Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
141 min; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Gary Oldman
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good. "
I'm somewhat a minority among people I've talked to in this regard. I think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is clearly the best Potter film to date. As a big fan of the book I was really anticipating this one. As much as I like all of the Potter books, to me, Azkaban was the point where the Potter books moved beyond being merely enjoyable children's fare and gained some real poignancy, insight, and, yes, darkness.
Not that darkness is neccessary, especially in a children's book. But it was always lurking in Rowling's first two books anyhow. In Azkaban we first learn how truly terrifying Harry's world can really be. Nothing in the first couple really reaches the horror of the Dementors, the terrifying guards of Azkaban who are able to suck out your soul with their leech like kiss. Fortunately Alfonso Cuarón brings them to life admirably. Cuarón, who also directed 2002's Ý Tu Mama También and the children's film A Little Princess (me thinks that the latter was what qualified Cuarón for the job, due to the lack of explicit sex scenes in the Harry Potter series), brings his unique visual style and his understanding of teenage angst to this film in the series. His world is full of visual flare. Cuarón also challenged Radcliffe to really make Harry a real and challenging character. The result is I believe, true to the spirit of Rowling's book (as Executive Producer Rowling herself must have agreed or the film wouldn't have been greenlit).
Fans of the Potter books will challenge me on this I'm sure, citing dropped plot lines, changes to details and the shortest running time of the series, depsite the lengthier third book (though Lord of the Rings fans will know that I don't allow fidelity to get in the way of my enjoyment of an adaptation). Fans of the first two films (of which I was also one) will no doubt bristle at the changes to the Hogwart's grounds and the lack of school uniforms at all times. But I believe that what Cuarón and screenwriter Steven Klowes (who also wrote the first two screenplays) have done is make a film that narrows in on the tight clockwork (pun intended) of the story of the film, hightens the tension in the climatic scenes and makes a film that is much more beautiful to look at. As for that final half-hour of the film, (mild spoiler ahead) I've never seen a time travel sequence as well executed and knowledgable of the temporal consequences in any film. Notice the way in which the tension is built through "tick tick tick" in the background throughout the scene. This is a carefully constructed and tautly written thriller in the guise of a boarding school film. This is what makes Potter transcend other children's fantasy.
A word on the performances. As I noted earlier, Radcliffe adds new depth to his own portrayal of Harry Potter, going beyond the passive observer of the first two films and adding real fire and angst to the character (which is faithful to the book and especially important in the later two novels). Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (who is growing into a beautiful young woman, much to the chagrin of some who feel she is too pretty to be Hermione) excel in their supporting roles. Watson in particular is forced to carry much of the action in the last third of the film and rises to the occasion. The supporting adult roles also need to be commented on. Michael Gambon is excellent, replacing the late Richard Harris as headmaster Dumbledore. Gambon's Dumbledore has a spark and life to him, that I felt was missing in Harris's portrayal yet quite prominent in the books. Emma Thompson and Timothy Spall are excellent in their small roles. David Thewliss does a wonderful job, bringing authority and warmth to his role as the beloved Professor Remus Lupin. His conversations with Harry show genuine caring and I'm looking forward to Lupin's return in future installments. Finally, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. As Black, Oldman has to look appropriately frightening to begin with, and finally win us over with his charm and love for Harry. Oldman suceeds brilliantly. I for one hope that Oldman will return as Black for the next two films.
All in all, this is what I expect of an adaptation of a beloved book. It has wonderful performances, preserving the character and heart of the source, while streamlining and embelishing the story and visuals for the medium (as McCluhan says "The medium is the message"). I for one would love to see Cuarón take another stab at Rowling's mythology in the future. For now, however, we can all look forward to the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in July, and Mike Newel'sl (Four Weddings and a Funeral) adaptation of Goblet of Fire in November. Let's hope that another Potter film is sitting on my top ten list come next January.