A dark adolescence for Harry PotterAfter directing the first two films in the “Harry Potter” franchise, Chris Columbus reduced his role in the third, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” to that of producer. The directorial reins were handed over to Alfonso Cuaron, director of the critically acclaimed “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” What results is different stylistically and visually from the two previous films.
In “Prisoner of Azkaban,” as Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), a dark cloud hangs over their third year.
The magic world is abuzz over the unprecedented escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from the wizard’s prison of Azkaban. Worse for Harry, Black is believed to be one of the staunchest supporters of his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and seems to have set his sights on murdering Harry.
So Hogwarts is placed under the protection of guards from Azkaban, wraith-like beings known as dementors. These are not the only new faces at Hogwarts, as Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) and Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson), who grimly predicts Harry Potter’s imminent death, make their debuts in the series.
“Prisoner of Azkaban” has no discernible beginning or end, serving as a middle chapter in the seven-part series, moving the story and the characters to the next level. This is especially true in the maturation of Harry from an unsure boy into an adolescent wizard-in-training, prone to outbursts of temper (including a memorable form of revenge against his insufferable Aunt Marge).
In addition to Lord Voldemort, who still casts his shadow over the proceedings, the more immediate and concrete threat of Sirius Black gives the film a darker tone than its two predecessors had. Those films contained a few dangerous moments, but it never really seemed as though Harry’s life was at risk the way it is here.
This sense of menace is accomplished in part through the look of Hogwarts itself, whose very structure creates a sense of anticipation and dread. Gone are the open courtyards and welcoming classrooms, replaced by twisting corridors and towering spires. And there are those dementors roaming about.
The shortest of the “Harry Potter” films so far (though still coming in at well over two hours), “Prisoner of Azkaban” solves many of the problems with pacing that plagued the first two films, which were fairly literal interpretations of the books. Cuaron’s trimmed-down adaptation is a more cinematic experience.
But it’s also stripped of one of the main things that made the first two films so enjoyable. In her books, J.K. Rowling manages to walk the fine line between the fantastical and the hokey, and Columbus faithfully trod that line in his two films. Cuaron, though, repeatedly oversteps it. The world of Harry Potter is engrossing enough on its own that there is no need to go for cheap laughs with sight gags, or a talking Rastafarian shrunken head.
As in the first two films, the character actors are the strength of “Prisoner of Azkaban,” led by Michael Gambon, who steps into the role of Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ headmaster, replacing the late Richard Harris. Especially noteworthy is Alan Rickman, who continues to portray Professor Severus Snape in a devilishly greasy manner.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Fantasy / English; 141 min.
by Steven Lee