Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Reviews
Fortunately for all concerned, this didn't happen. With Chris Columbus leaving the director's chair to spend more time with his family, the time was ripe for a fresh pair of eyes to come in and give the franchise the kick up the arse that it needed. With The Lord of the Rings trilogy now completed, garnering rave reviews and 11 Oscars, this would be the film that would need to justify going on. While Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban never quite comes close to Peter Jackson's brilliance, it is far superior to anything that came before in the series and set the bar very high for all that came after.
Alfonso Cuarón may now be a name toasted among film fans, following his gripping work on Children of Men and the groundbreaking visuals in Gravity. But he was by no means a shoe-in to direct. Guillermo del Toro said that he wasn't interested because it was too "bright and happy and full of light", while Marc Forster turned it down because of his work with child actors on Finding Neverland. In the end it came down to a three-way choice between Cuarón, Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, and Kenneth Branagh, who had appeared as Gilderoy Lockhart in the previous instalment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
The box office failure of Love's Labour's Lost probably deprived us of the heady excitement that would have been a Branagh-helmed Potter film. But there can be no doubt that Cuarón was a great choice, for one simple reason: he understands how fantasy storytelling works, particularly how any fantasy film must be underpinned by a sense of wonderment. Columbus' pathological desire to faithfully replicate the books on screen had robbed J. K. Rowling's souce material of all its sense of wonder and amazement. Cuarón restores the balance, giving us a darker plot with more developed characters and never losing sight of the magic in amongst the spells.
Put simply, all the details of the world of Harry Potter, and the story in which he finds himself, are more fully and strikingly realised in Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuarón gets a lot of the big stuff right early on, whether it's the light-hearted comedy of the Knight Bus or the chilling design of the Dementors. But he also puts in a lot of effort to make all the little details fit, particularly during the scenes at The Leaky Cauldron. Whether it's the self-stirring coffee, the angular corridors, the carnivorous books or the silently screaming wanted posters, you always feel that what you seeing is magic, rather than constantly being told that something is magic.
This magical feeling is reinforced by the film's colour palette. In my review of The Philosopher's Stone, I likened its visual style to sanitised adaptations of Charles Dickens which are common in America; as a general rule, I argued, British adaptations of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and the like are more content to leave all the edges on. This film is shot by Michael Seresin, Alan Parker's cinematographer-of-choice who would later team up with Cuarón again on Gravity. Cuarón clearly understands the darker, more distinctly British routes of the series and the genres upon which it draws, and allows Seresin to work his murky magic with piercing blues and encircling blacks, making it look like a horor film for children.
From a narrative point of view, Prisoner of Azkaban benefits greatly from the direct absence of Voldemort. On the one hand, the fact that he doesn't appear physically or personally in the story spares the film from becoming too repetitive or formulaic: it isn't simply retreading old ground and prolonging the inevitable. This is the trap into which the later Potter films often fell: we always knew that things would end with a showdown between Harry and Voldemort, and the more the films went on without it happening, the more irritating the tease became.
On the other hand, the Dark Lord's influence remains a background threat, allowing Cuarón to build a more intimidating atmosphere. In the first two films, Harry was constantly on the lookout for the man himself: we always knew who the bad guy was, even if we didn't know what form he would take. With Voldemort having to prey on Harry indirectly, he is forced to choose his friends more carefully, and learns over the course of the film just how deceptive appearances can be.
By putting Harry on more insecure footing, the film manages to epitomise his adolescent confusion about the world, and the conflict he faces in fulfilling a role which he didn't choose. The first two films often painted Harry as a goody-two-shoes who had perfect parents, but here we get the first hints of things being a little more nuanced than that. When Harry watches the Dementors kill him and Sirius, expecting his dad to come in and cast the patronus charm, he begins to realise that he cannot rest on their reputation if he is to grow as a wizard. While the next film in the series goes into this in more detail, threatening to tear apart the three central friendships, Prisoner of Azkaban does a good job of setting this up.
This brings us on naturally to the time travel element of the story. Anyone familiar with Back to the Future Part II, Twelve Monkeys or Timecrimes will instantly recognise the territory we are in, with the characters constantly trying to avoid running into themselves, and events being repeated from different perspectives. Coming as it does towards the end of the film, our natural instinct is to conclude that it's surplus to requirement, one twist too many. But if we allow it to play out and watch as all the pieces fit together, we discover that it ties into the central themes of trust, and reputation quite nicely. Besides, if we can accept the existence of horcruxes, sorting hats and hippogriffs, time travel isn't much of a stretch.
Despite all its darkness and intimidation, Prisoner of Azkaban also manages to be pretty funny. The scene where Potter beats up Malfoy and his thugs near the Shrieking Shack is a classic piece of British slapstick, with Tom Felton showing excellent timing through his many pratfalls. The interplay between Snape and Sirius is like a double-act in itself, with Sirius' manic energy coming up against Snape's stonewalling seriousness. Throw in the first scene with the boggart and most of the opening section, and you have a film which achieves a fine balance of light and shade.
With the young cast continuing to improve and grow into their roles, Prisoner of Azkaban also has a couple of aces up its sleeve in the adult cast. David Thewlis was an ideal choice for Lupin: he revels in his lanky physicality and whistful delivery, in stark contrast to his more tight-laced performance in Gangster No. 1. Gary Oldman's performance is equally remarkable, being much more operatic in scale but still retaining a gentle humanity. Oldman resists the urge to simply ham it up and play mad, imbuing Sirius with a tormented quality which makes him compelling.
In spite of all its successes, there are still a couple of problems with Prisoner of Azkaban. Despite the best efforts of Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves, elements of the plot are still repetitive or predictable. After three films, it's fair to presume that whoever holds the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts is going to be a villain in some form, and it is equally certain that Dumbledore will pop up at key moments to misdirect, drop hints or mischievously intervene. These tropes aren't enough to derail the action at any given point, but they are pinches of salt to be taken whenever anyone describes this film as ground-breaking.
Additionally, the film still feels longer than it should. This was the shortest of the three films at the time, at 142 minutes, and it remained the shortest until Order of the Phoenix three years later. But while the pacing is better than Columbus' offerings, it still feels like there is an awful lot of plot being squeezed in when the sensible thing would be to cut more stuff out. Cuarón keeps the fans at arms' length, deciding what he wants to shoot and leave in, but another couple of swift edits to get it down to two hours wouldn't have hurt.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a massive improvement on the first two films, justifying the continuation of the series and helping to explain its appeal to those out of the loop. While it's still too long and well-worn in places, it largely makes up for this with strong performances, interesting themes, much better pacing and a visual style that combines horror and fantasy to leave us really impressed. Whether it's the best Harry Potter film remains a matter of debate, but there is no debate that the later films owe their existence to its success.
Alfonso Cuaron took over as director, and he was an interesting choice. That he started taking things in a new and more serious direction was also a good thing.
Potter's third year at school is overshadowed by news that a wanted criminal associated with the death of his parents has escaped from an infamous magic prison, and that Harry may be his next target as a result. This also involves the (literal) soul sucking guards of said prison being employed to stand watch over the school. But Harry doesn't have to go it alone. As usual, his loyal friends Hermoine and Ron are there to help him out as he tries to deal with this looming news as well as further uncover the mysteries of his past.
I loved how drastic of a turn this one made from the last. Sure, it's not completely serious, but having it start to get that way is quite refreshing. This series has always had some good art direction and set design, but Cuaron really delivers the goods with some quite moody, eerie, and atmospheric stuff.
The effects are good as per usual, the music great, and once again, the core cast provide great performances.
Definitely check this one out. It's quite a ride.
"Have You Seen This Wizard?"
With Prisoner of Azkaban, Alfonso Caurón contributes is only film to the Harry Potter franchise. He got one shot at it, and he didn't miss. Many considered this the best film in the franchise(I believe that has changed for most). I still do like two or three movies in the series more than this one.
There's a lot to like here. Harry, Ron and Hermoine finally lose that innocent feel they had in the first two. They are growing up and as they up the tones of the movies begin to feel darker and darker. My favorite thing about this one is the fact that Gary Oldman is involved. He plays Sirious Black and although he doesn't have any screen time until the last part; he is still very good and has a powerful presence. Sirius Blacks presence overshadows the entire movie though; even though he is not onscreen. Sirius has broken out of Azkaban Prison and is now on the hunt. We learn how Sirius is connected to Harry and his parents. Also, we learn a lot about Ron's pet rat, "Scabbers."
The way the scenes where Harry and Hermoine go back in time were handled great. It's kind of funny seeing all those things that I thought were just coincidence.
This movie starts the progression into darkness that will occur in the rest of the movies. That innocence from Sorcerer's Stone is now completely gone. Caurón really deserves great for his excellent contribution to the franchise.
Unfortunately... once you hit the half mark this movie turns into a mosaic of incoherent events that unfold clumsily like a series of scenes from a High School Play. (like Black & Lupin confronting Pettigrew? So stupidly staged. Or them conveniently stumbling into 30 dementors?)
And the whole time traveling thing... Uh, overpowered magic much? Why wasn't/isn't it abused in future and past movies when they needed to get out of tough situations? Why the hell did a teacher give such a device to a student?! It's all so very, very stupid. Y'know what's also stupid? A Werewolf PROFESSOR who fails to check the calendar to make sure there's no full moon out that particular night.
All these plotholes really kill the "complex story" experience as the events all finally come together and "make sense" in the final acts of the film.
The best addition is director Alfonso Cuaron. A renowned Spanish filmmaker, who's previous film Y Tu Mama Tambien was a masterpiece, Cuaron injects a lot of visual flair into the shots. Take for instance how he accounts for the passage of time. He uses the image of the weeping willow and its reactions to the changes in season. Most directors would have just established scenes with a shot over Hogwarts, but Cuaron creates beautifully edited sequences. Also, he doesn't just use shot/reverse shot techniques when filming actors. He stages the action so the camera can linger and move with the characters, framing them in conjunction with their surroundings. Hogwarts is as much of a character as anyone else.
Instead of adapting the book page for page, this screenplay is extremely focused. Only scenes that move the plot forward are included, presenting themes and issues that involve the audience. The kids are growing up and so are the films. There is a lot of dark material that this film covers. The magical world of wizards and witches is just that, but it's also a dangerous one, and the misuse of magic, as well as the intentions behind it, can and do have serious consequences.
This is a great film and I can't wait to see what the next one has in store. Harry Potter is here to stay!