Friday, July 8, 2011

A look back at Harry Potter part III: The Prisoner of Azkaban deepens the mythology and lets the adult wizards come out to play.

This will be a six-part retrospective on the Harry Potter film series, covering films 1-6 (I think most Potter fans can remember the one that came out eight months ago...).  This essay will be covering Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

As anyone who follows my year-end lists can attest, I firmly believe that it is possible for a film to be good yet still be overrated.  So it is we come to the third Harry Potter film, which is often referred to as 'the only good one' or 'the arty one' or 'the only cinematic one' and other such rubbish.  I am not going to get into the reasons why certain film critics and film snobs hold this third chapter is such high esteem compared to the others, but I'd wager that a big part of it comes from an elitist attitude towards original helmer Chris Columbus, combined with a certain snobbery directed in favor of director Alfonso Cuaron.  Point being, while this third Harry Potter picture does branch out a bit in several positive directions, it also undermines itself and the eventual fifth film by failing to properly develop its most important new character.  As a result of this, while it may be one of the more stand-alone of the pictures, it flirts with irrelevancy in the ongoing narrative despite technically jump-starting that very mythology.

Unlike the first two pictures, the central conflict is detailed almost immediately.  Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has broken out of Azkaban and is apparently coming to Hogwarts to murder Harry Potter.  That relatively simply hook is used as a clothesline for which to hang a relatively character-driven story.  Most of the plot occurs in the third act, and even less happens when you realize that much of the climax is simply a time-travel replay of earlier events (Gosh, I hope Harry and Hermione find the sports almanac in time!).  But in place of action and adventure comes a genuinely compelling relationship between Harry Potter and Professor Lupin (David Thewlis).  In fact, in light of the lack of development given to Sirius Black, the moments between Harry and Lupin are the only portions of the picture that truly resonate.

Yes, there is a terrific Quidditch match set in the blinding rain (one that does not annoyingly interrupt the ongoing narrative for once) and it's fun to see Harry and the gang treating Hogwarts less like a boarding school and more like college (this is the first time they spend large portions of the film without their uniforms).  But, save for a moment where Hermione punches Draco in the face, the film lacks character moments for its young supporting cast.  And while Harry Potter gets his first 'big' emotional moment at the halfway point (where he pledges to kill the man who allegedly sold out his parents to Voldemort), it's not his best acting by a long shot (Radcliffe has always looked more comfortable with slow-burner anger or subtle righteousness than 'for your consideration' outbursts).  Unless you're truly invested in the budding friendship between Radcliffe and Lupin, there's little to hold onto until the last act of the film.

But Lupin does have the advantage of being played by David Thewliss.  I was a huge fan of his since Dragonheart (and then, yes, The Island of Dr. Moreau) so it was a thrill to see this undervalued character actor get a major part in a big franchise such as this and run with it.  And the film is indeed the first where the grownups get to act as well.  More or less confined to delivering exposition and/or platitudes and insults, the Hogwarts authority figures get to play this time.  The third-act confrontation is a joy to behold, if only because we realize that we're watching Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, David Thewliss, and Timothy Spall all pointing wands at each other and hamming it up.  Rickman gets to do more than be a bully for at least one major scene, and it's the most 'acting' he'll get until Half-Blood Prince.  And of course, Michael Gambon debuts as Dumbledore, taking over after Richard Harris's death.  His heavy lifting won't come until the next film, but he gets a few moments of knowing whimsy this time around.  So yes, it must be acknowledged that this is a more character-centric film as opposed to the plot-centric second chapter, even if Harry himself doesn't necessarily have an arc.

It is also indeed an artier film than the introductory chapters, less overtly stagebound and more freewheeling and overtly zany.  And for that, Cuaron does deserve credit for a marginally more-cinematic entry.   But much of the credit belongs to the source material itself.  Prisoner of Azkaban is considered one of the better books and part of that is because it deviates from the standard Harry Potter template in a notable way.  There is no big villain to defeat and no major plots to unravel and stop.  The year at Hogwarts is a relatively peaceful one, with the biggest problem being the fate of Hagrid's favorite pet.  The book (and thus the film) opens up the mythology in a major way, but I must argue that the film drops the ball in this respect.  Put simply, Gary Oldman doesn't have nearly enough to do, and much of his scenes with Harry Potter are cut from the film.  As a result, the instantly close relationship between Harry and his godfather is merely taken for granted, since the two of them have only a fleeting conversation at the end of the film.

This is one of the shorter pictures in the series, and its frankly inexplicable that Cuaron and/or screenwriter Steven Kloves would decide that the Sirius Black character moments should be sacrificed for length.  Of course, it starts an unfortunate pattern that pops up occasionally in the later chapters (especially Half-Blood Prince), where the Kloves and director David Yates seem to choose just the wrong material to omit.  Also frustrating is the fact that this is arguably the only film in the series where you really need to have read the book to understand a major onscreen event.  Unless you know about the whole 'animagus' gimmick (IE - certain wizards have animal personas), you have no idea why Harry Potter thinks he sees his father at the finale of the film (he of course sees a deer, which was his father's animagus and apparently his as well).  As a result, the film violates one of the clear rules of adaptation: you shouldn't have to read the book to understand the movie.

Nitpicks and adaptation issues aside, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is still a fine stand-alone fantasy film, one that boasts a token increase in cinematic splendor and a wonderfully warm star turn by David Thewliss.   It is still a good time spent with good company, and it fits right in with the rest of the series while working as its own film and arguably as a good jumping-in spot for those who have a disdain for overtly kid-friendly fantasy films.  The story is more intimate and personal than the later epics, and it remains one last kid-friendly adventure before we start seeing real body counts in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  It may not be the best film in the franchise, and it sure as hell isn't 'the only good one', but Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is still a darn solid entry and a pretty terrific 'part III' as far as second sequels go.

Scott Mendelson

8 comments:

Aaron Neuwirth said...

I agree with pretty much all you have had to say here (and have been enjoying these retrospectives thus far). As a non-reader of the books, who was initially drawn into the franchise due to an ex-girlfriend’s love for the series, I still have to say that I hold this film near, if not at, the top (along with Phoenix, Prince, and most likely pt2). Still, Azkaban is probably still my favorite not due to what I think about the other films, but because of its value. I still find it to be the only one that I could easily pick up and watch without the desire to watch the pro- or preceding features. You mention one cardinal sin involving needing to have read the book in order to fully understand a moment in the film, but as a non-reader it did not occur to me that something seemed out of place. I do agree that there is a lack of real character arcs for the younger actors this time around, but I think the mix of all these great British actors managed to outweigh this for me. Really, I enjoyed the departure for the series that this film seemed to take, as it does skew a bit darker, drops off the excessive running time in favor of a tighter story, and even employs sci-fi qualities with the time travel element. The strange part is how the next film, maybe the weakest next to Chamber of Secrets seems to have ditched some of these elements, as if some of these departures seemed to be too much. I understand that the books continued to get longer, meaning a lengthier running time was needed, but Goblet still seemed more constrained in its imagination than Azkaban. Maybe it is more due to my appreciation of many smaller elements (and a Draco punch in the face), but I really enjoy this film quite a bit. Plus, even having Oldman just screaming out of a newspaper is enough to satisfy me.

p.s. – as I mentioned on Twitter, it would be really great if you’d be willing to join my friend Abe and I on our podcast, following the realease of Deathly Hallows pt.2. Until then, I’ll continue enjoying these look backs at the Potter films.

Cory said...

Totally on point about this film, Scott.

Every time my wife and I discuss this film, we always get frustrated with the final scene between Lupin and Harry. Would it have killed Cuaron/Kloves to add a bit of dialogue where Lupin slyly reveals who were the Marauder's. That would've taken 10 to 15 seconds of screen time.

I mean, after Lupin says "Mischief Managed", all Harry has to say is "How do you know that?" Lupin replies, "Who do you think Moony is?" and boom, cut to a shot of Harry contemplating that question and then he smiles, figuring out who the names belong to and we're done.

Now, in the franchise's defense, at least three or four spots in Order of the Phoenix try to fix the problem through dialogue.

As an aside, I can't wait for your retrospective on Half-Blood Prince. It's my favorite book and my favorite film of the series but it has the most complicated adaptation and after re-reading your review of that film, I'm curious how you feel about it now while doing this retrospective...especially on the Voldemort backstory, the ending, the lack of funeral, and the revelation of the Half-Blood Prince itself because I have a theory about why the name was used in the manner to which it was used in the film. It has to do with non-book readers.

Still, great stuff Scott.

Cory said...

Totally on point about this film, Scott.

Every time my wife and I discuss this film, we always get frustrated with the final scene between Lupin and Harry. Would it have killed Cuaron/Kloves to add a bit of dialogue where Lupin slyly reveals who were the Marauder's. That would've taken 10 to 15 seconds of screen time.

I mean, after Lupin says "Mischief Managed", all Harry has to say is "How do you know that?" Lupin replies, "Who do you think Moony is?" and boom, cut to a shot of Harry contemplating that question and then he smiles, figuring out who the names belong to and we're done.

Now, in the franchise's defense, at least three or four spots in Order of the Phoenix try to fix the problem through dialogue.

As an aside, I can't wait for your retrospective on Half-Blood Prince. It's my favorite book and my favorite film of the series but it has the most complicated adaptation and after re-reading your review of that film, I'm curious how you feel about it now while doing this retrospective...especially on the Voldemort backstory, the ending, the lack of funeral, and the revelation of the Half-Blood Prince itself because I have a theory about why the name was used in the manner to which it was used in the film. It has to do with non-book readers.

Still, great stuff Scott.

Liam H said...

I love reading your retrospective so far but I have one question...

How did you like the interpretation of Dumbeldore by Gambon compared to Harris?

You did touch on it a bit in your write up and it seems you liked him. But the first time I saw this movie I just had a strong dislike for what Gambon was doing. He has stated that he believes Dumbeldore should be a strong and vocal man because he's so powerful and headmaster etc. But what I loved about Harris was that he played Dumbeldore as the extremely kind old man(grandfather like) who only became scary when he needed to be. In the past few films I've accepted Gambon but I don't think I'll ever enjoy him like I did Harris.

Also wholeheartedly agree with you about the lack of mentioning the Maurauders. This could've easily explained Harry's stag patronous and given it a greater meaning. It also would've shown how close the 4 were as friends to create something such as the map. Pettigrew's betrayal would've hit home more.

MLH said...

You are a bit mistaken about the animagus issue. Harry thinks he sees his father because of the stag patronus that is being emitted from a dark haired man's wand across the lake, not an actual stag. Later in the film we see Harry emit this very patronus from his wand and all he realizes that it was he who did it all along.

Also, while I agree that it is frustrating that it was never clearly said who the marauders were, I think there are enough subtle hints for it to be nearly clear, with a bit of mystery thrown in too. Sure, it deviates from the book in this way and would have been easy to add to the film, but it doesn't bother me anymore. This is still one of my top films in the series.

MLH said...

You are a bit mistaken about the animagus issue. Harry thinks he sees his father because of the stag patronus that is being emitted from a dark haired man's wand across the lake, not an actual stag. Later in the film we see Harry emit this very patronus from his wand and all he realizes that it was he who did it all along.

Also, while I agree that it is frustrating that it was never clearly said who the marauders were, I think there are enough subtle hints for it to be nearly clear, with a bit of mystery thrown in too. Sure, it deviates from the book in this way and would have been easy to add to the film, but it doesn't bother me anymore. This is still one of my top films in the series.

Liam H said...

I love reading your retrospective so far but I have one question...

How did you like the interpretation of Dumbeldore by Gambon compared to Harris?

You did touch on it a bit in your write up and it seems you liked him. But the first time I saw this movie I just had a strong dislike for what Gambon was doing. He has stated that he believes Dumbeldore should be a strong and vocal man because he's so powerful and headmaster etc. But what I loved about Harris was that he played Dumbeldore as the extremely kind old man(grandfather like) who only became scary when he needed to be. In the past few films I've accepted Gambon but I don't think I'll ever enjoy him like I did Harris.

Also wholeheartedly agree with you about the lack of mentioning the Maurauders. This could've easily explained Harry's stag patronous and given it a greater meaning. It also would've shown how close the 4 were as friends to create something such as the map. Pettigrew's betrayal would've hit home more.

Aaron Neuwirth said...

I agree with pretty much all you have had to say here (and have been enjoying these retrospectives thus far). As a non-reader of the books, who was initially drawn into the franchise due to an ex-girlfriend’s love for the series, I still have to say that I hold this film near, if not at, the top (along with Phoenix, Prince, and most likely pt2). Still, Azkaban is probably still my favorite not due to what I think about the other films, but because of its value. I still find it to be the only one that I could easily pick up and watch without the desire to watch the pro- or preceding features. You mention one cardinal sin involving needing to have read the book in order to fully understand a moment in the film, but as a non-reader it did not occur to me that something seemed out of place. I do agree that there is a lack of real character arcs for the younger actors this time around, but I think the mix of all these great British actors managed to outweigh this for me. Really, I enjoyed the departure for the series that this film seemed to take, as it does skew a bit darker, drops off the excessive running time in favor of a tighter story, and even employs sci-fi qualities with the time travel element. The strange part is how the next film, maybe the weakest next to Chamber of Secrets seems to have ditched some of these elements, as if some of these departures seemed to be too much. I understand that the books continued to get longer, meaning a lengthier running time was needed, but Goblet still seemed more constrained in its imagination than Azkaban. Maybe it is more due to my appreciation of many smaller elements (and a Draco punch in the face), but I really enjoy this film quite a bit. Plus, even having Oldman just screaming out of a newspaper is enough to satisfy me.

p.s. – as I mentioned on Twitter, it would be really great if you’d be willing to join my friend Abe and I on our podcast, following the realease of Deathly Hallows pt.2. Until then, I’ll continue enjoying these look backs at the Potter films.

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