Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
2004Director: Alfonso Cuarόn
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman
n the opening weekend at the latest installment of the Harry Potter series I found myself in a hulking theater crammed with unruly children. Huddled under my jacket (the air conditioning was expectedly cranked to the max, thus bypassing the desired comfort zone to instead make for a rather frigid environment) I fumbled with my now dead flashlight pen (the battery ran out five minutes in) scrawling notes in this impossible darkness. These notes would, of course, later turn out to be indecipherable. Needless to say it was a less than inviting state of affairs. I relate this to perhaps explain my response to the film. After all, at times it’s difficult to separate the experience from the setting, especially when everyone is laughing at jokes you know aren’t funny.
Still, I had been greatly anticipating this film, most likely on account of the change in direction from Chris Columbus of Home Alone notoriety to Alfonso Cuarόn (Y tu mamá también). What effect would his presence have on the franchise? Would he stretch the limits of a family film to the breaking point? Would he retain his past visual style? Any sex?
Sadly, it seems that Mr. Columbus had his hand in this more than Cuarόn likely wanted. My initial reaction was one of disappointment. Not that the film itself was bad, but I just couldn’t help but expect more of a departure from the prior installments.
It took a day or two before I began to reassess the finished product. True, it’s still in the spirit of the Harry Potter films, but it’s clear that Cuarόn pushed it as far as the studio was likely to let him. It certainly is a more ominous venture. Most of the scenes take place at night and those that do occur in daylight are either marred by a violent thunderstorm or at least contain threatening clouds on the horizon.
In addition, the first ten minutes or so utilize a handheld camera that recalls Cuarόn’s work on Y tu mamá También. Unfortunately, Cuarόn abandons this style, which gave those opening sequences some much-needed realism, in favor of steadier shots and scenes containing garish tracking shots. I suppose it was the only reasonable way to shoot all the CG effects, but it still would have been a treat to explore the film’s world in a less conventional style.
And approaching from behind is the largest of the Evil Mutated Killer Pumpkins...
Aside from the handheld camera, Cuarόn manages to make his mark in other ways using the occasional long-take as well as closing the iris as a form of scene transition (a technique that recalls silent era cinema). At certain points I couldn’t help but suspect he might be drawing inspiration from the German Expressionists. Clearly, the nature and tone of the film would have worked in such a context with its evocative and painterly settings. It appeared to be his intention to push the film in a more erudite direction whereas Columbus seemed more concerned with making the films universally readable.
The problem with all these admirable techniques is that the story remains rather mediocre, a situation that, as we learned from Gus Van Sant’s substandard Elephant renders the movie as a whole largely unsatisfying. For this I’m sure Cuarόn is blameless as it is probable that he couldn’t alter the story all that much (I’ve never read the books so I may be mistaken).
The film opens with Harry at his foster home awaiting the arrival of his Aunt. When she sits down for dinner, she unleashes a string of derogatory remarks directed towards Harry’s biological parents. This incites a burst of anger in Harry, who uses his magic to transform her into a giant floating monstrosity which subsequently gets blown out the back door and up into the sky.
After this incident, Harry decides to run away from home but is picked up by a triple-decker wizard bus (!) and taken back to Hogwarts. It’s there that he learns a homicidal maniac known as Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban Prison with the intention of tracking Potter down and murdering him (it’s suspected that Black was the one responsible for the death of Harry’s parents).
After that we spend the rest of the movie just waiting for that confrontation. This would be effective in building up the tension in the same way that, say, Spielberg withheld the appearance of the shark in Jaws or Coppola depicted the long trek to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, except that what happens throughout the middle of the film isn’t generally interesting enough to retain our focus. I simply forgot about Black and instead found myself focusing on the technique of the film rather than worrying about some stupid flying creature that was sentenced to death, or how Hermione seemed to be taking two classes at once.
Gary Oldman, with his typically understated subtlety...
The only intriguing sequences involved the Dementors (looking suspiciously like the Ring Wraiths from the Lord of the Rings) who act as guards of Azkaban sent to track down Sirius Black. Harry has a few confrontations with them that literally nearly suck the soul from his body.
To its credit, the last twenty minutes of the film are quite refreshing and prove that Cuarόn still could draw us back in after a mediocre second act. I liked the way things work out in the end. The previous two films contained truncated endings that tied everything up too neatly. At least The Prisoner of Azkaban allows for a more realistic bittersweet ending rather than the conventional “everything works out” denouement.
Ultimately the film shines in isolated moments but grows a bit gaudy when taken all at once. Still, it’s far more entertaining than The Sorcerer’s Stone, but, for my money, The Chamber of Secrets was the most exhilarating of the series. Then again, I’m a twenty-three year old analyzing the film techniques used in a Harry Potter movie. How much can you really trust me?