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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

June 19th, 2004

Just got back from seeing the late show. Not only is it cheaper (only $11 instead of the usual $16, almost the cheapest you can get a ticket for in Japan), but the 10:15 pm showing of the latest Potter movie is the least likely to have busloads of unruly children. Sure enough, as I came to the theater, tons of kids were coming out–but the late show was adults-only. Actually, Potter 3 is not even supposed to come out for another week, but with the big releases they usually have sneak showings one and sometimes two weeks in advance. For those of you in the U.S. and Europe, it’s been out for a few weeks and you’ve likely seen it reviewed half to death. This is for the Japan crowd then, I guess.

The film is beautifully shot–just crammed full of almost baroque detail, and an emphasis on establishing shots done just right. A few motifs take us through the film, like the school’s clock with its massive pendulum by the main gate (representing the time theme expounded on near the end), and the Whomping Willow, doing everything from catching birds in a cloud of exploding feathers, to an amusingly abrupt seasonal change. Cuarón actually spent some effort emphasizing the seasons; one beautiful shot followed Hedwig the owl flying past scenery towards Hogwarts–scenery which beautifully and subtly segued from Autumn to Winter.

Radcliffe nailed the role of the pubescent Potter, moody and acerbic sometimes, playing well into the emotional transition Rowling has Harry going through at this time. Though Chris Columbus handled the first two films pretty well, Cuarón really shows us how it’s done extremely well. One small example: as Harry is in the Dursley’s kitchen, cleaning up, Harry turns away from his abusive family at the table to enjoy a private smile–until his Aunt Marge starts ripping into his parents, and you can see Harry’s expression change, perfectly. Very well acted, but you can see the director’s touch there as well–Columbus could not have pulled off things like that so well, and you see things like this throughout the film.

The Knight Bus is interestingly done–not great, but an amusing break from the plot. Sometimes the background magic is almost a but too much, too distracting, but it can be fun, and might even draw some viewers back to see what they missed the first time. And the background stuff is a lot darker here, and a bit more tongue-in-cheek than the last two films. However, when you look at the books, you see that they also read that way–Rowling doesn’t really start getting serious in her writing until this story, anyway.

The book is adapted well for the film–including enough of the story, you don’t really miss much–but parts have indeed been culled, like Harry’s long stay at the Leaky Cauldron and Hermione’s purchase of Crookshanks. A few things were rather noticeable, however, such as Lupin’s failure to tell Harry about the genesis of the Marauder’s Map, or the meaning of the four nicknames on it–and we are never told of the significance of the stag Patronus. Odd.

Rupert Grint does his usual good job of playing Ron as the comic relief without going overboard, and Emma Watson is better this time as Hermione, not being too much of the smarty-pants, and being a bit more human and understandable. There is even an interesting hand-holding scene between the two of them that I believe is not in the book–foreshadowing with the permission of Rowling, perhaps? Michael Gambon, however, is somewhat of a disappointment as Dumbledore. He has far less subtlety, and not nearly as good a voice or as gentle a face as Richard Harris gave the character. I think that, if they could have gotten him, Ian McKellan would have filled the role far better. Malfoy’s character was disappointingly written as too much of a cowardly bumbler, going a bit too much farther than I’d like–you can’t really take him seriously.

One thing you’ll note is that the film seems not just darker than the first two, but also much more cramped, and the action much more fervent and agitated. In some scenes, like the confrontation at the Shrieking Shack, you feel downright claustrophobic; but it works, it contains, condenses and magnifies the effect of the action, in keeping with the visual tone of the film. At other times, Cuarón brings us scenes with no dialog, out in the open, which set just the right emotional tone–like the scene where Hagrid is skipping stones on the lake, especially the ending shot. The shot I was least pleased with was the final shot of Harry on his new Firebolt–it freezes him as he flies past, with a stupid-looking open-mouthed smile on his face. But other shots in the film more than make up for the occasional poorly-done shots like that.

One thing you’ll also have to get used to is the altered geography. This film is very hilly, sometimes downright mountainous. Everything outside seems set in the side of a steep slope–and while it adds to the closed-in tone of the film, it directly contradicts what we’ve seen of Hogwarts before.

The special effects are very well done; Hagrid, for example, is made to seem even huger than before with even better FX sleight-of-hand that made Gandalf bigger and the hobbits smaller in The Lord of the Rings. The Marauder’s Map in particular is done well–when I heard it described, I had my doubts, but the multi-folding nature of the map and the footprint-and-banner identification worked well. Sit through the ending credits (be prepared, they’re very long) to the end, and you’ll see them beautifully executed as parts of the Map, with some visual gags thrown in. When each of the major credits are shown, footsteps representing them are shown. most are just normal footprints walking this way and that, but the footsteps for John Williams (who wrote the music, and did a great job again) are moving in a dance pattern–and Hagrid’s footsteps are appropriately represented as enormous. In other parts of the credits, you see what appear to be dog and owl footprints, and at one point, bare human feet changing into a dog’s–an obvious reference to Sirius Black.

All in all, quite worth seeing–too bad that Cuarón is not doing the next film, but then The Goblet of Fire is mostly less dark than Azkaban (with the exception of Goblet’s climax, of course). We’ll see how that goes.

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  1. Enumclaw
    June 20th, 2004 at 17:11 | #1

    Just went and saw this myself. I thought it was terriffic, but I’m struck by how much more in each movie that they’ve had to leave out from the book.

    Of course, considering that the books just get longer, and longer, and longer (and only a little bit of that extra length is from the dreaded Stephen King Disease, where the author gets so much power that no editor dares or is able to say “look, you have got to cut this and this”) I suppose it was inevitable.

    The folks going already know who Harry Potter is, and they know a bunch of the backstory, so that isn’t as needed in the movies. But we do miss out on a ton of the other stuff- the rivalries, who’s in the various houses, what they’re like.

    Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying it’s bad. In fact, I liked it so much that what I wish for is MORE, more of everything! :)

    All in all, great flick, better looking and probably a better movie overall than either of the first two, and highly recommended.

  2. Bluzz_Sky
    June 20th, 2004 at 18:37 | #2

    I love this one better than the other two. I guess this one more accomodating for an adult viewer – I think I am, well, sort of. It’s darker, allrite.

    Yup, hate the last scene where they freezed Harry as he tried the new broom..

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