Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (DVD, 2009, Spanish Audio Sticker)

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Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Goodbye Columbus!

Jun 5, 2004 (Updated Jun 11, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fantastic casting, new character depth, better filmmaking

Cons:Perhaps not as obviously magical as the first two, nor as true to the books

The Bottom Line: I'm not sure I liked this movie as much as the first two, but I'm positive it's a better film. Read my rambling 2500 words for a better explanation.


As of Saturday, June 5, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban seems almost certain to shatter the first-weekend box-office record set by Spider-Man This goes to show what I've been saying all along: Kids love Alfonso Cuaron.

Goodbye [Christopher] Columbus, indeed.

The third film in the insanely popular Potter series (the first two movies have combined to gross nearly $600 million domestically alone) announces its peculiar path instantly.

Having passed through a newish, metallic Warner Brothers logo, we zoom in on the bland suburban residence of the Dursleys, young wizard Harry Potter's muggle family away from Hogwarts. John Williams' familiar theme draws us into the Harry Potter world as we zoom through a window and find Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in his bedroom, under his sheets, playing with his wand. If you know what I mean. He's getting all exhausted and sweaty as he tries to make a blinding white light come pulsing out of his wand. Ahem. Every time Mr. Dursley comes anywhere near the room, Harry straightens out and pretends to sleep and every time he leaves, Harry is playing with his wand again under the covers.

Harry Potter may be on the verge of his return to Hogwarts, but puberty has already come to Harry Potter and it makes up much of the theme and subtext of Prisoner of Azkaban. I don't want to imply that Harry Potter was metaphorically masturbating under the sheets, but let's get real, y'all. That's what he was doing. As is the case (to some lesser degree) in the third book by J.K. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban is a coming-of-age story, the least plot-dependent book in the series. It's not about Harry dealing with the evil Voldamort or with random giant snakes or spiders. It's about him slowly beginning to come to terms with his destiny and slowly beginning to learn which people around him he can trust and count as his family. It's also about a 13-year-old boy becoming man enough to make a white, shimmery stag explode out of his magic wand and that's just naughty.

Rowling, to her credit, knows that she's writing a children's series and so she really soft-pedals the issues of sexuality that really ought to be bursting forth as the children reach their teen years. Things incrementally develop in subsequent books such that Harry is at least able to kiss a girl by the time he turns 15. One gets the sense that if new director Alfonso Cuaron were allowed to stay at the commands, things might move forward a bit faster than that.

There's this peculiar and facile desire in the critical community to only describe Cuaron as the director of Y Tu Mama Tambien, as if he had always only been capable of helming pervy Spanish-language movies, which made him an absurd and inspired choice for a Harry Potter project. Granted that he was an unusual choice, but I prefer to talk about Cuaron as the director of the beautiful underseen family film The Little Princess and of the horrible, but lovely looking Ethan Hawke Great Expectations. The producers were thinking outside of the box, but it's not like the turned the franchise over to Darren Arronofsky or something. [Rest assured, things are likely to go back to normal with the fourth movie. Mike Newell, in a serious career slide since Donnie Brasco, is taking over.]

And don't get me wrong: If you're going to don a trenchcoat and go to Prisoner of Azkaban looking for naught bits, you're going to be sorely mistaken. Cuaron's take on the characters isn't explicit or semi-explicit or even marginally explicit. All he's done is added the specter of intimacy to the background, where only innocence existed before. How has he done that? Believe me... I'll get to it later. The simple fact is that while the new movie is, as all the reviewers are noting, a darker film, there's nothing that parents will have to explain to small children afterwards. Wary parents shouldn't be concerned that they're going to see Harry Potter and Hermione Granger Learn About the Birds and the Bees. This isn't that movie. There are, however, things going on beneath the surface (or beneath the bedsheets, if you prefer) that are worth noting.

Anyway, how about the basic plot? Well, Harry isn't happy with the Dursleys, so he performs a spell that throws everything into chaos and he storms out, taking the Knight Bus to Diagon Alley. He's surprised to discover that nobody wants to give him trouble for using magic underage, but everybody has bigger things to worry about. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the fearsome prison of Azkaban and, apparently, is out to kill Harry Potter. Harry still has his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and he even appears to have a new ally in the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis).

However, his antagonists remain as well. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is back and just as annoying as ever and Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is still determined to make things hard on Harry. In addition, the school is now being monitored by the Azkaban guards the Dementors, a whole sea of Grim Reaper-type meanies that feed on fear. There also appears to be a werewolf on the loose. Is it any wonder that the new Divination instructor Professor Trelawny (Emma Thompson) is convinced that bad things are going to happen to Harry?

Things build not to confrontation, but to revelation, as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn't about a showdown. In fact, the entire text is somewhat narratively perplexingly because it has no real structure at all. It reaches its climax two-thirds of the way through and then, essentially, rehashes the climax a second time from a different angle (that will confuse you if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, but it makes some sense).

Steven Kloves, who has adapted all three films thus far, has cut down even more of that structure. For the first time, fans of the book are likely to feel like things have been left out and like favorite characters and adventures have been trimmed or altered. Kloves even abandons Rowling's most reliable structural motif. Each book is a school year, complete with the competition for supremacy among the houses of Hogwarts, a competition that always seems rigged towards Harry's Griffendor (sorry about any spelling errors). That competition may not be suspenseful, but it gives the early books a reliable flow. That's all gone.

Somebody, I'm not sure who, is going to be disturbed by the near-absence of Quiddich as well. Perhaps Cuaron and Kloves noticed that the special effects in the two previous films had faltered in the Quiddich action? We're down to a single Quiddich scene and viewers who haven't followed the series will doubtlessly be baffled with what's happening. Quiddich is a focal point of the fourth book, so I really hope they can figure out how to get the effects in order.

The plot of Prisoner of Azkaban, at two hours and 20 minutes, has been trimmed so completely that its flow seems almost experimental. There are a series of incidents, but things don't really build in a traditional manner. Everything has been pared from Prisoner of Azkaban that won't eventually be important to its climax. There are no extraneous scenes for humor or to give some of the veteran actors a chance to showoff. It's possible that this will irk fans of the book, but they may want to get used to it. Warner Brothers still plans to make the mammoth fourth and fifth books into one movie apiece, which means that whole characters and major subplots will probably cease to exist.

In an effort to plow ahead to the end, some of the most evocative concepts in Rowling's book have been pared away. As scary as the Dementors are, the movie offers only the merest hint of what makes Azkaban such a horrifying place. The wizard prison is Rowling's commentary on a penitentiary system that dehumanizes rather than rehabilitating, but that's only implied here. And giving short shrift to Azkaban somehow takes away from Sirius Black's ability to have survived and escaped.

While critics have taken great glee in bashing Christopher Columbus' over-literal translations of the first two books, I am on the record as having quite enjoyed both films, which I felt captured the wonderment of Rowlings' books perfectly. I felt that some of the magic was missing from Prisoner of Azkaban

That isn't, necessarily, a bad thing. Cuaron just isn't as shackled by awe as his predecessor.

As a friend noted, the special effects in the third movie draw less attention to themselves. Columbus always seemed amazed whenever a ghost appeared at the dinner table or whenever a picture on the wall came to life. Cuaron is less impressed. There are ghosts everywhere and they're so commonplace that they don't even need to be played by John Cleese and nearly all of the portraits on the wall are alive. Yawn. Yes, Cuaron knows that the staircases at Hogwarts move on their own, but unlike Columbus, he doesn't have to commission a special John Williams score to honor the occasion. Stuart Craig is back for his third tour of duty as production designer, but much of his job this time seems to have been making what was shocking in the first two movies feel commonplace. It's probably a good thing that Cuaron doesn't get too involved with the special effects, because the CGI and animatronic critters (like the hippogriff Buckbeak) really aren't all that impressive.

Cuaron knows that viewers have seen things before, so he doesn't belabor the familiar. One of Cuaron's interesting achievements is in normalizing Hogwarts, exactly the kind of thing that Columbus tried to hard to avoid doing. Cuaron, unlike Columbus, revels in shooting outdoors and shooting in the daytime. He even gets the characters out of the wizard robes and into street clothes for the first time. Suddenly, Hogwarts and its pupils seem to be localized in the mountains and valleys of Scotland and it all seems to be somewhat positioned in the real world.

In the first two films, cinematographers John Seale and Roger Pratt were dedicated to Columbus' mission of capturing every magical surface of Hogwarts and delivering one amazing visual after another. While Pratt allowed Columbus some degree of mobility with the camera, things were still restricted. Cuaron, then, made an intriguing choice in cinematographers by going with Michael Seresin, a DP who has been with Alan Parker since Bugsy Malone. Recruiting the director of photography behind Midnight Express and Angel Heart has contributed to the first Harry Potter film that actually seems to have a visual texture, an unexpected graininess at times. Unlike Columbus and his partners, Cuaron doesn't seem bound by the inevitable video games and when the camera moves, it's to follow the characters and not just to simulate a roller coaster.

Seresin's photography is integral to the new emphasis that Cuaron puts on the young actors. Radcliffe, strikingly more physically mature this time around, has finally begun to make the necessary emotional leaps with his character. I'm still not ready, though, to commit to full confidence in Radcliffe's ability to carry the increasingly disturbing future installments, but he's getting better. The same can be said of Watson, who steps out as more than an annoying comic foil in this movie. Much tinier than her co-stars in the last movie, Watson has grown a bit and matured a bit and her future beauty is becoming evident. While Columbus never would have let the young actors be more important than the effects and set design, Cuaron is pleased enough with how the actors are aging (but physically and as performers) to give Watson and Radcliffe plenty of close-ups and they hold up well. What's odd, then, is that I don't remember Grint being in this movie nearly as much. While he has somewhat outgrown the awkwardness that crippled his performance in The Chamber of Secrets, he's matured less gracefully than his co-stars and Cuaron seems to punish him somewhat. Even if he weren't missing from the film's final 20 minutes, I think I would still find Ron to be a bit of a third wheel in this movie.

[Joining Grint in the "Haven't Gone Through Puberty As Well As We'd Hoped" brigade is Matthew Lewis, whose Neville Longbottom has become invisible in this movie in large part because Lewis has become incongruously tall and skinny. Given that Neville plays a larger and more important role in the next two books/films, I would be shocked if that part wasn't recast.]

Cuaron uses the actors to slowly introduce the idea of puberty to the Harry Potter films. From small glances to occasional blushes, to obvious proto-flirtation, nothing in Prisoner of Azkaban screams sexuality, but nearly everything hints that the characters are on the verge of a big change. Cuaron captures their interactions in tight framings that impose a new intimacy. Every hug and accidentally held hand is caught in a way that suggests that these kids won't be innocents forever.

I'll say it again, Prisoner of Azkaban is not a dirty film, but the absence of 100% purity is noticeable.

The thing that the Potter films have done best is casting. In addition to all of the returning performers, each new member of the ensemble has been flawless. Thompson may only appear in two scenes as Trelawney, but she's hilariously intense, while Thewlis adds a quirky warmth as Lupin, who seems friendly even as his face becomes increasingly covered with scars. Watching Oldman rant, rave and rage as Black makes it impossible to imagine any other actor in the part. Similarly, Michael Gambon steps in perfectly for the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I also loved Timothy Spall dropping in as Peter Petigrew. The problem with all of these fantastic new thespians is that it means we get less of Rickman and much much much less of Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall. When two of cinema's finest actors are stuck mostly in the background of shots, it's a bit disappointing. I also can't get over the fact that for the second movie this summer (after Troy), the fantastic Julie Christie makes a single scene appearance and then vanishes.

Note for Parents: While I keep calling this a dark movie and I've harped on the nascent budding sexual tension, I honestly don't think this movie is any worse for young children than the first two. There are scary aspects, but I didn't find the Dementors to be any scarier than the first film's spider or the snake in film two. OK. Maybe a tiny bit scarier. But not much. Certainly if the kids have read the fourth and fifth book in the series, they've experienced scarier things than they'll see in this movie.

While Prisoner of Azkaban is well on its way to a massive opening weekend, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it take a large drop in its second weekend. It's a better movie than the two that came before, but, as I said, it's a less literal and less magical movie. It feels exactly like the darker, more transitional work that it is and less like the special effects showcase that the first two movies were. I have to say that I may have enjoyed the first two movies more, but I savored Prisoner of Azkaban the most. It's another four star entry in the series.


Recommend this product? Yes

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