Deconstructing Harry, Day 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
We watch a Harry Potter a movie a day up until Half-Blood Prince.
Day Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (89%)
The third installment of the Harry Potter series marks the franchise's shift into darker territory than we've previously seen. And although he's still producing, Chris Columbus has now handed over the directing reins to Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and that's a great move for the series. Cuarón's film is bit darker, a bit more sinister, and even a bit more wistful, which is as much a function of his direction as it is Rowling's development as a writer.
The action, as always, starts off at the Dursleys' home in Surrey, but Harry quickly gets fed up with them, and basically packs his bags and leaves the house. In Prisoner of Azkaban, even the suburban streets of Surrey are dark and lonely; we can already tell that under Cuarón's direction, Harry's world is going to be a much darker place.
The plot follows Harry's third year at Hogwart's. After defecting from the Dursley household and holing up in a flophouse in Diagon Alley, Harry learns about the dangerous Sirius Black (wryly played by Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer and the only man to have ever escaped from the dreaded Azkaban prison. Azkaban is run by fearsome creatures called dementors that more than anything else look like the Angel of Death, and the dementors are patrolling Hogwarts since Sirius Black is believed to be gunning for Harry. But of course things aren't that simple; Black was friends with Harry's parents, as well as Harry's new teacher Professor Lupin (played by David Thewlis), and since Black is said to have been partially responsible for their deaths, Harry wants revenge. There's far more to the plot than that, including a bit more background into Ron's older brothers, Hagrid's disastrous attempts at teaching, and Hermoine's use of one of the more interesting incarnations of deus ex machina that I've seen in a long time.
Through Harry's eyes, we're still being introduced to new elements of the world of magic (outside of Hogwarts, where it's to be expected), but since Harry is becoming a more cosmopolitan wizard, the story is not so weighed down by constant introductions. One of those new elements I particularly enjoyed was the Knight's Bus, a triple-decker, "wizards only" form of public transportation that zips through the streets of London at breakneck speed.
The Knight's Bus sequence coaxes a zesty jazz score out of composer John Williams, and I think his music for Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest he's written for any of the Harry Potter films. Williams is a solidly reliable composer, and most any musician would give their ears to be able to consistently produce great movie music the way that he does. That being said, although the various Harry Potter themes are great, a lot of the music in the first two films didn't seem to break any new ground for Williams. In fact, at one point during the Quidditch match in Chamber of Secrets, the music sounds pretty darn close to what he composed for the droid factory scenes in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. OK, so I'm a music geek, but the point is that Williams really stretches himself in Prisoner of Azkaban. My personal theory is that Chris Columbus' direction hadn't really challenged him that much, and that Cuarón's darker, moodier film inspired the Oscar-winning composer to explore both jazz melodies and medieval instrumentations. I particularly liked the "Double Trouble" piece; sung by a children's choir and referencing the witches from Macbeth, it's a gleefully malevolent tune.
As usual, we see more talented British actors making appearance. Emma Thompson shines in her brief moments as the wonderfully flaky divination teacher. Stalwart character actors David Thewlis and Timothy Spall make their series debuts as well; Thewlis playing the first competent Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, harboring a dangerous secret, and Spall as a man that's spent 12 years hiding out as a rat. Julie Christie has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as a pub owner in the nearby town. But the most important new cast member has to be Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, after Richard Harris' death in 2002.
In the end, Prisoner of Azkaban is a far stronger movie than its predecessors. The filmmakers don't try and pack every frame of film with details for the books' fans, but wisely focus on the characters and story. Cuarón isn't afraid to cut out details that worked well in the novel but would have only slowed things down on screen (i.e. Snape making potions for Lupin). Sadly, this is the last Harry Potter film for Cuarón, and composer John Williams for that matter; I would have really liked to see what Cuarón would have done with later (and even darker) chapters in Harry's story.
Deconstructing Harry Dates:
- Day One: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
- Day Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
- Day Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
- Day Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
- Day Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
- Day Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)