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With two mediocre yet extremely profitable movies already under their belt, the Harry Potter series has proven that its movies don’t need to be all that good in order to keep fans happy. No doubt George Lucas wishes more of his Star Wars fans could be under twelve. With series originator Chris Columbus stepping out of the director’s chair and Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón stepping in, it would have been easy to just phone in another one. Yet Cuarón was clearly not content just to trundle out more of what we’ve seen before. He’s taken the reigns and his work is better than anything Columbus could ever conjure up.
As always, half the fun of the Potter series is in watching the kids grow up. As the characters age, so do the actors who play them. It’s a unique experience in cinema, which should only get better as this thing continues on. For this outing, it means Daniel Radcliffe has physically begun to mature into an angst ridden teen, bringing the character of Harry Potter right along with him. Petulant and downtrodden, we find him muddling through another miserable summer with his legal guardians the Dursleys. This time though, his muggle family has become something more than a pre-fabricated collection of cartoonish and hateful oafs. In just a few scenes, Cuarón manages to flesh them out into “normal” if somewhat dimwitted people incapable of dealing with the reality of having a soon to be teenage superman in their midst. In the middle of a disastrous family dinner, Harry explodes, losing control of his emotions and subsequently wreaking havoc on an elderly and vile relative. Evoking memories of Carrie or “The Twilight Zone”, lights sizzle ominously and papers are blown asunder as Harry terrifies his dinner guests as well as himself. The Dursleys, again faced with the reality of a hormonal and moody child who they are unable or too frightened of to control seem paralyzed and lost. Harry Potter isn’t just a fun boy wizard. This kid is dangerous and the Dursleys know it. The scene itself will no doubt elicit laughter, but Cuarón knowingly gives it a wonderfully sinister undercurrent that carries throughout the entire movie.
Harry continues on to Hogwarts School, where as a burgeoning young wizard, he continues to receive instruction in the not-so-black arts. Here too, Cuarón has made subtle changes in the series, giving the school and its surrounding environments a much darker and somehow grittier air. We’re reintroduced to Hogwarts as a choir ominously belts out, “something wicked this way comes,” and are shown walls reeking of age and use. Azkaban’s world is a less polished one than that which Columbus presented to us, more what you’d expect from a movie all about Witches, Wizards, and dark magic.
Once off to school Harry soon learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), his parents’ betrayer, has escaped from Azkaban prison and blames Harry personally for the destruction of the dark lord whom he served. Black is out to kill Potter and Harry is left grappling with survival and the murder of his parents in a tragic past. Though every Potter film has touched on these themes, never have they hit such an emotional and realistic chord as they do here. That’s partly because Cuarón seems to have a better vision of what’s happening in the script and partly because the kids saying the lines have aged enough to deliver emotion better.
That maturity has worked wonders not only on Radcliffe, but on the supporting players of Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as well. In response, Hermione has garnered a much larger role this time around, playing Harry’s determined partner while Ron stands in the background trying to make his hair look as red as possible. Always ready to jump forward for comedy relief, Rupert Grint seems to have found a comfortable spot in the series dynamic, leaving room for the luminous wonderkid Emma Watson to inch closer to becoming the real star of these films.
No longer simply victims of circumstance, all three are thrust into the thick of the adventure, rather than continuing to succeed through accident and luck. The teachers too seem to take a more proactive role. Gone is the bizarre staff indifference that plagued the previous two films. When warned there may be a murderer on the loose, the teachers don’t simply clump together and hope that the children can take care of themselves. Instead, the instructors gather their students up into the Great Hall and stand watch, while Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) responsibly considers sending all the children home. Snape (Alan Rickman) prowls the hallways as he always does, propelled by Alan Rickman’s indomitable and disturbing charm, watching for truants and late night mischief makers. The staff’s latest addition, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) actually develops a relatable teacher/student relationship with his pupils rather than taking the previous movies’ tact of showing up for class, almost getting your kids killed, and then heading home for a nice foot soak.
The magic and fantasy elements in this film are so effortless that it makes them all the more wonderful. Magic is used in an offhand every day way that is both involving and exciting. Dumbledore uses it as a gesture, offhandedly putting out and then relighting a candle with a wave while he talks, as if he uses magic as easily as we use our hands. Busboys use it to clear off tables in the background as the camera pans past and bus drivers tool around with helpful shrunken heads hanging from the rearview. Magic is everywhere in the film and it isn’t always blown up into a huge event each time it happens. That, along with a lot of other little touches like letting the kids occasionally wear normal clothes, helps make the Harry Potter world itself all the more tangible and easy to identify with.
The effects themselves are high level stuff. While occasionally you get the feeling you’re staring at a kid next to a screen, Cuarón’s CGI is above and beyond anything Columbus ever attempted. He uses it more judiciously, working it in all the right places while thrilling us with beautiful real landscapes and front and center characters. For the first time ever, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) actually looks like a giant instead of just a regular fat guy wearing lifts. The Dementors, new evil beings which strongly resemble Lord of the Rings Ringwraiths are smartly done. They cut a stark and disturbing image as they flow across the sky and I love the way the environments literally freeze as they pass. Azkaban also introduces the Hippogriff, a creature which I assume must be CGI, but which could easily pass for one of the most realistic works of the Jim Henson creature shop. When Harry hops on and rides him through the clouds, its impossible not to remember those great shots of Bastian surfing through the clouds in Neverending Story, something which you have to believe Cuarón did on purpose.
Alfonso Cuarón “gets” Harry Potter and as a result Azkaban is more than just the middle of the road kiddie-tainment Chamber of Secrets and Sorcerer’s Stone regurgitated. Azkaban still suffers from many of the annoying and fuzzy plot holes that anything attached to this franchise suffers. However, Cuarón’s vision is so strong and his execution so bright that it easily overwhelms the unavoidable bevy of illogical plot progressions that J.K. Rowling’s stories have already built in. This is a darker, edgier movie that’ll let even adults enjoy Harry Potter. Cuarón brings the Harry Potter series to life in a beautiful and living way we’ve never seen before. In his hands this fantasy has gone from the wildly absurd into the delightfully real. This is what the Harry Potter films should have been aspiring to be. Though they can probably make just as much money settling for something less, lets hope that this film serves as a template for what future forays into Harry’s world should be.