Harry Potter: the verdict is in (in case you’ve been waiting)

I know I’m late to this discussion but I’ve managed, somehow, to fail to connect with the Harry Potter phenomenon entirely. Until now. I’d never read the books nor seen the movies (although the house seems to be half-filled with Potter merchandise). So, this week, I’ve been reading the kids (well, the older two) the first Harry Potter book at bedtime and – I’m sort of unhappy to confirm – it’s not very good.

We’ve just finished the first three Narnia books and the comparison is not a happy one (tough act to follow, I suppose) and, although I think I’d have been happy to plough on through Rowling’s charmless, deliberate prose, the kids have actually vetoed Potter and yesterday we had to rush over to Borders to buy the next Narnia book (Prince Caspian) instead. It makes me feel a bit sad because I really wanted to like the book and I’ve written before in defence of Rowling against the various whingers (I do love the fact that we can occasionally produce our own super-wealthy global media superstars over here in the drizzle).

Of course, my objections come a bit late – Harry’s mystical realm has already expanded to consume pretty much the whole of popular culture. On the radio the other day I heard that the once-huge UFO sub-culture has been practically wiped out by the wizards and elves – conventions that used to book the biggest hotels are now lucky to fill a room above a pub (tip: file that Roswell script you’ve been working on since you left University).

The painful lesson for Brit Media is that, although the books are 100% British, the larger Potter phenomenon is not a British creation at all – it’s a solid-gold creature of American media capitalism and, in fact, there’s something crappy and amateurish about the British end of the thing. Luckily, though, credulous American exploitation experts were suckered into promoting it on the basis that there was something quaint and British about it.

And there’s worse news. We rushed – like you, I bet – to the preview screenings of the Wallace & Gromit feature the other day and – this is quite hard to say – it’s no good either. It’s half-baked. Neither one thing nor the other. Running a pretty good Dreamworks short based on Madagascar beforehand is a huge mistake to begin with – the contrast is unsettling. By comparison with the near perfection of the American product Were Rabbit looks like something the cat dragged in. British eccentricity (or amateurism or contrariness or whatever) must not be summoned in justification of this mess either.

The characters are as beautiful as ever (although I’m suspicious about the prominent big close-up thumb prints on their cute plasticine faces – overdoing the ‘authenticity’ if you ask me) but the barely adequate script and practically incoherent direction are unforgivable. I feel terrible saying this sort of thing with the ashes barely cool in Bristol but there’s no point coddling the film-makers. If mainstream British animation is doomed to this kind of second-rate execution then the future looks grim. We’ve reduced ourselves to a subservient craft economy capable only of providing services to the shiny perfection-factories of the American industry but without the ambition to produce finished masterworks ourselves.

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What’s a Mook?

Charlie waits for Johnny at the bar, Mean Streets
The Guardian is promoting a new partnership with postal video rental outfit Movietrak. I tried it out and got Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, a movie I haven’t watched in a decade, the next day. The DVD is beautifully packaged in a bag that doubles as a post-paid return envelope. The whole concept is very well thought out. Isn’t it remarkable that, in a home like ours, with broadband, dozens of movie channels on digital TV (including a ‘near video on demand’ service) and a perfectly good video shop half a mile away, services like Movietrak’s can still find a niche?

Ten years ago I’d have told you that Mean Streets was my favourite movie. These days I wouldn’t. The film is much too ragged. But those ten years have obviously added something else to my perspective. The courage and energy needed to push through a first feature like this one, to marshal those resources (De Niro, Keitel, New York City…) and to keep the whole thing moving at such a pace are unarguable and breathtaking. If I get a chance to create something half as good, half as authentic, just once in my life, I’ll die happy.