talk to the goblin,' which seems like a good thing to say in a number of situations." You can read Snider's full review at here.

But it may be that the truest, most powerful review of this movie and the whole series is in a spoof made by some college students at Brigham Young University.

These college kids are the generation that grew up with the Harry Potter books and movies. Back when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone -- er, pardon me, Sorcerer's Stone -- was turning non-readers into readers, they embraced the book, tried out their wands in darkened rooms, dreamed of the letter from Hogwart's that never came.

So on the occasion of the final movie's release, Whitney Call wrote new lyrics to Katy Perry's "Firework" and got her friends together to show all those magical yearnings that Harry Potter created -- but reality and growing up dashed.

It's so nostalgic and bittersweet that even as I laughed, I wanted to cry. It teases us about our Harry Potter obsession, but also expresses our feelings about stories that we love. It's more than a mere parody, it's a great piece of fervent literary criticism.

In other words, it's a better review than I could hope to write. Check it out.

*

Very few practical jokes are funny. Most of them are just mean.

For instance, when my brother got engaged back in the 1970s, he belonged to a group of young men in a church group who had a tradition of "kidnapping" the newly engaged young man and tossing him in a mini-lake behind an irrigation dam in Provo Canyon.

In what way is this funny? Somebody's getting engaged, and you imprison him and throw him in cold water? Oh, ha. Ha ha.

It ranks right up there with dumping Gator-Ade on somebody after winning a game. Why would a coach deserve to be punished? It's a stupid, miserable thing to do.

Well, my brother wasn't going to stand for it. For one thing, he was a trained soldier. He understood about having a duty to escape.

So, inside the trunk, he pulled the taillight inside in order to have enough light to figure out how to jimmy the trunk lid open. When the car stopped at a light, he raised the lid just enough to roll out the back of the car, close the trunk, and then scoot to the curb.

They never saw him. Imagine their consternation when they got to the lake and discovered that the trunk was empty. Now that was a practical joke.

Here's another: A guy asks some strangers to watch his car. Only he makes the car disappear immediately -- only to reappear when he returns. Nobody is harmed. He is playing on their niceness, but he didn't make them look like fools, only like nice people reacting to a strange event. And so it's funny. Check it out online at http://www.wimp.com/disappearingprank/

*

I'm always puzzled when traffic engineers come up with a clever plan that makes traffic flow far, far worse than it was before they intervened. But Greensboro seems to consider this a minimum job requirement.

The classic, of course, is the raised speedbump crosswalks that straddle Northline at three points in the most heavily trafficked part of Friendly Center. They do a splendid job of slowing down the traffic on Northline, and it is safer for pedestrians.

But because they didn't simply make these intersections four-way stops, the cars that slow for the speedbumps do not stop. The effect is to make is so that the natural breaks in traffic that used to be generated by the stoplights at Green Valley and Pembroke are smoothed out. There are no breaks for long stretches of time.

That means that cars trying to leave the parking lots on the north and south sides of Northline are backed up, unable to turn left or right, for long stretches of time. Sometimes they're stacked all the way back to Grandview, which means that cars parked close to the buildings can't back out.

A complete snarl. At Christmastime, Friendly Center brings in traffic cops. But the rest of the year, the traffic snarl is a miserable waste of time, and it makes us a little more reluctant to shop or eat at Friendly Center. It's just not worth the traffic hassle.

All it would take is to make each of those crosswalks, where traffic now slows to a crawl anyway, into four-way stops. People would take turns, by law. You could get out of the parking lots in a reasonable amount of time.

Six new signs. Happy customers. Worth the cost? Apparently not to Friendly Center's management.

Now the traffic-wreckers are at work again, this time on Lake Jeanette Road. When they started widening that always-unsafe road, heavily trafficked now because of all the new subdivisions that have been opened in the area, we were encouraged.

Then they build wide curbed median strips, with short turn lanes. The result is that what used to be a moderately unsafe road is now an extremely unsafe one.

Formerly, bicyclists were safer because cars could swing out around them to pass. Now, there is no room for a car to pass a cyclist safely -- the curbs force them to share the same lane.

But because some drivers are already insanely angry at the mere existence of cyclists -- we see the letters and beeps from these sociopaths in the Rhino several times a year -- people are going to try to pass anyway.

This means cyclists are going to get hit, or forced to hit the curb and spill -- or the cars are going to jump the curbs at high speeds. All of this danger is created by these completely unnecessary medians.

Instead, they could have had a simple painted median, into which cars could move to pass the cyclists. It would have been cheaper. It would have been safer.

I've heard people say that these narrow one-lane funnels are designed to "prepare" drivers as they approach the new traffic circle. Such nonsense! All that's needed is a short median right at the circle. Prior to that, a continuous median turn lane would have sufficed.

I bet it looked pretty in the drawings presented for approval. Look! Trees and flowers in the median!

And dead or injured cyclists. Or cyclists forced onto the sidewalk just to stay alive -- which poses new dangers for pedestrians.

But some traffic engineer is no doubt proud of his work on Lake Jeanette Road. He drives along, watching the curbs emerge, smiling. But then he goes home to some other neighborhood. He's never going to have to deal with the slowdowns, the danger, the injuries that he has caused with this expensive foolishness.

Scrape those curbs off, please. Give us back a level road with a painted median, so that cars can pass cyclists safely, at speed. We promise not to crash into the traffic circle.


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