Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why So Sirius? Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban Review



HARRY POTTER & 
THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN


After the first two Harry Potter films, I was beginning to wonder about why the series had kids in such rapture. Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets were, to my mind, pretty much the same story: Harry's guardians mistreat him horribly to the point of being cartoonish child abuse, someone (a surrogate for his nemesis Lord Voldemort) was trying to kill him at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, there are false clues to the agent's identity, and eventually he has to face said agent alone where an easy/convenient solution is found for Harry to defeat said villain and...The End.

I really started to think that every subsequent Harry Potter film was going to be exactly the same. Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban proved me wrong. It showed me that there is intelligence behind the magic, that the material can create a dark story, but that some habits still cannot be overcome.

We now have Harry (Daniel Ratcliffe) back at the Dursleys, but now he's reached a point where he's growing up rapidly. We begin the film with Harry under the covers, doing something in secret, something forbidden: magic. Harry, at long last, finally takes a stand against all the years of abuse he's suffered under his aunt & uncle and their extended family. Another aunt, Aunt Marge (Pam Feris), is the worst Muggle in the series' history, snapping her fingers at Harry to get her things and even referring to Harry's mother as "a bitch" (admittedly, the context was about dogs, but the subtext was quite clear).

At this point, his fury is unleashed, and while I would have gone medieval on all of them, his anger merely results in Aunt Marge blowing up like a balloon and floating away. Harry finally leaves and eventually finds himself riding the Knight Bus, a magical transport that is unseen by Muggles. Once in the Wizard World, Harry discovers that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an ally of Lord Voldermort who was involved in Harry's parents murder, has escaped Azkaban, the great prison for errant wizards. Of course, it is believed by all that Black has escaped to come after Harry.

Still, Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) go off to Hogwarts, but this time, something wicked this way comes. The Hogwarts Express is halted by Dementors of Azkaban, frightful ghost-like beings who literally suck the life out of you and who normally serve as guards at the prison. Harry is nearly killed by a Dementor and it's only the intervention of Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) that saves him. Professor Lupin is the new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts; the third in as many years, which begs the questions: will the students ever actually learn to defend themselves against the Dark Arts, and why would any wizard want to take such a dangerous job, but I digress).

We also have Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson), the rather wacky Divinations teacher. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) has been elevated to teacher as well, and now he attempts to train the students in coming into contact with such creatures as Buckbeak, a hipogriff, but even here, along the taunts of Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) there is still danger. The Dementors are apparently still after Harry, even at a Quidditch match.

Harry desperately wants to go to the local wizard village of Hogsmeade, but since he didn't get his permission slip signed by his legal guardians, he cannot go. He does have that invisibility cloak, though, and a convenient Marauder's Map which shows one secret passages and the location of anyone at Hogswart (a Wizarding GPS, I suppose). While at Hogsmeade, he makes a shocking discovery: Sirius Black helped Voldermort discover Mr. & Mrs. Potter's location, and Black is his godfather! Vowing revenge, he trains with Lupin, attempts to rescue Buckbeak from execution, and finally confronts Black, who makes a few revelations of his own.


There is a change in Prisoner of Azkaban that is noticeable from the first two outings, and it can't be from Steve Kloves, who I figure will now adapt all seven books. The change has to come from Alfonso Cuarón, who has taken over from Chris Columbus as director. Columbus saw Harry Potter as a cutesy children's series. Cuarón sees Harry Potter as the story of a young adult in mortal danger with death all around him (sometimes, as with the Dementors, literally).

Prisoner of Azkaban is a darker take on the series than either Sorcerer's Stone or Chamber of Secrets. Harry isn't a kid. He's an angry young man: angry at the Dursleys, angry at being kept out of things, angry at his parent's death. All the conflicts within him that we did not see in the first two films come forward in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Cuarón doesn't spend as much time on potentially cute things, such as Buckbeak or the book on monsters that can literally chew one up. Even though, like its predecessors, it's a long film (nearly two and a half hours), the story itself was tighter because most of the film dealt with the actual story of Harry facing the dangers Sirius Black poses.

Cuaron gives Prisoner of Azkaban a darker visual style. The film is dominated by grays, with a lot of the story taking place at night or in the rain (including the Quidditch match). There are some bright spots, especially when Harry is able to fly the hippogriff, which is beautifully shot. We also get a few iris shots (where the image closes in a circle and opens in a reverse circle) which end and begin scenes and flow beautifully. The scene where Harry is tormented by the Dementor on the Express is extremely effective and frightening.

Cuaron not only creates a better visual style, but shifts the focus of the story to Harry and his two friends. We did get the obligatory Dursley scene, but that actually got the plot rolling instead of just being there because J.K. Rowling's book put it there. We get something from Ratcliffe he haven't seen: a genuine anger within him, a sense that he's being pushed and manipulated by forces out of his control and doesn't want that anymore. In fact, Harry Potter actually seems more relevant in Prisoner of Azkaban than he has before, which is a genuine shock.

Grint simply has been consistently good as Ron, who still shows fear with a mix of comedy and confusion that makes him good comic relief and a unique character. When he come face to face with Harry and Hermione in the hospital wing of Hogwarts after their adventures gives him a chance to show Ron's conflicting emotions of fear and befuddlement so well. Watson still emotes from time to time (when she strikes back at Malfoy, for example), but those moments are not as dominant as they once were.



The focus on the three does mean that the other regulars don't get much screen time. Dame Maggie Smith, for example, seems to be there as Professor McConagall only for plot exposition, and while Alan Rickman has a greater role as Severus Snape, he's there only in flashes. The newest member is Michael Gambon, who takes over as Dumbledore from Richard Harris (who died shortly before Chamber of Secrets was released).

I think Gambon is an improvement over Harris: the latter seemed to be permanently tottering and confused about the goings-on, while the former is more steady and aware of the dangers Harry has to face. Of the newer members, Thompson is having as much fun in Prisoner of Azkaban as her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh had in Chamber of Secrets as the whacked-out Divinations professor, with her large glasses and bandanna. She does have one brief moment where we see just how great an actress she is: when it appears she becomes possessed and passes on a message to Harry she is quite frightening.


Gary Oldman creates a frightening figure in Sirius Black but who by the end has us care for him. It's Oldman's ability to be able to shift his characters from dangerous to endearing that makes him such a great actor, and here he gives another brilliant performance although it's not a large part. Thewlis as Professor Lupin appears to be the caring 'father' figure Harry so desperately needs, but you do wonder what secret he has until it is finally revealed.

Here is where I start finding some issues with Prisoner of Azkaban. If you have a basic idea of what the word 'lupin' is, and if you have a basic knowledge of what 'lupine' refers to, you've already solved Professor Lupin's secret (and already have an idea where the plot is going). You also have the aforementioned Dursley scene, and I have longed argued that these scenes (along with being examples of child abuse as entertainment and highly exaggerated) were the things that dragged the Harry Potter series down.

While it was at least better related to the overall story here than before, it still makes one cringe as to how horribly Harry is treated. I also see that again, no matter what Harry and his friends do, they will never suffer any consequences of their actions. When Dumbledore at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban appears to almost give tacit approval of their actions, it makes me wonder why adults would allow and especially encourage such dangers to/for children.

THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH HAS A MAJOR SPOILER. BE WARNED.

My biggest complaint against Prisoner of Azkaban is the still strong reliance of Deus ex Machinas to get Harry out of the dangers he's in, and this film has the most obscene D.E.M. I've seen yet: a time-traveling device Hermione has been using (which would solve the mystery of how she can take so many classes). Here, we have them literally travelling back in time to stop much of what had happened before. We basically have Harry saving himself from the Dementors because he himself is the mysterious stranger that emerges just in time to release a powerful spell to ward them off.

While that would explain why he thought he had seen his father come and save him, it struck me as the most idiotic solution to the situation our heroes faced. It begs the question of how it was possible that Hermione couldn't remember that they weren't leaving Hagrid's hut. This was the least convincing D.E.M. that I've come across, as well as the cheapest way out. Just travel back in time and fix things. Very Doctor Who, isn't it? It also makes me think on the spell that allows Harry to help him: Expecto Patronum. You'd "expect" a "patron"...or father, perhaps...to resolve things.

END OF SPOILER.

Certainly, Prisoner of Azkaban has stronger acting and a tighter story than Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. This is clearly because there was a new director who created a darker world, both story-wise and visually, to the franchise, and who was able to bring stronger, deeper performances out of the actors.

There is also a better story with some beautiful lines. "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times," Dumbledore tells the students, "if one only remembers to turn on the light". When the kids are forced to sleep in the Great Hall, Snape asks Dumbledore if they should wake Harry up. Dumbledore says no. "For in dreams we enter a world that's entirely our own", he tells Snape.

These are the first lines which are almost poetic, elevating the film to a standard it hasn't reached until now. If it weren't for that 'if I could turn back time' bit, it would have been a better film. I can't be convinced that the whole thing wasn't a pretty easy way out, and it made me wonder, is this how Harry and his court would be able to get out of any future scrapes: just turn a dial and go back and fix things to your favor?

However, Prisoner of Azkaban is a leap forward in the Harry Potter series. It could have been the best of the series so far, but that damn mini-TARDIS deal brought it down.



It's enough to make me want to scream.

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