Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Snitches and Broomsticks and House Elves - Oh My!

So the time has come. The time has come when I talk about London's newest tourist craze. The latest addition to London's over-priced, over-hyped tourist circuit.

When I started reading J. K. Rowling's boy wizard series almost 15 years ago I remember saying to a friend of mine that the dual magical/muggle world would make for a brilliant theme park. Now, all these years later, there is a theme park in Florida and close enough to one (minus the rides) just outside of London.

I am, of course, talking about The Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour. Cue the screams of Potter maniacs, who, you should know, are not all under 30. Under 30? You say. That seems fairly old. It's a kids' movie. And yes, I grant you, Harry Potter is for kids, but those of us who read the books before they were a world-wide sensation are *shock! horror!* getting awfully close to 30 these days. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was first published in 1996, meaning that children of the 80s were at prime Potter age.
Staircase to Dumbledore's office

Still, the Harry Potter films are kids films and, for this fan at least, were entertaining for a couple of very specific reasons:

1. Remember how amazed we were back in 1989 with the special effects that made the kids so tiny in Honey I Shrank the Kids? Well, seeing the ceiling of Hogwart's Great Hall in 2001 was just as amazing. Maybe even more so because I had already seen it in my mind. I wanted to experience my imagination brought to life on film and the technical and special effects teams did a spectacular job of that.

2. Rupert Grint (AKA Ron Weasley) had some of the funniest facial expressions ever bestowed on a child.

I have to admit that after the third film I didn't bother seeing them in the theatre, though. The movies were fine, they were enjoyable, but after I'd see my imagination on screen and Rupert Grint started growing up, they lost some of their appeal. And that, I think, was the problem during my visit to the studio: I just didn't care enough.

I went with three cousins, all of whom are somewhat younger than I (i.e. only one of them barely saw the 80s and the youngest barely squeezed in at the end of the 90s) and two of whom are massive fans. The third, well, she's just a good sport. The two Potter-heads could not get enough of it all. They loved seeing all the props and sets and took photos of everything. They even bought photos of themselves flying on broomsticks, courtesy of green screen magic (FYI, that's a 30 minute queue). Now, some people are just suckers for the "official photo" but taking pictures of the props is a little confusing for me - couldn't you just watch the film? That said, I took a couple.
The shop for bookworm wizards
This post is veering dangerously into bah humbug territory here, so let's attempt a change of tone. Positive things about the tour:

1. You get to see some actual sets. Number 4 Privet Drive, the Great Hall, the Gryffindor boys dormitory, Dumbledore's office and the Night Bus among others. For me, however, the highlight was Diagon Alley. When I read the first book back in the mid 90s, Harry's first entrance into Diagon Alley was the moment I knew I'd read anything about this world. I though that was where J. K. Rowling's imagination really blossomed and where she sold me on her magical world. So, I must concede that walking by Flourish and Blotts was pretty neat.


2. You can try butterbeer. Quell your beating hearts. It's just a sweet, slightly carbonated drink with a funny marshmallow-y foam on top. It's a kid-pleaser, but not a show-stopper. Good to know, if you're headed there this summer, though, is that the eating area is outdoors, has limited seating and only one small stall for sandwiches and drinks. The prices are central-London reasonable, but it might be advisable to bring your own food and avoid the queue, which was sizable (10min) at 2pm on a Thursday in May.

3. You can see a scale model of the entire Hogwarts property. It's beautifully lit and very well laid out with a winding ramp encircling it from above, down to ground level, so you really get a good look at everything.

4. They have the concept drawings of some scenes, shots, sets and characters on display.

5. There is a small section on how they achieved the special effects. Did you know they made Hagrid a giant by putting a fake head on top of Robbie Coltraine?

Hogwarts in all its studio-lit glory
For me, seeing the props and sets was interesting, but I was much more interested in the special effects and the tour really fell short there. It was very basic and all squashed into two rooms that were barely bigger my flat. If you've ever seen a London flat, you know that means it's small. Pretty much it boiled down to looking at props for special effects and a very cheesy film about it that didn't continuously repeat, so you had to wait for ages if you wanted to see the whole thing. No one is that interested.

So, truly, it's not "the making of Harry Potter" it's The Props from Harry Potter. Of course, that's fine if you're an enormous Potter-head, but for me, this doesn't make the Don't Miss in London list. I had an enjoyable afternoon, but Warner Brothers won't be getting another 4 hours and £30 off me.

I'll read the books instead.

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