Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

directed by Alfonso Cuaron

written by Steven Cloves, novel by J.K. Rowling

starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman


review by Stephen Notley

See, now, *that's* how you do a Harry Potter movie.

Superficially, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban looks a lot like its two predecessors, HP & The Philosopher's Stone and HP & The Chamber of Secrets. The pretty-much-perfect cast is the same (minus Richard Harris as Dumbledore), the gorgeous production design is the same, and of course the world and the plotline is the same, the Harry Potter world that mixes monsters and mages with regimented English boarding school life in which Harry runs around casting spells and playing Quidditch and overhearing conversations and generally spending the school year solving a mystery.

What's different is that workmanlike director Chris Columbus of the first two films is out while Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron is in. And man, what a difference a director with emotional understanding makes to a movie. Columbus was a logical enough choice for the first two Harry Potter films, very Hollywood no-brainer. He'd shown he could work with kids (Home Alone), and with lots of special effects (Bicentennial Man) and that his movies could earn hundreds of millions of dollars (Home Alone again). And for the Potter movies he proved as good as his reputation, ably transcribing almost every scene in Rowling's novel to the screen. He just didn't quite know how to make any of it mean anything, resulting in slideshows of magical gadgetry with little emotional resonance. I remember with particular annoyance the Sorting Hat scene of the first film, a pivotal private moment in Harry's life achieved in the movie by rotating the camera 360 degrees around Daniel Radcliffe while a computer-generated hat yapped and talked on top of his head. Yeesh.

Cuaron, on the other hand, knows meaning. His last movie was the frankly excellent Y Tu Mama Tambien, a sexy teen road movie that tied together boys and woman and Mexican class and Mexican history and Mexican now with uncommon sweaty grace and perception. In Prisoner of Azkaban Cuaron creates emotional responses the old-fashioned way, with telling visual choices and carefully timed moments rather than by plonking another $20,000 computer effect on the screen --though when he *does* plonk a $20,000 computer effect on the screen, it works (most of the time).

It's light but persistent, the emotional thread that winds through Azkaban, working subtly and meaningfully through Harry's abbreviated feelings about his parents, his sense of loss and anger about their murder when he was an infant. Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the best book in the series, layering more complex moral and emotional ideas onto the light-hearted magical fun that had come before, and the big way it does this is with the Dementors.

Dementors are the monsters, and they're pretty nasty. Hooded wraithlike spectres, they force you to suddenly relive the worst moments of your life; then they feed on all the shame and hurt and regret and hopelessness you feel. Nice, huh? How do you defend against them? With the Patronus spell, with the wand and the incantation and the summoning of the most joyful, hopeful, best and most beautiful moments of your own life. And that's where Harry Potter got good, when this story wasn't just about ogres and magic hats any more, it was about *you*.

Other stuff is great in this movie. The magic is back. In Columbus's films it was all "Hey, Magic Candy! Magic Cape! Magic Car! Magic This! Magic That!" In Azkaban it's like yup, magic, all around in the day-to-day, a broom scuffling behind a cleaning lady in a dingy magic hotel. Wizards and witches cast spells, idly close doors and slam windows with flicks of their wands. Proper pronunciation counts. It's real, it's there, and for the first time it actually starts to feel magical.

I love David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, third and so far best in the ever-rotating position of Hogwarts' Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. He's a really good magic teacher; he gives a great class on the Ridikulus spell, even better and perhaps closer to my heart than the Patronus, in which you face your darkest fear, append some nonsensity to it and laugh it into dust. There's a nice scene between Thewlis and Harry on a frankly sweet bit of Hogwarts property. That kid Malfoy's back, still being a dick. It's good to see these kids grow up, both as actors and as characters. Harry's a slightly spooky-looking teenager now, openly using his wizard power, and Hermione, she's so "the most remarkable witch of her generation." And I love the Whomping Willow beating out the seasons.

With all that behind it, sadly Azkaban kinda blonks the third act. Much of this is the fault of the book, but courageous screenwriting could have done something. As it is Voldemort, the key figure of evil in the Harry Potter universe who appeared as a face on the back of a guy's head in the first movie and as a set of memories in a diary that possessed Ron's sister in the second movie, here he appears in name only. Since in Azkaban the plot relates to a bait-n-switch as to the identity of the bad guy and the eventual revelation of a guilty *associate* of Voldemort, the collision of conflicts is not particularly keen, and the fact that the climax is reiterated doesn't so much build the tension as sap it away slowly.

Still, the threads of family and the generational nature of the building conflict in the Wizarding world have been laid down; it'll be interesting to see how the next films deal with the increasing political complexity of the books down the line. But for now Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a step in the right direction, keeping all that was great about the first films while layering in new levels of goodness. Yes! Finally a Harry Potter movie I can praise!

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