Main cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), David Thewlis (Professor Lupin), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), and Emma Thompson (Professor Sybil Trelawney)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
What is the difference between Alfonso Cuarón and Chris Colombus? Chris Colombus dumbed down his movies and his inability to work with children showed in the last two Harry Potter movies, where the young cast members often stood frozen in a spot and looked around helplessly for instructions. He treated the movie like some overly garish Sesame Street show. Alfonso Cuarón, on the other hand, respects the audience’s intelligence, works well with the children, and produces a fascinating movie that adults can enjoy. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban appropriately delivers a dark yet fascinating and Gothic magical adventure. People, the party has finally started.
Dark angst has infiltrated the Harry Potter universe as young Harry begins to openly resent having to live with his foster family. He runs away from home just before a new term at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry begin, only to learn that a murderer has escaped from the formerly impregnable prison fortress of Azkaban. This murderer, Sirius Black, is the man that was responsible for the deaths of Harry’s parents and now he may be after Harry. As school term begins in what must be the worst school in the world (no background checks on new teachers, no informing students of impending danger, no safety regulations – good heavens), Harry and his friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley will have to contend with creepy wraith-like fugitive apprehenders from Azkaban called the Dementors, a misunderstood hippogriff, a mysterious ally in the form of the new teacher Professor Lupin, and teenage growing pains. Welcome to Hogwarts, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a perpetual Halloween landscape in here, unlike the garish sunshine-laden fluff of the last two movies. Everything from the eerie snow-covered landscape, the awe-inspiring Gothic-tinged hallways of Hogwarts, to the ethereal choral piece performed by the students before the annual dinner and speech event at Hogwarts all set up the atmosphere of this movie.
The pacing never lets me down: there is never a dull moment in this movie. The plot of this movie isn’t too original and the twist is predictable even if one hasn’t read the book, but Mr Cuarón never lets the movie bog down pointlessly. He doesn’t include pointless scenes reenacted from the book that are not relevant to the movie – here, every scene in the movie counts. The editing is great. From a technical standpoint, this movie blows the last two movies out of the water, especially the badly-edited, filled-with-loopholes, incoherent previous movie.
The acting has also improved tremendously, especially from Daniel Radcliffe. Where in the last two movies Mr Radcliffe is allowed to get away with standing still on a spot and staring blankly at the camera, here his acting lessons are paying off along with Mr Cuarón’s obvious expertise with working with young actors. Mr Radcliffe is more comfortable this time around – his diction is less stilted, his movements on screen are less forced and awkward, and he has a more spontaneous and natural chemistry with Emma Watson and Rupert Grinch this time around. He is still the weakest link when it comes to acting and comedic timing, but Mr Cuarón knows how to bring out the best in him by hook or by crook. I especially enjoy how he avoids having to get Radcliffe to cry (which will be embarrassing given Radcliffe’s acting skills) by making sure that the camera doesn’t focus directly at Radcliffe’s face. In this movie, Mr Radcliffe does a credible job portraying a more angst-ridden Harry Potter who has to grow up faster than his peers thanks to the tragedy in his past. I’m actually moved to sympathize with Harry Potter. The scene where he cheers and hollers as he spreads his arms, triumphant, as he rides on the back of a hippogriff, for example, is a bittersweet scene because Harry Potter comes off as a poor young kid with a heavy burden on his shoulders and that trip is one of the few moments in his life where he is free to be a kid.
Mr Cuarón’s ease with working with young people is evident in how he has the young cast actually behaving at ease on the camera. Small amusing scenes like Hermione slapping away Harry’s hand when Harry tries to touch her magic pendant, for example, come off spontaneously. This is a far cry from Mr Columbus’s direction where everything feels staged and awkward.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban tackles the universal issues of betrayal, trust, loyalty, and the need to belong that adults and teenagers alike can relate to. This time around, Harry’s alienation from his peers as well as his foster family is depicted without any dumbing down or sugarcoating. There is no gratuitous “Harry is the best! Let’s give Harry a pointless standing ovation!” nonsense like in the last two movies – here, Harry isn’t a hero as much as he is a compelling main character who is having a tough time growing up before his age. Here, Harry has to actually work instead of having everything fall into his way. Here, Harry has to save himself instead of having some magic dropped into his lap by some crappy too-obvious deus ex machina plot device. There are plot holes, mind you, but they don’t stand out and smack me in the head while I’m watching it the way the plot holes did in the last movie.
Strip away the pointless elitism favoring Harry in the previous two movies, and Harry becomes a fabulous character to root for. Hermione and Ron’s roles are smaller this time around, but it’s wonderful how their characters actually get to help Harry without coming off as mere third-tier appendages to the glory that is Harry Potter. Those small scenes like Ron’s bragging about his vacation to Egypt or Hermione’s increasing short-fuse where her background is concerned make them stand out as characters in their own right instead of merely nameless friends of Harry Potter.
I have my doubts about the laughable CGI of the werewolf (as well as Emma Thompson’s overacting, but never mind), but there is actual build-up in this movie that has me at the edge of my seat during the penultimate moments. Kudos to Mr Radcliffe for actually making me cry when he waits in vain for whom he believes to be his late father to show up and save him. The movie also weaves in some message about prejudice and acceptance without banging it in my face. As I’ve mentioned, this movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the darker aspects of life. Dumbledore telling Harry, Hermione, and Ron that their word will never stand against an adult’s even when the kids are telling the truth and those kids having to nod in resignation at the truth of that statement is one of many scenes where it is suggested that adults and teenagers don’t always get along well.
If there is a problem here, it’s not actually the viewer’s problem as much as it is the main cast members’. Those kids are growing up too fast. There’s no way that they can pass themselves off as fourteen-year old kids anymore. Emma Watson, especially, looks like she should be hanging out with Lindsay Lohan and complaining about college choices. For parents with really young children, they should be aware that this movie can get too dark and scary for those kiddies.
Harry Potter and his friends have to grow up in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A bouquet of praises is due to Alfonso Cuarón for allowing them to do so with dignity. His movie is a magical and supremely satisfying coming-of-age joyride that depicts adolescent angst very well in a fantastic magical setting. Finally, this is one movie that does justice to the Harry Potter phenomena.