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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban represents probably the best transition from printed page to big screen in the franchise, boasting the most confident and comfortable direction of the big screen series. Director Alfonso Coarón, perhaps best known for his work on Children of Men crafts perhaps the most magical of the Harry Potter adventures, effortlessly crafting a world that seems strangely familiar and yet curiously foreign, simultaneously bright and coloured, but populated with dark brooding shadows. Even after the series has ended, the third instalment remains perhaps the most stylish.

Enchanting...

The production design on the film is remarkable. A lot of the elements had been glimpsed in the previous two films, and the following directors would often try to emulate the style offered here, but Prisoner of Azkaban offers the most definitive take on how a Harry Potter film should look. There’s a rather surreal (but quite – if you’ll pardon the use of word – magical) blend of modern CGI-effects and old-school visual flourishes at play. In particular, Coarón seems quite fond of old-fashioned wipes to transition between scenes, and tinting scenes in classic hues of gold and yellow to evoke that sort of ageless feeling.

In fact, I think the series does its very best here to capture the peculiar Britishness of all this wizardry – which, I suppose, is quite fitting given the fact that the follow-up would significantly expand the series’ horizons. Whether it’s the almost Python-esque comedy of an inflated aunt (a scene that could have been swiped from one of Terry Gilliam’s surreal animations) or the very idea of the “night bus” (which you can tell is magical because it’s a tripler-decker), there’s something that’s incredibly British about the whole affair, beyond the cast and location. In fact, the “monster book” sequence could have just as easily been lifted from an old Doctor Who episode.

One tree hill...

Indeed, the movie features undoubtedly the best opening sequence with Harry’s non-wizard family of the entire series, which is a shame – as the series grew progressively darker, those characters would be glimpsed more and more infrequently. That said, the opening scene of Harry practicing his magic in his bedroom at night (playing with his wand underneath the bedsheets while trying to avoid getting caught, is perhaps one of the franchise’s least subtle (but perhaps well-observed) puberty metaphors. It’s right up there with a student flirting with Hermione while hosting a giant broomstick between his legs in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

One can sense the darkness creeping into the franchise, even though the movie is still quite bright and cheerful. It would really be the climax of the next film that would push the series into true darker and edgier territory, with its stark deconstruction of the infant immortality that stories like this frequently take for granted – and just less brightly-coloured sequences in general. Still, there’s any number of noticeably sinister and creepy constructs at play here – from the creepy playground where Harry waits for the bus through to the dementors themselves, and even the Shrieking Shack, which sways back and forth, disconcertingly. It never threatens to overwhelm the film (as perhaps the darkness does in later instalments), but it’s definitely there.

Howling at the moon...

There’s just such a degree of imagination on show here, and a conscious movement away from pseudo-realism to a more consciously stylised approach. Witness, for example, the few seconds between the moment when Harry realises he has been grabbed and when he’s whipped around the giant flailing tree (despite the fact that Hermoine is apparently being thrown around at a phenomenal speed), or even the rather wonderful transformation sequence late in the movie when a werewolf reveals itself. It’s a great movie moment, and one that is handled with an obvious and deep affection for the traditional monster movies, regardless of the younger audience these films are supposed to skew towards.

Coarón is an expert at building atmosphere, and it’s the little touches – the way he films the moving portraits, or the dementors floating around, or a student on the square playing pan pipes by a tree – that really add up to make the movie stand out. It doesn’t feel so consciously different from those that surround it that it alienates the audience, but it just feels far more textured and developed. There’s a sense that a lot of genuine imagination and love went into even the smallest details of the film – and it really shows. Indeed, I think that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a movie that succeeds more at the small things than it does at the large. It almost works better as a collection of moments and ideas than it does as a big story.

Charmed, I'm sure...

You’ll notice that I’m not really talking about the script here. That’s because, at least in terms of story, this instalment is fairly light on the ground. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, but it’s a weakness nonetheless. The plot is relatively slight, but the movie still runs to well over two hours. Indeed, the last half hour features a plot twist that is fairly clever of itself, but doesn’t really work outside a collection of individually cool moments. Without spoiling anything, I imagine that some of the magic used at the climax of this film might have worked really well later on. It does add up to some nice moments, but it’s pretty much an awkwardly-inserted deus ex machina. It also feels like a bit of a cop-out.

This is a problem I face when I review movie adaptations of popular works. The problem with the ending obviously stems from the source material, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to blame the movie for it. After all, what would be the point in adapting the book if you changed something as core and fundamental as that sequence? Still, the simple fact is that the movie doesn’t necessarily feel particularly gripping or exciting as an adventure in the life of everyone’s favourite teenage wizard. It’s simply not up to enough to justify a long runtime.

Snape in the grass...

That said, I do like the fact that the story does effectively take a breather from the whole “Voldemort” mega-plot that runs through the series. While the Dark Lord is alluded to and mentioned, the plot of the film essentially focuses around the murder of Harry’s parents, rather than any on-going schemes of “he who shall not be named” to resurrect himself or conquer the world or steal Christmas or anything else an evil overlord may or may not plan to do. As such, the story allows for a more intimate focus on Harry himself, with a very clear emotional arc in place, and many discoveries to be made about his own history. In a big series like that, it’s nice to be afforded the chance to focus on what might be deemed “smaller details” like that.

On the other hand, unlike the weaker instalments in the series, the movie actually takes advantage of its rather generous runtime to offer its cast room to grow and develop. David Thewlis is perhaps one of the better cast actors in the series, playing Professor Lupin, teaching Defenses Against the Dark Arts – or “the quirky character who is not what they seem in this movie” post, as it is perhaps better known. Thewlis is an actor who never gets enough credit, and his Lupin is genuinely intriguing and well-portrayed. The mystery around the character is remarkably straight-forward, but I like the fact that the movie is so carefully structured. Even the crazy reveal that facilitates the last half-an-hour is sort of hinted at, in a tangential sort of way.

I'll beak back...

The other major addition to the cast is Gary Oldman as the eponymous escapee from the wizarding prison. Oldman is a great actor, and he has some fun here, but the character of Sirius Black doesn’t really get much development here, and there’s no real drama for the veteran thespian to sink his teeth into in this instalment (he actually fares much better in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). As it stands though, he seems to genuinely enjoy himself playing a rambling, half-mad fugitive. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And, to be honest, despite the movie’s narrative shortcomings, it does have some nice emotional moments built in. There’s a lovely moment, for instance, near the climax of the film, where Harry is almost convinced – though he dares not really say it – that his father is alive. Convinced that his father saved him from an attack by the evil, robed fugitive-chasing dementors, Hermoine observes, “But your father’s…” Harry finishes, “Dead, I know.” Still, one can be forgiven for hoping, in a world full of magic and wizards and wands and flying broomsticks, where a person long thought dead can secret themselves in the form a beloved family pet, that a deceased relative might somehow be alive.

Harry's shacked up with a fugitive...

It’s a nice little theme the movie develops, the firm acknowledgement that even Harry can’t magic his family back to life. Although it’s somewhat undermined by the last half-an-hour, where we see that the past can be changed (or at least interacted with), it’s a sweet and genuinely heart-felt sentiment that fits well with the way the series deals with these sorts of truths that all children must face one way or another. In fact, the idea that Harry’s loved ones are alive in some form inside of him provides a nice little bit of foreshadowing to a key moment at the climax of the next film, which makes it seem just a little bit more than a convenient resolution to that conflict. Still, more on that next time, as they say.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn’t the best in the series, but it’s certainly one of the stronger instalments, and perhaps the best looking and best executed. I don’t really think the underlying story is strong enough to support the entire film, but it’s a very well-made family adventure. It’s smart and a little bit witty, while hosting some absolutely wonderful production design. What’s wrong with that?

Read our Harry Potter reviews:

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