Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Review

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Something better this way comes

Not to knock Chris Columbus, cause I think the man is a fine director, but after watching Prisoner of Azkaban (again) it became apparent that the first two Harry Potter’s, as good as they were, had not touched upon the series' true potential. It could be because J.K. Rowling’s original story started to turn the series into much darker territory (an even greater leap than the second took over the first). It could also be because the actors have become more natural in their acting and hitting their stride. Of course, there is another simple explanation for all these advancements. While actors and stories should expectedly get better (but oftentimes get worse), it usually takes someone new to step in and breathe fresh life into the series. For Harry Potter, that man is director Alfonso Cuaron.

Plot Synopsis: After running away from his relatives the Dursleys for blowing up his aunt like a balloon, Harry Potter finds his way back to the wizarding world thanks to the help of the Night Bus. During his trip, Harry learns of the convict Sirius Black, who has escaped from Azkaban prison and is also the person who helped Voldemort find Harry’s parents so that he could kill him (though as we know that proved very unsuccessful). Because of his escape, Azkaban has allowed its ghoulish guards, the Dementors, to roam around the local area and Hogwarts in search of Black. An encounter with one soon leaves Harry unconscious, as we learn that they can suck out people’s souls and all their happiness goes away. He is saved by Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who may be harboring a dark secret about his inner self. When it is soon revealed that Sirius was not only a friend of the Potters but also is Harry’s godfather, Harry’s anger towards Sirius now rises to a much more personal level.


Now to the average layman, a change in directors usually goes by unnoticed. It is saddening to know that most viewers may lose the opportunity to truly notice the change that has occurred in the shift from Chamber of Secrets to Prisoner of Azkaban, since Prisoner feels much more “movie-like” than its predecessors. As good (yet slightly flawed) as Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber were, they seemed to be more like translations of the books than true movies (not a hugely negative thing mind you). Part of this has to do with a quicker pace, which is attributed to the decision to simply cut to the chase and leave out most of the unnecessary elements in the book. Prisoner may be the longest of the first three books, but its movie runs a good 10-20 minutes shorter than the previous adaptations since it edits out the flab. Sure, there are still some scenes that do not add much to the story (the Dursleys), but that is to be expected.

Because Cuaron is a much more visual (and overall better) director than Columbus, the story becomes much more engaging on both an emotional and visceral level. The action beats, such as the final dementor attack and the Quidditch match, have been noticeably pumped up in their intensity as Cuaron’s flowing camera swoops through scenes with style and energy. One scene is particular, Harry’s ride on the hippogriff Buckbeak around the grounds, is absolutely stunning in its visual beauty, easily ranking as one of the series most memorable and touching moments (in no small part also due to John Williams’ excellent score). Also, for those keeping a close eye, watch how Cuaron emphasizes clocks and time, which leads up to the film's unique and twisty climax. Too bad he couldn’t stay in the director’s chair for any of the other sequels, as it would’ve been nice to see how he may have handled them.


It is also apparent that the acting of the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, have also benefited from a director who is more skilled with actors. It also helps that this is their third time playing the characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione respectively, so they have become pretty well versed with their respective traits. Radcliffe in particular has been given a large boost, as he is much more natural and slightly less awkward than before. As many of you know, the Harry Potter movies at this point have become notable for their sterling adult British casts, and now they can welcome a few others into the circle. David Thewlis, as the new Defense-Against-the-Dark-Arts teacher Remus Lupin, is the highlight here, with several other actors making first time appearances. Michael Gambon ably acquits himself into the role of Professor Dumbledore, who was previously played by the late, great Richard Harris. Gambon is slightly colder and more stern-faced than the gentle Harris, but his portrayal is still a fine, if different, one. Some of the smaller roles are hit-or-miss, with Gary Oldman doing a great job as Sirius, yet Tom Felton continues to overplay Malfoy with cringe worthy bombast.

If there is one flaw of note in Prisoner of Azkaban, which is also inherent to the book, it is the lack of a true villain. Because Voldemort is almost never mentioned and Sirius stays in the dark for most of the movie, Prisoner feels more like a side-story than a cog built into the big picture. Don’t get me wrong, on its own the movie approaches greatness, but when it comes to its placement in the overall story arc, its role is mostly decreased. Still, it has become apparent that we can expect great things from later entries since the bar has now been raised.


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