Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review
I was really psyched when I found out that Alfonso Cuaron was directing the third Harry Potter instalment. After Chris Columbus’ rather pedestrian efforts, at last a director with some visual flair and style! And the hot Mexican doesn’t disappoint.
From the beginning, its clear we’re in a different Potter universe. Even the Warner Bros logo is darker, and the camera whirls through it and into Harry’s bedroom in a single tracking shot that’s cooler than anything in the first two movies. The darker tone carries on through the film: Hogwarts is a grimmer, gloomier, and more magical place; the Dementors of Azkhaban are a much more tangible threat than the disembodied Voldemort; Harry himself, and his friends, are growing up, angrier and more hormonal.
The film opens, as usual, with Harry at home with the Dursleys (and a scene which, for the filthy minded, could be seen as a little homage to Y Tu Mama Tambien). Uncle Vernon’s unpleasant sister, Aunt Marge, has come to stay, bringing her bulldog, Ripper. In the previous films, there was a sense that the Dursleys simply bullied Harry because they could; now there is a genuine feeling that they bully him because they’re terrified of him and what he might be capable of. And when Aunt Marge causes Harry to lose his temper, there’s a realisation that their fears are, to some extent, justified.
Harry, knowing that he’s broken a wizarding decree, runs away to London on the Knight Bus, a fantastic purple triple decker with a shrunken head (Lenny Henry) as the driver’s eyes. The next day Harry is reunited with his best friends, Ron and Hermione. He also finds out that Sirius Black, a notorious murderer and supporter of Voldemort, has escaped from Azkhaban, and is apparently coming for Harry. On the train down to Hogwarts, Harry, Ron and Hermione have their first encounter with the Dementors of Azkhaban. Any worries that these evil prison guards would come across like cheap copies of the Nazgul are immediately dispelled. The Dementors are genuinely scary and very cool.
Cuaron manages to keep the story clipping along while never resorting to the ‘and then this happened’ school of story telling that plagued the first two films. The passage of time is simply shown. New characters (Professor Lupin, Professor Trelawney) are introduced economically, and threads laid which all tie up at the end. And there is a lot of material to get through here – the story is complicated and potentially confusing.
But where Cuaron really succeeds is with the actors. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is still a bit of a blank, but Emma Watson has really grown into the role of Hermione, and Rupert Grint as Ron displays fine comic timing. The adults also seem to be having a blast, particularly David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, the Dark Arts teacher with a secret of his own, and Gary Oldman, superb as Sirius Black. It’s a shame that with so much story to get through, a lot of the actors are reduced to cameo roles, particularly Alan Rickman, excellent as always as Professor Snape.
This is by far the best of the films to date. By making the wizarding world much more gritty, Cuaron somehow enhances the magic of it all. With Mike Newell on board for the next film, it will be interesting to see where our teenage wizard goes next.
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