Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Everything goes marvelously right in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. For the first time, the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s books comes unhindered to the screen with all the bright wonder and dark menace intact, and the first two films (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) are made to look like decent (albeit uninspired) first attempts—which, for my money, is frankly what they looked like in the first place.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, Prisoner of Azkaban chronicles Harry’s third year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At the outset, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) learns that the wizard world is abuzz with the first-ever escape of a dangerous prisoner from the notorious Azkaban Prison. The fugitive is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the rogue wizard who betrayed Harry’s parents to the evil Lord Voldemort, and there’s a fear that Black may be stalking Harry, plotting to finish off the Potter family once and for all. To head him off, a cadre of Dementors—the malevolent, ghostly Azkaban Prison guards who literally can suck the joy out of your soul—are set up on the outskirts of Hogwarts. But can it be that the Dementors are on another errand of an even more sinister nature?
Prisoner of Azkaban works so much better than its predecessors for a number of reasons, but I think most of them come from replacing Chris Columbus, who directed the first two, with Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican director of Y Tu Mamá También and the American A Little Princess. Columbus can be a gifted director (Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire), but his talent is not one I greatly admire, nor do I think it was particularly well-suited to Rowling’s stories. His two films had a candied, gleaming shimmer to them; Hogwarts looked like a spotless, unused wing of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland. And Columbus had a penchant for falling back on his Home Alone playbook, making Harry and his pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) grimace, throw open their mouths, and go “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!!” (His direction of Grint in Chamber of Secrets, with all the mugging and funny faces, bordered on child abuse.)
Cuarón brings this film—as odd as it may sound—a more realistic and grounded attitude. The settings are the same, but they no longer look like Thomas Kinkade paintings. The sunlight through the grimy windows of Diagon Alley is cold and severe, and Hogwarts actually looks as if 50 generations of young witches and wizards have tromped up and down its moving staircases and along its haunted halls. In Cuarón’s vision, the darkness is dark indeed, making the frequent flashes of magic all the more wonderful.
Cuarón understands, too, what I think Columbus did not: The Harry Potter books are about the turmoil of adolescence as much as they are about magic and the war between good and evil. For all the eccentric and peculiar characters (and artfully grand acting) around the three young stars, Cuarón works with them to give the movie a real and solid center. It helps, too, that as they grow up, they’re also growing into their characters. Especially Daniel Radcliffe. In the first movie, he was like a nice, earnest kid fortunate enough to look the part but overwhelmed by all the digital hocus-pocus. But he seems to have grown in both talent and confidence; he’s got real star quality now.
Then there’s Steve Kloves’ screenplay. His first two Harry Potter scripts (again, I think, under the influence of Columbus) seemed determined to transfer every page to the screen—until someone looked up and gasped, “My God, we’re running way long! Hurry, let’s wrap this up!” With Azkaban, the book’s admirers will notice whole scenes, characters and subplots gone—but I don’t think they’ll begrudge it. This is a true adaptation, giving the impression of filming the whole book while carefully choosing what to include and leave out—and thus it feels more complete and satisfying, even though it’s 10 and 20 minutes shorter than the first two films.
The fourth Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is in production now, directed (at last) by an Englishman, Mike Newell. Alfonso Cuarón has given him a mighty hard act to follow.