Prisoner of Azkaban: Kristin’s Review
Jun 04, 2004
Along with TLC managing editor Melissa Anelli, I had the great pleasure of seeing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the cast and crew screening this past Saturday, and the incredible good fortune to be invited to attend Sunday’s London premiere at Leicester Square with Melissa and TLC editor Megan Morrison. This review is the first of many; Melissa’s, Megan’s, and those of other TLC staff to follow.
Spoilers, of course.
Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This movie is what I wanted the first two to be.
I like a lot about the film versions of HP I&II. Both movies are beautifully designed. Privet Drive, Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, the Burrow – while none of these places match exactly what I had in my head the first time I read the books, they are close enough to feel familiar and real. The casting of both movies was excellent – Daniel Radcliffe in particular looks a great deal like the Harry I’ve always imagined, and while some of the other cast may not look exactly like their literary counterparts, there isn’t an actor or actress who hasn’t brought some aspect of Joanne Rowling’s wonderful characterizations to life and added to my enjoyment of the series. Something else I liked about the first two films – the director. Chris Columbus seemed willing to consider criticism of the first movie in order to improve the second. He was under no obligation to do so, particularly in light of the box office success of the first film, and it’s something for which I have great respect.
But if the second movie was a step up from the first, the third is ten times better than the second.
Like the first two, this film has the plot and intrigue of the books, but it is contained within a visual framework created by a director who not only has the ability to give us what the author wrote, but the skill to show us how it made him feel. Chris Columbus directed literal translations of the first two books; Alfonso Cuaron directed his interpretation of the third, and for me, this has made the difference. This is a chancier path to take, but Cuaron is talented. The direct scene-by-scene translations of the first two movies made it easy for me to miss what was changed; with this one, it was over and I was standing to brush away spilled popcorn before I realized parts had been left out or re-organized. I can’t imagine ever seeing a film version of one of the books that engrosses me to the point that I forget all else, but this one achieved something I didn’t anticipate – as well as I know this book, Cuaron still managed to make much of the film unexpected. I like that.
Prisoner of Azkaban is very environmental, both in structure and setting. Those of you who have seen the (brilliant) Y Tu Mama Tambien will recognize Cuaron’s tendency towards wide angle, which serves to make the viewer feel a part of the sequence. There is one particular scene early on in the Leaky Cauldron that made me feel as if I were sitting at a table, just out of camera shot. For the same reason, the Buckbeak scene is a joy to watch, as is the Boggart scene. By giving us more than we really need, by not forcing us to focus on any one thing, Cuaron trusts the audience to take away what’s important. It’s a compliment. Much of this film takes place out-of-doors, which adds to the visual understanding of this world – when the Knight Bus races through London, you’re in London, and when Ron, Harry, and Hermione are on the grounds at Hogwarts, it’s what I imagine Scotland looks like, and all just dirty enough to feel real. Cuaron was clearly inspired by the first two films, but he didn’t hesitate to change elements – the Whomping Willow is now on a craggy hillside and has developed a personality; the first night of school feast now features entertainment. That these alterations work isn’t due so much to Cuaron’s ability to read our minds as to his willingness to fully flesh out his vision in order to make it believable.
The characters we meet in the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban are a treat. David Thewlis makes for such a brilliant Remus Lupin that after having read the book I don’t know how many times and having seen the movie only twice, I can no longer remember how I imagined him before. Oldman is not whom I pictured as Sirius Black, but he brings enormous talent to the part – his scenes with both Harry and Lupin are heartbreakingly perfect. The enormously gifted Emma Thompson, in Coke-bottle glasses and a frizzy wig, is a funny Sybil Trelawney, making us laugh even as she puts her classroom to sleep. The actors and actresses in the supporting roles – Jim Tavare as the Leaky Cauldron’s Tom, Lee Ingleby as the spotty Stan Shunpike, Dawn French as a new interpretation of the Fat Lady, Jimmy Gardner as Ernie Prang, Lennie Henry’s hilarious voicing of the Knight Bus’s shrunken head – these are all characters who shine, and remind us how much impact even the smallest part can have on a film. Michael Gambon, taking over for Richard Harris, makes for a quirky Dumbledore who has more apparent depth than in the previous films.
The returning actors and actresses, particularly the younger ones, have only improved. Daniel Radcliffe is now firmly lodged in my mind as Harry. He brings to the part the pain and fury Harry feels at finding out the truth about Sirius, as well as the subtle, dry wit that is essential Harry. Emma Watson is a great Hermione – she’s smart, bossy, and I cheered her on in this film (yes, she’s likely prettier than she should be, but it’s hardly her fault she’s growing into such a beauty). Rupert Grint is delightful as Ron. If Columbus didn’t quite know what to do with his talent in the first two films, Cuaron does. His reactions have toned down just the half notch required to make each line he delivers dead on. Tom Felton is as seemingly effortless as ever in his portrayal of Evil Git Draco Malfoy, and he is backed up as in previous films by the wonderful thuggish Jamie Waylett as Crabbe and by a new unnamed nasty played by Bronson Webb. Devon Murray’s Seamus Finnigan and Matthew Lewis’s Neville Longbottom go far in making you feel a part of Harry’s world, and are featured in an early Gryffindor Tower scene that is one of my favorites of the film. Twins Oliver and James Phelps, who seemed largely ignored in films I&II, are very funny here as Weasley twins Fred and George.
I’m forgetting people – I know I am. Pam Ferris? Perfect as evil Aunt Marge. Harry Melling? He’s Dudley, blond hair or not. My point – both new and returning cast are spot on – I wouldn’t change a one of them.
Of course, there are things I didn’t like – some that jumped out immediately, others that took multiple viewings to note. Almost all of my issues have to do with screenwriting. Something to settle early on – this isn’t the Ron from the books, and that’s not Rupert Grint’s fault. As wonderful as his performance is, Movie Ron isn’t written to be particularly intuitive or loyal. There are only two lines from this film that truly irked me; both come from Ron and in my opinion pointlessly alter his characterization (in an effort to keep this relatively spoiler-free, I’ve appended them to the end of this review). On the flip side, screenwriter Kloves continues to write Hermione too far in the opposite direction. Book Hermione’s strengths are her logic, drive, and intelligence, but she’s nowhere near as socially adept as she’s written for the films, and while her Draco smack down is darn satisfying, it’s missing the air of Hermione’s slow breakdown from the book. Again, this is no reflection on Emma Watson; like Grint, her performance is excellent, but she lacks Book Hermione’s flaws that ultimately make her a sympathetic character. A last thing to note is that there are lines here and there that may get unintended laughs. The fault is not with the actors’/actresses’ deliveries, and none of the lines I have in mind even begin to approach the infamously quotable “Who am I, Hedwig?”, but they unnecessarily replace very good lines from the book. I do think Kloves does a better job with PoA than with PS/SS and CoS, but I also wish he would re-visit the books before completing the script for Goblet of Fire.
Otherwise, there are a few scenes I wish had been added, but that’s because I would love to have seen Cuaron’s version, not because I think it a real mistake to leave them out of the film. Non-book reading viewers will be confused by the origin of the Marauder’s Map and Harry’s Patronus; again, I would have liked to have seen this, but I’m not outraged by the lack of explanation.
At the start of this review, where I said this is the movie I wish the first two had been, it’s with recognition that to even a tolerant fan of the books, the movies will never be perfect. This one isn’t – but then, I don’t see how anyone could flawlessly translate a book so beloved to the big screen, even if Joanne Rowling herself decided to take up screenwriting. If you’re still annoyed that Dan Radcliffe’s hair hasn’t been dyed black, you’ll likely be annoyed by aspects of this movie as well. But if you’re willing to let certain things slide, know that Cuaron, Columbus, and crew have done a great job.
(Scroll down for the Lines That Irked Me):
1. In a scene where Snape teaches Lupin’s class, he criticizes Hermione as a know-it-all who speaks without permission. In the movie, Ron whispers to Harry that Snape has a point. In the book, Ron defends Hermione to Snape.
2. Leaving Divination, Harry and Ron find the crystal ball that Hermione knocked off the table when she stormed out of class. Harry picks up the ball and says they should return it to the classroom. Ron says he’s not going back there. This serves to get Harry alone with Trelawney so that she can prophesize.
Both lines are minor and get laughs, but serve to make Ron less than he is in the books.
A line that didn’t bother me – Hermione getting Ron’s ‘You’ll have to kill us’ in the Shrieking Shack. In terms of this movie, it works.