In an era when big-budget filmmaking is dominated by corporate interests, when the on-screen product invariably reflects a series of artistic compromises, when even “successful” studio franchises, such as the Spider-Man, Batman, and James Bond series, have suffered drops in quality so severe as to require re-boots, the Harry Potter saga is truly an outlier. While some translations of J.K. Rowling’s beloved boy wizard books are undoubtedly better than others, there has never been a bad Harry Potter film. And every single one of them has enjoyed staggering success at the box office.
Such success is bound to inspire its share of imitators. Since 2001, when the first chapter of the Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, became a four-quadrant blockbuster, studios have sunk millions into various ill-fated attempts to distill its essence into a straightforward and repeatable formula. It goes something like this: A fantasy epic, preferably based on an already successful children’s book, in which an ordinary child (or children) is plucked from a sad or mundane existence and thrust into an immense conflict in which he or she plays a decisive role, the true nature of which will be revealed in subsequent, highly profitable sequels. Not surprisingly, these cloning experiments uniformly failed to yield viable offspring.
The first half of Harry Potter’s two-part swan song, Harry Potter and the Ghostly Hallows, Part 1, arrives in theaters this week. In commemoration of the Boy Who Lived, consider these Franchises That Died:
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Budget: $65 million Domestic Box Office: $29.3 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with aliens! And Dax Shepard!
Why It Failed: For whatever reason, the film's tagline, "From the author of Jumanji," failed to trigger the frenzy of excitement its producers had anticipated. And star Kristen Stewart had yet to perfect the patented grimace and lip-quiver that would later prove irresistable to Twilight audiences.
Budget: $100 million Domestic Box Office: $75 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with dragons!
Why It Failed: It was adapted from book by a teenager, Christopher Paolini, who watched way too much Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and directed by a filmmaking novice, Stefen Fangmeier, who had apparently heard of neither.
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007)
Budget: $45 million Domestic Box Office: $8.8 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with a fraction of the budget!
Why It Failed: It was monumentally dreadful, for one thing. Every facet of this shoddy film reeked of poorly financed Potter envy. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, failing in the attempt, as The Seeker does spectacularly, must amount to idolatry.
The Golden Compass (2007)
Budget: At least $180 million Domestic Box Office: $70.1 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with talking polar bears! And James Bond! And zero coherence!
Why It Failed: Perhaps those dastardly Papists had something to do with it. More likely, the film fell victim to the chaos, bloat, and questionable decision-making that marked the waning days of its studio, New Line.
The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
Budget: $90 million Domestic Box Office: $71.2 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with twins!
Why It Failed: Nothing stood out. From its storyline to its cast to its production design, the film radiated a "good, but not great" quality that won modest kudos from critics but failed to register with audiences.
Budget: $60 million Domestic Box Office: $17.3 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with reading!
Why It Failed: It seemed inevitable that Americans would eventually wake up to Brendan Fraser's vaguely creepy persona and recoil from it. Apparently the Germans -- namely, Inkheart author Cornelia Funke, who wrote the character with Fraser in mind -- were a bit behind the curve.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)
Budget: $40 million Domestic Box Office: $13.9 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with vampires!
Why It Failed: The filmmakers decided to shoehorn three of Darren Shan's source novels into one film, resulting in perilously disjointed narrative that no amount of Salma Hayek cleavage could redeem.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
Budget: $95 million Domestic Box Office: $88.8 million
It's Like Harry Potter But ... with Greek gods!
Why It Failed: Original Potter director Chris Columbus' second attempt at kick-starting a blockbuster franchise featured much of the wonder but little of the depth of his previous effort.
Based on Cornelia Funke’s best-selling children’s book Inkheart takes its literary inspirations literally. It revolves around a father Mortimer “Mo” Folchart (Brendan Fraser) and his 12-year-old daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) who share a gift -- or curse -- of being able to make characters leap out of the pages just by reading aloud. Unfortunately whenever they do this a real person must then be transferred into the book as a replacement. It can get complicated especially when Mo accidentally sends his wife (Sienna Guillory) into a book called Inkheart only to bring out its villains to wreak havoc on the real world. He spends the next nine years trying to find another copy of the book and bring her back while one of the book’s main characters Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) follows Mo trying to get back into the book. An adventure waiting to happen! The entire cast is wonderfully in tune with the whimsical tone of this inventive and clever story. Fraser doesn’t stretch any acting muscles but serves the film well as its central father figure and hero. Bettany (Master and Commander) as the literary sidekick Dustfinger steals the whole show giving his character heaping amounts of irony warmth and humanity. Joining them is Helen Mirren who adds an element of elegance and uptightness as the great aunt swept along for the ride. Andy Serkis (LOTR’s Gollum) is properly villainous throughout while Brit Jim Broadbent (Iris) is daffy and hilarious as the author of Inkheart who keeps complicating matters for everyone. Inkheart uses sheer imaginative filmmaking prowess with an engaging story that feels as original and fresh as it does familiar. Director Iain Softley (Wings of the Dove) makes the most of the colorful European locations including the picturesque Italian Riviera transformed into storybook heaven. The film is well-paced carrying a great subtle message about the powers of reading and creative writing. Much like the Oscar-nominated The Reader -- a wildly different kind of movie to be sure -- this film shows the joys of getting lost and in this case found in the world of books.