Prisoner of Azkaban: Melissa’s Review
Jun 04, 2004
Yet another TLC review here (the embargo has expired, in case you hadn’t realized. Click below for my Prisoner of Azkaban review; spoilers of course!
Reviw: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
By Melissa Anelli
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a film. It’s not simply a movie, and it doesn’t even need to be called an adaptation. It’s a film, and furthermore, it’s an Alfonso Cuarón film – in every whimsical, fluid way – which alone is enough to set our fannish hearts aflutter.
This is the kind of film we fans have been waiting for, and I say that with no slight to Christopher Columbus’ detailed and arduous work on the first two films. I only say it with heavy praise for Alfonso Cuarón, who has churned out a tale that plucks almost every heartstring as the book.
The film is cohesive and tight and entertaining; it feels whole and satisfying and beautiful; it trusts its audience and loves its story and has fun in its own idiosyncratic world. Most importantly, it never stops to explain or set anything up – it just GOES, the way a film should, the way life and stories do.
It just feels right, and for me, a fan who still thinks that book three is the emotional center of the entire series so far, that’s saying a lot.
Cuarón knows what spirit is; he found it right in the core of the book. The movie is about Harry’s identity and growth, and it casts off all hitchhiking plots in aim of that goal. If you are not interested in the film being true to that spirit, and would rather the movie be a moving storyboard or comic book that hits every book element, you might as well prepare to be disappointed. If you’d rather the film rise up as its own art – well, then, you’re going to have a fantastic time.
This film has given me insight into what it must have felt for a true Lord of the Rings fan, to see precious source material streamlined and reworked to fit its new medium. Sure, I missed certain elements and the movie in my head would have liked more cinematic counterparts to certain plot points – but I was more than happy to sacrifice those personal whims to the mastery with which the film’s timeline is crafted.
Azkaban is so different from the other two films it defies comparison, but there are some important changes to note. Firstly and most importantly is the visual growth. Hogwarts is no longer just a pretty building; it has scope and breadth and location, thanks to Cuarón’s fondness for long shots that sweep over the Scottish countryside. It loses the cloistered boarding-school feel, which, for a film that takes place at a boarding school, could have been quite counterproductive. But since Hogwarts itself overlaps its own borders, so should the camera capturing it. Hogwarts is alive in the way we fans know and love; the Whomping Willow has such personality I almost sided with for destroying the broom that crosses its path.
The entire setting feels wilder, more interesting, more magical. These long, rich shots that Cuarón has spoke of so often aren’t only large landscape portraits; they’re injected with all sorts of miniscule detail you only notice on second and third viewing (and I have a feeling on fourth and fifth and sixth).
Cuarón has done a lot less of the “Ta da! Here comes some…MAGIC!” buildup and instead woven magic right into the tapestry. A quick look around the Leaky Cauldron – vividly portrayed as a dingy muckhole of an inn with a hunchbacked keeper and dodgy menu, a characterization at which I chuckle, for obvious reasons! – reveals subtly vanishing wine bottles, wizards with self-stirring coffees, and teapots that float in the air and pour themselves. And the best thing about these touches are that they are never showcased, never part of the main action; they lightly inhabit the background while Harry cuts through the frame, doing the work of 10 book pages in a single cinematic shot.
Even the Muggle world is (sometimes literally) fattened up. When Aunt Marge floats away, Cuarón chooses a long, receding shot that gives an almost palpable sense of the Dursleys and their pedestrian woes. Vernon and Petunia stare hopelessly after the inflated woman, flummoxed again by Harry Potter. Dudley, forced out of his seat only by a series of projectile buttons from Marge’s expanded suit, goes right back to watching television and eating custard right off his clothing. The soundtrack cuts out, leaving only the yammering of the (two) televisions, and the camera pulls back to survey it all from Harry’s view. Dursley existence has never seemed so banal or pathetic, and it’s painfully clear, in this one shot, that Harry is beyond them. He’s grown up – he’s the one with the emotions, the strength, the compassion, the heart, and this freakshow is no longer a place that can or should hold him. I wanted to help him pack.
Of all the acting growth in this movie, Daniel Radcliffe’s is the sharpest. He is all but unrecognizable from his action-hero Chamber of Secrets persona, which was satisfying enough at the time. Here, he’s more assured and confident, he has shades and smirks and understanding. He finally has a teenager shrug and a disdain for authority – and when he’s angry, he’s a scary person to behold. His anger at Aunt Marge is visible enough in his face, but when the lights flicker and the wind rattles the Privet Drive house, Harry’s power comes into sharp relief; later, in the Shrieking Shack, his power becomes downright scary. He is the Harry that needs to exist before Harry goes into his ALL CAPS MODE in book five.
But for all Harry’s anger, Radcliffe brings a much more important element to his performance: Harry’s intense vulnerability. In this film Harry’s orphaned state has never been so clear. When Radcliffe insists at the end that his father is coming, and says it with such belief, such naïve hope and childlike faith, it wrenches, and the yearn that glimmers in his eyes when he says it is beautiful. I was so grateful that Radcliffe understood that aspect of Harry’s character, and it was this, more than anything, that made me realize that Radcliffe hasn’t just grown into his spot as star of these films – he actually owns this one. Prisoner of Azkaban is his.
That’s a large compliment considering he shares the spotlight with the absolutely impeccable Gary Oldman, who is so pitch perfect as Sirius he actually made me hate him until the film reminded me I was supposed to like him. He switches our emotions about Sirius as easily as one does a light switch, and all in one emotional line in the Shrieking Shack.
Matching Oldman’s deft portrayal in every way is David Thewlis’ Remus Lupin. Listen up, fans: forget the quibbles about the mustache, please. This guy, in a word, rocks. His open and patient interchanges with Harry – his haunted reactions when faced with the ghosts of his schooldays – this is Lupin, in every way.
The teens (we can’t call them “kids” anymore) just act like teens in this film; they push and scrape at each other in the halls, they divide into jeering factions, they pull out their shirttails and roll up their sleeves, fuss over their hair, sneer at teachers and talk back with relish. They unwittingly lay their romantic interests so plainly on the table that it’s comical – Ron and Hermione’s blooming relationship as obvious as a flashing neon sign to anyone but them, which is as true a statement about puberty as anyone can conjure.
It feels as if the film has hit just as much puberty as the characters – and with the same grace and spot-free road as the actors have been lucky enough to experience. There is no mistaking a subtle wink-wink about the opening sequence, where Harry is under his bedcovers, doing exactly what he does in the book: trying to study without waking the Dursleys. But the way it’s portrayed, and the way it stamps and heralds the film, seems like a big Cuarón announcement that says watch out, these films are growing up, and if you aren’t ready for that, perhaps you should leave the party.
The teen actors have all grown so confident that it’s hard to be anything but proud of them. Emma Watson plays the “girl power” Hermione with such fun and authority that it forgives the scriptwriter’s blatant misunderstanding of her character (yes, she is a powerful girl who plays a tremendous role in this installment, but she is also flawed, nervous, motherly and stressed – not a socially adept superstar who happens to be taking a few extra classes and oh, going back through time just to manage her life). Watson is as Cuarón says she is: a beautiful actress who we can see listens intently, reacts to her surroundings, brings this character as vividly alive as she can – we can only hope in Goblet of Fire someone decides to think enough of Rowling’s characterization to have it actually represented, because seeing Watson play Hermione’s faults will be a true joy to watch, as well as a challenge for her.
Tom Felton has turned into a fine character actor, and not because he has more swagger, or has gotten under the true menace in his character’s confidence; it’s because when he is truly scared, he allows himself to go there. He allows himself to look utterly terrified, whimpering and cowering and sniveling like a baby. For a young actor, particularly one who is portrayed as the utmost of cool in the media at large, this is an exceptionally brave thing to do.
Of course, I’m not without my gripes, but there will be no Harry Potter fans who don’t come away with gripes. This time, the gripes are so small I’m almost reticent to mention them.
Almost. I said it last time and I’m going to say it loud and clear again this time in case ANYONE has missed it: RON. IS. BRAVE. You don’t even need to read the books to know that, you only need read the interviews in which J.K. Rowling has said exactly that.
Prisoner of Azkaban is arguably Ron’s bravest book, and while he has a much more integrated role in this movie and does seem more a friend of Harry’s than he’s been in the past, and while Rupert Grint plays him to the best we can expect (he really does have brilliant comic timing), Ron is different. He does not show the moral fiber and throw-himself-in-front-of-a-train-for-his-friends bravery that is so important to his character that I find myself flabberghasted such an accomplished bunch of creative people seem to have missed it.
I say this with absolutely no reference to the “If you want to kill Harry” line being given to Hermione; in terms of the film it was the right choice, and I agree with it. But if you’re going to take something from Ron that is so important in demonstrating his character, something else has to replace it that does the same in a way that serves the movie. Since this core component of Ron’s character is sorely missing, we are left with a different Ron – a Ron who does things he’d never do, like agree with Snape on the spot, out loud in class, about Hermione being an insufferable know-it-all. It just seems, again and again, that Ron is stripped of his best traits in favor of being a face for a quick laugh – in favor of shoehorning the trio into classic and tired roles.
One of the most beautiful things about the books is that the trio makes a fluid unit – they complement each other, they cannot get through the tasks at hand without each other. They are a heroic unit that stands apart from Harry’s heroic persona. In the movies Ron continues to contribute nothing to the whole except wisecracks and some plot points. I am amazed that three movies have gone by and it hasn’t been fixed – please, someone, fix it. Fix it before Goblet of Fire – Ron is someone we should love for more than shallow humor. Rowling’s characters deserve more than that.
But these are tiny gripes that for the most part do not take away from the overwhelming love I have for this film. It holds the same preciousness for me among the movies as the source material does among the books. It’s one I’ll watch again and again. I’ve seen it three times, and tonight will see it a fourth, and tomorrow will see it a fifth, and when it comes out on DVD I’ll curl up on my sofa to watch it again – not because it’s a Harry Potter movie, but because it a film, all on its own.