Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based upon the novel by J.K. Rowling. Produced by Chris Columbus, David Heyman, Mark Radcliffe. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Michael Seresin. Edited by Steven Weisberg. Production designed by Stuart Craig. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis.
In both J.K. Rowling’s novel series and the films inspired from them, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban represents a crucial turning point. The earlier stories (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) are devoted to establishing the characters and performing some necessary world-building; while they have their share of violence and gloom, these elements are treated with a gentle touch. In Prisoner of Azkaban, however, playtime comes to a close. It’s not that the story is a drastic departure from the previous entries, but still it probes deeper, gains a little maturity, and adds some darker colors to Rowling’s palette. We can sense her evolving as a storyteller, and making long-term plans for the future. From here, the direction is set for the subsequent Potter stories, which only increase in intensity as they go on. Ironically, Prisoner of Azkaban is the only story in the series that does not feature the evil Lord Voldemort in any capacity, and yet it lays more groundwork than any other installment.
In the films, the shift in tone brings a shift in directors. Chris Columbus, who guided the first two movies, made two perfect choices in bringing the series to life: he picked the right cast, and he hired production designer Stuart Craig (the two constants in the ever-fluctuating Potter filmic universe). Otherwise, Columbus was a journeyman director whose greatest achievement was getting out of Rowling’s way as he filmed her story. With Azkaban, the mantle passes to Alfonso Cuarón, a Mexican filmmaker of great vision who made the raw coming-of-age tale Y Tu Mamá También, yes, but also the charming fantasy A Little Princess, an update of Dickens’ Great Expectations, and, later, Children of Men, which is one of the best sci-fi films of the past decade. Cuarón seemed an odd pick at the time, but his qualifications speak for themselves: he is a charming storyteller, he knows how to use special effects, and he understands the cloud of adolescence, which, in a film where Harry officially becomes a teenager, is welcome.
It is under Cuarón’s hand in this film that the series begins to pop with a great vitality, and a sense of refreshed purpose. Previously, the series has been sweet, but also twee, and the child characters, though charming, felt perhaps a little over-precocious. But Azkaban is angrier, more rebellious, and a little more hormonal. Those additions are a great strength. The kids feel like real kids, and Cuarón takes pains to add legitimacy to their world: not a stuffy, idealized version of England, but a sideways version of the real thing. Among Cuarón’s welcome touches: the real streets of London, a television being watched at the Dursley house, clothes that real kids would conceievably wear. And then there’s the delightful moment when Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), in a moment of righteous anger, inflates his overbearing shrew of an aunt so that she floats up into the sky. That’s not the touch that grabs me, though. Instead, it’s the little bit where Harry then retreats to his room and kicks his luggage, enraged. Harry’s more fun when he’s angry.
Harry’s way of dealing with his aunt is illegal (the use of magic in front of non-magic “Muggle” folk is forbidden), but the Ministry of Magic is quick to forgive, since their efforts are already taxed by the escape of one Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban Prison. Azkaban is a place much-discussed but not seen, and when we meet the Dementors, the guards of Azkaban, we think we may not wish to. The spectral Dementors, who have trouble distinguishing between friend and foe and possess the ability to suck out a person’s soul, are meant to be a security measure to protect the Hogwarts grounds. But a nasty encounter Harry has with one on a train fails to make him feel any safer.
But who is Sirius Black? A powerful wizard and convicted murderer, and although he goes technically unseen for much of Azkaban, his motion picture prison photo, which shows him screaming in rage, casts a large shadow over the proceedings. It is said by every adult in Harry’s life (and why should he argue) that Sirius is the one responsible for the death of Harry’s parents. Has he come back to finish the work of the Dark Lord Voldemort? Already you can see that, between installments in the series, our stakes have risen several degrees: instead of pursuing a magical MacGuffin, our villain wants to kill our hero, plain and simple. Of course, things may not be what they seem. Or maybe they are.
In the previous films, while Harry is schooled in the art of magic at Hogwarts, the real drama happens in between classes, as the kids team up for side adventures. Here, Harry’s studies takes a more central role and are finally bestowed with a sense of mission. In order to overcome his fear of the Dementors, he seeks supplemental lessons, eventually learning the powerful Patronus charm (a positive force). For guidance, he appeals to the Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor, which is a Hogwarts position that suffers more turnover than Spinal Tap has with drummers. The new one this year is Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), a nurturing mentor who knew both of Harry’s parents, and sees their strength within him. There is also a mystery on campus involving Professor Lupin: what it is I will not say, although I will suggest to him that he may want to consider changing his name to avoid suspicion.
The plot is a loose construction, although not as loose as Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets, which suffered under a false belief that they had to squeeze every line of Rowling’s books onto the screen. Here, judicious editing pares down the narrative into something leaner, still finding time for the atmosphere and delight that is a staple of the Potter series. There’s joy in the little set pieces that dot the first hour, like Harry’ commute on the magical Knight Bus, or a later ride on a magical creature named Buckbeak. The film leaves some details out from Rowling’s novel, but they are not indispensible ones. It is the job of this adaptation to be, well, an adaptation, and by being more stringent, the film feels more like a film.
The other factor in that result, however, is Cuarón’s direction, which has a knack for telling the story in a visually interesting manner. I like the way he lingers on details, and doesn’t pound the audience with frantic editing. Several emotional scenes between Harry and Lupin happen in long takes, which isn’t a flashy trick but instead a controlled effort to connect us with Harry’s longing. Cuarón’s camerawork feels more off-the-cuff, more playful, less mannered than Columbus’ work, and he restores wonder to elements that were flat in the earlier films, like Hogwarts’ hallways, shifting staircases and picture gallery. The new locations that come into play with this film (permanently substituting Scotland for Hogwarts exteriors) create an enhanced sense of geography that Cuarón captures well.
The CGI, which called attention to itself in the other films, is better integrated here. Cuarón has savvy eye for special effects: he doesn’t just use them, he plays with them. There’s wit in the way he depicts the changing of seasons, constantly cutting back to the Hogwarts’ whomping willow tree for reactions. A later scene has Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) attacked by a scary tendril that throws her high into the air, the tension of which is only amplified by the little moment where she screams and then spins around so that, from high above, we see nothing but the soles of her shoes. One wonderful shot follows a spirit parading through the halls of Hogwarts until the camera finds Harry and allows him to take control of the shot, as the spirit continues to cavort in the background. Cuarón’s approach is correct, treating the special effects like a spice, not the main course.
The centerpiece of Azkaban is within the relationships: the friendships between Harry, Hermione and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), of course, which is the lifeblood of the series. But also the affection between Harry and the generous Lupin, and the emotions revealed when Harry comes face to face with Sirius Black, a man who is able to stir equal parts pain and passion. And the trio’s affection for the gameskeeper Hagrid, of course, which plays a big part here especially. And little moments that keep relationships alive for future installments, like the enmity between Harry and Professor Snape (the invaluable Alan Rickman) or Harry’s complicated relationship with Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris).
If anything, the Potter cast at even this early stage has grown so vast that sometimes the story doesn’t know how to juggle them all. Poor Ron Weasley, for example, has to once again watch Harry and Hermione do the cool stuff at film’s end. As the other movies will prove over and over again, sometimes characters will just turn up in a Potter story, just so we can check their name on the list. Poor Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, for example, who gives such sincerity to what amounts to only a few immaterial lines. But in a way, the cast control for the entire series is quite remarkable, treating some of them as if on a retainer that they are happy to be part of. Did you know that every time Harry’s parents have been seen in the past ten years, they have been played by the same two actors (Adrian Rowlins and Geraldine Somerville)? Now that’s attention to detail.
What ultimately makes Azkaban such a memorable entry in the Potter series (and my favorite of the films) is how well it captures the early stirrings of teendom. Harry is quieter and more reserved in this one, more potently lonely, more frustrated, and, when the time comes, more proactive and interesting. His final use of the Patronus charm is one of the most powerful scenes in all of Harry Potter, so pivotal in his development, and so well-prepared for within a movie of serious ups and downs. The story bristles itself with a sense of figuring out things yourself rather than listening to wrong-headed adults, which will inform future installments to greater degrees. And there’s a sly but unmistakable undercurrent of budding sexual maturity that Cuarón captures: not just the cute shot where Hermione and Ron join hands in a moment of tension and then self-consciously pull their hands away, but the metaphorical usage of magic throughout as a source of confidence and power. Note how even the very first scene shows Harry under his covers, playing with his wand….oh, don’t look at me like that.
Even the secondary characters get weighty things to deal with, like Hermione Granger’s growing sense of self-doubt: when Snape calls her a craven overachiever, the words sting her viciously. It’s a small moment, but I think it is important that we see her face when, at the end of this busy story, she finally gets a modicum of encouragement from an authority figure, however unexpected. It was this moment in the series, by the way, that I finally took notice of Watson as one of Harry Potter‘s most gifted child actors. She’s positively delightful in this installment, shedding her cutesy mannerisms for a slightly older joy and anger. Although Harry Potter is sometimes undervalued as an ensemble piece, Watson makes one of the strongest cases for it. When she finally takes an old-fashioned swing at snot-boy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), it’s as wonderful as her following, not-at-all guilty admission: “That felt good.”
As the Harry Potter series finally draws to a close (the finale Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II opens on Friday), we look back at ten whole years. Where has the time gone? Did we know way back in 2001, with Sorcerer’s Stone, that these three kids would go on to be so talented, so compelling, so eager to accept the challenges that this series presented? Did we know that Radcliffe and Grint would age into such handsome men, and Watson such a lovely young lady? Did we realize at the time that we were signing up for a series that would expand with such breadth and depth that it would become this generation’s Star Wars, with perhaps more humanity, scope and wit? We suspected. We hoped. But I don’t think we knew.
It’s really an incredible series, isn’t it? Not just for its storytelling, which is splendid, but for the way it has so effortlessly provided time capsules that we can cherish forever. It is often said that every movie is a documentary of its own making, and that is doubly true with Potter. We have witnessed these actors grow up on screen over the past decade, and at this point they hardly feel like characters, but instead friends. Or perhaps nephews and nieces, that we see every year or so, and take pride as they shoulder more and more of life’s challenges. I know that Deathly Hallows provides an epilogue for the Potter crew, but I will still think of them in the present tense, wondering how they are doing.
That such a series can make one feel this way is a high achievement. Credit goes to the actors, and of course to Rowling, and to the thousands of odd people employed in the making of these films, and most of all to the directors. Directors especially like Cuarón, who took all of these elements and made the first truly great Harry Potter movie, and set the bar for those that followed. It is obvious now, but it became clear with Azkaban that Harry Potter would go on to become one of the most succesful movie series of all time. And also one of the most fun, and the most deliciously, irrepressably versatile. Mischief managed? Quite so.
NOTE: John Williams provides his finest score for the series in this installment, easily trumping his remedial work in the first two films.
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