A film review by Craig J. Koban

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN jj
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2004, PG-13, 136 mins.

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe / Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint / Hermione Granger: Emma Watson / Sirius Black: Gary Oldman / Professor Lupin: David Thewlis / Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon / Professor Snape: Alan Rickman

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron /  Written by Steven Kloves / Based on the novel by J. K. Rowling

It’s a funny thing being a pre-pubescent wizard. 

First, you have to deal with continuing with your education in the witchcraft arts.  Second, you have to spend your summers with an emotionally abusive set of relatives.  Third, you have to solve puzzles and murder mysteries and deal with the truth of your parent’s murderer.  And lastly, you have to face the fact that an evil villain has escaped from prison and apparently wants to end your life. 

Geez, who has time to deal with pimples, hair in weird places, and girls when you have a plate that full?

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is the third film in the ridiculously famous and successful film series based on the equally popular books by J.K. Rowling.  It’s also the series’ most narratively slow and weak entry. The first film introduced us to the characters and where they came from. We met the very young Potter and his journey towards becoming a wizard (which, conveniently, is his destiny).  The second film, for my money, was better, and showed a genuine maturation of the development of the characters with a much more realized screenplay.  Both of the first films were very dense in terms of their stories and, frankly, very slow moving.  This was probably due to director Chris Columbus’ desire to stay absolutely faithful to the original source material.  With AZKABAN we have a film that, as my Internet research goes, is based on the longest book of the series and is, ironically, the shortest film so far in the series.  That’s a good thing, in one capacity, since the third film feels more like an attempt at streamlining the stories for the tight confines of the cinema.

The problem is…nothing much interesting happens in the third film, as it seems to suffer from what I call Third-film-itus.  C’mon, how many third films in a series are really that good?

That’s not to say that there is nothing to admire in AZKABAN.  The film definitely has a stand-alone feel to it and is much more streamlined.  It also has a wonderful new visual look and feel to it, compliments of director Alfonso Cuarón (an unlikely choice as a replacement for Columbus, seeing as how Cuaron’s last film was the erotic and sexually laced Y Tu Mama Tambien).  Yet, the film did not have the magic and sense of adventure of the first films and seems more preoccupied with explaining things and long, long expositions.

AZKABAN opens in a humorous scene involving Harry’s summer stay with his evil and abusive relatives (why he continues to stay with such people is way beyond me…someone please call social services).  He returns for his third year at Hogwarts School with some bad news.  It seems that the evil and sinister Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban Prison.  Sirius, for the uninitiated, was convicted in Voldemort's plot to murder Harry's parents.  It appears now that he would most definitely like to finish the job by killing Harry. To make matters worse, grim wraiths named Dementors (whom seem all-too-derivative of their LORD OF THE RING counterparts) are stationed at every entrance to the school to ward off Sirius.  Unfortunately, the Dementors are not the most pleasing of chaps, as they seem to be able to suck away the soul essence of their victims.  What’s a good wraith to do?

As with every HARRY POTTER film, we are introduced to a series of colourful new faculty members.  One of them, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) tutors Harry in a tricky incantation said to provide protection against the dark magic of Sirius.  The other is Professor Sybil Trelawney (a painfully underused, but terribly funny Emma Thompson), whose tea readings reveal death in the leaves for…well…someone.  Dumbledoore returns, but is this time played by replacement Michael Gambon , who does not miss a beat.  Most viewers  may not even notice the change. Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) also comes back to parade around for two and a half hours dressed in black and looking wonderfully dark and sneering.  Harry is also again joined by his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) in his Hardy Boys-esque journey into the unknown.  Whereas Hermoine is a generally appealing and smart character, Ron is getting increasingly annoying and one-dimensional.  And, man, he’s been going to Hogwarts for three years and seems incapable of utilizing any wizardry, unless obsessive whining and squealing are in the spell books.

Unfortunately, the most interesting and important new character in the film is Sirius Black himself (Gary Oldman) and he is giving barely any screen time or presence at all in the film.  When Oldman finally arrives, in another small but emotionally charged performance, it’s too little too late, and his lack of dimension or significance in terms of screen time diminishes the film.  Imagine STAR WARS where Darth Vader is only in it for ten minutes and you get the point.

The most painfully interesting thing that I am beginning to notice in the POTTER series is its predictable and routine plots, which are bordering on monotonous.  There is a definite formula emerging here and is getting a bit tired.  Harry is with his abusive relatives and can’t wait to get back to Hogwarts.  Once he arrives at Hogwart’s he reacquaints himself with friends and meets new faculty.  Once settled, something “wicked comes his way” and a convoluted and overly complicated mystery ensues, where only Harry and his friends can solve, perhaps with the help of friends…or maybe not, as many are not who they appear to be.  Anyway, mystery is solved, roll the credits, and wait for the cycle to repeat itself in a year with the next installment. 

AZKABAN may not be the most ambitious film in the series in terms of its plot, but it does show a maturation of the Potter character himself (thankfully, because at the rate Daniel Radcliffe is growing up, they may have to call the next installment HAIRIER POTTER and the GOBLET OF AWKWARD ADOLESCENCE).  Radcliffe was one of my criticisms of the first two films, as he does not have a lot of emotional range nor was he a truly charismatic and compelling actor like his counterparts are.  In AZKABAN, he has not only grown up, but definitely has an edge and darker side to him.  No longer timid and reserved, Harry has grown up into teen angst and outward pessimism whom even at one point in the film revels in how much he wants to kill Sirius!

Another aspect that is very admirable about this new installment is its visual style, and all the thanks in the world needs to be given to Cuaron.  Outwardly, things seem the same.  Hogwart’s seems like the same school and everything in terms of set design and wardrobe appears familiar.  But the look, tone, mood, and atmosphere are completely different and Cuaron films the story in misty, fog-soaked cinematography and laces the screen with dark, ominous sights.  There is a clear “darkening” of the series and I think that the change in director was a sound choice.  The previous two films feel more colorful and innocent.  This Harry Potter film feels more in touch with film noir and fantasy.

Its all a shame, really, as AZKABAN may be the best acted and visually interesting of the series, but its murky plotting and undeveloped antagonist makes the third outing at Hogwart’s a puzzling disappointment.  There is little question, of course, of the bankability of this franchise and its future.  There WILL be more Harry Potter films.  The appeal of this lucrative series is the same, but to many it will “feel” differently.  I sense that the series is looming head on into the danger zone of predictable formulas, overwritten plots and underdeveloped characters.  There is much to admire in Cuaron’s efforts here, and no doubt taking over a franchise as big as STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS was a daunting challenge.  Yet, I guess I just wanted more out of this POTTER outing.  It’s an impressive visual achievement marred by a story I did not care for.  I only hope that future installments don’t continue to descend into the laboured conventions of formulas that only make sequels seem redundant and uninspired.  That’s the real test of the longevity of this series, and I for one hope they make a right turn in the next one.

 

CrAiGeR's other

REVIEWS:

 

Harry Potter and the GOBLET OF FIRE  (2005) jj1/2

Harry Potter and the ORDER OF THE PHOENIX  (2007) jj

  Harry Potter and the HALF BLOOD PRINCE  (2009)  jj

Harry Potter and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1  (2010) jj

Harry Potter and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2  (2011) jjj

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of HARRY POTTER films:

 

1.  HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) jjj1/2

2.  HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STORE (2001) jjj

3.  HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 (2011)  jjj

4. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) jj1/2

5.  HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005) jj1/2

6.  HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007) jj

7.  HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE (2009) jj

8.  HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 (2010) jj

 

 

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