Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban opens with the boy wizard, now 13 years old and chock full of testosterone, in bed with his head under the covers, furtively playing with his wand. Read into that what you will. A scene later, Harry unleashes a blast of adolescent rage at the Dursleys, his ghastly guardians, that is so roof-rattling, it makes James Dean’s outbursts in Rebel without a Cause look like hissy fits. Harry runs away from the Dursleys’ and sits on the curb at twilight near an empty playground, the swings and teeter-totters groaning slowly in the wind. This is Harry Potter at childhood’s end, facing emotional and physical changes that are much scarier than any three-headed dog, giant snake, or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third and by far the best of the Harry Potter movies. For one thing, it has the advantage of being based on J.K. Rowling’s most satisfying book; for another, it’s directed by the brilliant Mexican-born Alfonso Cuarón, who breaks director Chris Columbus’s death grip on the franchise. The choice of Cuarón was as inspired as it was logical — in films as varied as 1995’s A Little Princess (a reinvention of the classic children’s story about an orphan at a boarding school who finds solace in her imagination) and 2001’s Y tu mamá también (a muy caliente road picture about two teenage boys and their romp with an older woman), his main themes have been the death of innocence and sexual awakening.
Although there is, of course, no actual sex in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the whiff of puberty is everywhere. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends at Hogwarts Academy, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), are suddenly looking very mature. Hermione and Ron bicker more than usual, with a new undercurrent of puppy-love tension. Hermione, willowy in her pink sweatshirt and hip-hugger jeans, greets womanhood in butt-kicking heroine mode, decking snotty blueblood Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) for insulting her parentage and saving the day with her "time turner," a gizmo that allows her to change the course of events. As for Harry, he’s a moody mess; longing for his dead parents, he’s scared and confused by the heavy burden — savior of the wizarding world — that has been thrust upon him.
As he did with his young actors in A Little Princess, Y tu mamá, and his imaginative 1998 updating of Great Expectations, Cuarón coaxes nuanced, natural performances from his three leads, who are all much more relaxed and skillful than they were in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). The Prisoner of Azkaban is as emotionally alive as the previous movies were ploddingly literal. It’s a fluid, engaging film with no dead spots of exposition or fancy but pointless re-creations of every damn station of the cross in the book. Best of all, there’s only the tiniest bit of sleep-inducing (for adults, anyway) Quidditch. Diehards may leave the theater pissed off at Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves for tampering with the Potter canon — they change the sequence of some events and leave out plenty more stuff that is going to have to be explained in future movies. All the same, The Prisoner of Azkaban captures the spirit of the books (which are darker and wittier than the uninitiated may assume) better than either of the previous films. It’s a great coming-of-age movie, lovely and terrifying in its depiction of the moment when the veil begins to fall from a child’s eyes and the complexity of the adult world is glimpsed but imperfectly understood.
The story begins with Harry returning to Hogwarts for his third year. There’s trouble on the horizon: the mass-murdering wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an alleged follower of the evil Lord Voldemort, has escaped from Azkaban prison, the Alcatraz of wizard clinks. Word on the street is that the deranged Black is out to kill Harry and thus clear the way for Voldemort (who murdered the infant Harry’s parents but was repelled and weakened when he tried to kill Harry) to rise again. On the train to Hogwarts, Harry is beset by Dementors, creepy-looking, bony-fingered, hooded wraiths who guard Azkaban and suck every drop of happiness out of their victims. The Dementors are supposed to be looking for Black, but they take an interest in Harry, who is strangely susceptible to them; he hears his mother’s final screams when they draw near. (Note to parents: this is not a movie for young children.)
Also on the train to Hogwarts is Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), a threadbare figure with a weak moustache who’s been hired as the school’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. The kindly Lupin was a friend of Harry’s parents, James and Lily, when they were all at Hogwarts together, and he takes the boy under his wing. Lupin teaches Harry and the other students how to face their worst fears by repelling a Boggart — the embodiment of those fears — with a "Patronus," an incantation that summons a protective force if the user can harness a happy memory to power it. From Lupin, Harry learns that he shares his father’s exceptional talent for conjuring a Patronus, as well as for making mischief. And from some well-timed snooping, he learns that Sirius Black too was at Hogwarts with James, Lily, and Lupin. Harry also witnesses some mysterious animosity between Lupin and another former classmate, the dour Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). When Black, Lupin, and Snape have a turbulent reunion in the abandoned "haunted" house known as the Shrieking Shack, Harry, Ron, and Hermione see how the bonds and traumas of adolescence are not easily broken or overcome.
Although the conflicts of The Prisoner of Azkaban are more emotional than supernatural, the action and special-effects sequences are still pretty awesome. Buckbeak, a magical hippogriff (an eagle-horse hybrid that flies), is darn cute. The triple-decker Knight Bus that takes Harry from the Dursleys’ to the wizard inn the Leaky Cauldron at breakneck speed looks just as it should. And this is the first of the movies to make full, wry, wondrous use of the animated paintings that line the stairways and halls of Hogwarts. Cuarón has a distinctive visual style, and it’s displayed here to the hilt. Working with cinematographer Michael Seresin (also new to the Potter films), he fills the screen with his signature gliding camera work and wide-angled shots, favoring deep, long corridors and outdoor vistas that seem to stretch on forever. As in A Little Princess and Great Expectations, the film’s muted color palette is dominated by shades of green. The new Hogwarts courtyard/clock-tower set is breathtaking, suggesting both Mayan and ancient British ruins. By locating many scenes outdoors in overcast daylight on verdant hillsides, and by dressing the kids for much of the film in ordinary "Muggle" clothes instead of school uniforms, Cuarón opens up Harry’s world, makes it more immediate and familiar. The effect is more magic realism than fantasy.
Cuarón’s sweet nature and sense of play infuse the movie — The Prisoner of Azkaban is the first laugh-out-loud-funny Potter film, from the hilarious background details in the Leaky Cauldron scenes (watch the waiters and the patrons at the other tables) to the improved comic reactions of the young actors (particularly Radcliffe and Felton). The adult actors seem to be having a grand time as well. Michael Gambon plays Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (the role originated by the late Richard Harris) as a caftan-clad old hippie, as mischievous as he is mystical. Emma Thompson, new to the Potter roster, is a hoot in her brief turn as hapless Divination teacher Sibyll Trelawney, who exhorts the students to "look beyond" but can’t see past her own nose, despite thick glasses that magnify her eyes. Snape’s screen time suffers the most from the liberal restructuring and editing; he plays a major role in the book, but in the film, many of his scenes are drastically pared or missing. The ever-game Rickman, however, wrings maximum impact from few words; at the screening I attended, the audience cracked up at his ominous uttering of the simple command, "Turn to page three-hundred-and-ninety-four." And as the Boggart Snape conjured by fearful Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), he gets the best entrance in the movie.
But it’s Lupin, with his shabby dignity and tender concern for Harry, who’s the emotional counterweight to the teenager’s sadness and anger, and Thewlis brings great warmth to his father-figure role. Oldman, who hasn’t appeared on screen in a while, makes a riveting Black; his intense Shrieking Shack scene with Thewlis and Rickman is almost an embarrassment of riches as the three pros go at one another with vigor and commitment. In the book, this scene sets up the even more intense confrontations among Black, Lupin and Snape that come in the fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; it’s enough to make you hope that Cuarón returns for that film. Heck, can’t he just direct all four remaining Potter movies? And while he’s at it, maybe he can get hold of Hermione’s time turner and go back and work his magic on the first two.
Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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