MovieHype00563 – HPIII
Warning: If you haven’t seen the first two Harry Potter movies, I cannot imagine why you’d be interested in a review of the third (unless you’re in love with me and hang on my every word, that is).
The best way I can think of to talk about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is to go over a bit of what’s different here from the first two films:
Longtime readers will note how important I feel the director is to the end result of a film. After helming the first two installments, Christopher Columbus has turned over the reigns to Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón. Nearly everything that’s different stems from this one thing.
Cuarón gives us an edgier film. There is a sense of urgency about events that permeates the screen, almost from the opening frame. Even when not much is happening, there is a dread that hangs over things. This is not your grandmother’s Hogwarts, and isn’t meant to be. There still is magic, but now instead of feeling warm and enchanting, we’re left with the fear that those bumps in the night might kill us. The first two movies had scary creatures, but never felt dangerous. Now it does. This is keeping with the feel of the third book, and I can’t imagine Columbus being able to make the transition.
This movie looks very different. Two of the chicks I saw it with were complaining that the Grand Hall was no longer so grand, and things were in different places. For example, there is a giant pendulum now, and instead of one building, we get more of a campus feel, with rolling hills, streams, and woods. Cuarón also gives us wonderful little grace notes, like a giraffe that wanders through for no apparent reason. He has also jettisoned the robes (except for classroom activities), in favor of more natural clothes that kids might actually wear to go traipsing around. The movie still feels magical, but grittier somehow, if that makes sense. To me, this is the best part of the film. As I explained to the women with me; imagine two artists painting the same scene. You can’t expect an identical canvas. It is here that non-readers might feel cheated, when they don’t see the same things from before. Most discerning readers, however, will appreciate that Cuarón has gotten the look more in matching with the tone of Book Three.
I wrote in my review of Troy that with adaptations, you have to let the source material go and judge the movie for itself. Nowhere is this more difficult than the Harry Potter series, with the unprecedented fan base bringing maximum enthusiasm, excitement, and expectations. Also, as the series has gone on, not only has the tone and feel gotten considerably darker, but the books are getting significantly longer, which makes them all that much more difficult to adapt.
I’ve long felt that Harry Potter, with its episodic storytelling of the school year, would work far better as a Television series. That way we’d get to see more of the little things, and if each character didn’t get on every week, there would still be time for them to develop and shine. However, since money makes the world go ‘round instead of what I think (at least, so far), of course it has to be movies. This means, though, that tougher and tougher choices will have to be made.
Cuarón realizes that he can’t do everything, and so, rather than pay lip service to as many parts of the book as possible, he has instead jettisoned everything unessential. This may well be something that non-readers don’t have as much trouble with (not knowing what’s missing), although one non-reader I saw it with felt the story was a bit jumpy at times. That’s partly because so much was cut.
It would be easy to criticize this decision, but remember two things: One, J.K. Rowling (the author) has final say over the scripts, and she loved this. So, apparently what was left on screen was what she felt was essential. Two, tell me how it could have been done differently, and still have kept the same feel.
What I think Cuarón has done is to decide that: far more important than the actual events, we need to see that Hogwarts is no longer a friendly place. What was once fun and mysterious is now foreboding and creepy. (In many ways, this is like growing up, which the series has always been a metaphor for anyway.) Even the Quidditch match feels more like D-Day.
To that end the effect of the movie is what Cuarón is going for. That’s why we don’t get as much classroom material, or day-to-day life. We’re expected to already know all of that from the first two installments. Instead we’re given Dementors (who look like the Nazgul from LOTR crossed with ocean-dwelling devil-rays), werewolves, vicious dogs (and other dangerous animals), a shrieking shack, and a prickling on the back of our necks. There are simply no wasted scenes.
Don’t get me wrong: there is still a lot of wonder. The hippogriff is as good as any of the creatures they’ve yet done, and the scene where it flies over the lake is simply magical. Harry’s Invisibility Cloak is more claustrophobic, but still gives us some great laughs. There is a fantastic bus scene that I wished could be longer. There are spinal cord candles, the aforementioned Quidditch match (which is a marvel, even if you feel a bit like it’s Saving Private Potter), and a scene with a stag that should make you smile.
There is also just the hint of the romantic feelings that all young teens eventually get. Being a couple of books ahead of the movies, I know where this is going, and it will be fun to watch develop.
Some of our old favorites are there: Snape, McGonagall, Hagrid, Neville, and Draco; but they have been given significantly less time. You can’t have everything, and it’s enough to know they are there. Dumbledore is a new actor—Michael Gambon—who I thought was fine but my friend Koz complained he was too short and lacked presence. Some of the great characters from Part II—like Dobby, Lucius Malfoy, and the Quidditch team—are gone completely for this installment.
There are new characters as well. David Thewlis is mysterious Professor Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Instructor (which previously, has not been a good sign). He did great. Emma Thompson (the only British actor over 40 not yet in the series) shows up as the Divination Professor Sybil Trelawney, and though her scenes are brief, they are the funniest parts of the movie. And then there is Sirius Black (the man who actually escapes from Azkaban), played by Gary Oldman. I’ve never been a great fan of Oldman, but his overacting plays perfectly here, and gave me chills.
That leaves our three main stalwarts; Harry, Ron, and Hermione. All three do significantly better than previous performances. This might be because they are concentrated on a bit more, it could be because they’re more comfortable now in the roles, or that director Cuarón is known as an actor’s director. Harry’s anger is growing, which I’m really looking forward to in the next movie. And Hermione…what can I say about Emma Watson? It’s not often I have to continually remind myself, “She’s only 14!” I think I’m in love with her. And it’s not that she’s beautiful (she’s pretty, but a little too young to have blossomed), but more a presence that carries her. I haven’t felt this way since Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls.
However, these characters are obviously growing faster than they can make the movies (the books take place one each year, age-wise). Obviously you don’t want it to turn into Hogwarts: 90210 (with 30 year olds playing high-schoolers), so these actors may very well have to be replaced with younger versions (they are all signed through Part IV, but not after that). If they do have to leave I’ll be sad, as I’ve grown to care for them.
This is a worthy entry into the series. I might have wished for a bit more of the plot, but I concede the difficulty in trying to do everything. You run the risk of missing your message, which is all important here. I’d rather have a shorter, leaner movie to savor, than a longer one that gets muddled. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will stand the test of time.
June 07, 2004