With two mediocre yet tremendously profitable installments already under their belt, the Harry Potter saga has proven that its films don’t need to be all that good so as to keep fans happy. It’s no doubt George Lucas desperately wishes that more of his Star Wars fans could be under the age of twelve.
With series originator Chris Columbus stepping out of the director’s chair and Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón stepping in, it would have been easy to just phone in another one. Yet Cuarón was obviously not happy just to trundle out more of what we’ve witnessed before. He’s taken the reigns and his work is better than anything Columbus could ever conjure up.
As always, half the fun of the Potter franchise is in watching the kids slowly grow up. As the characters grow, so do the actors who play them. It’s a unique experience in cinema, which should only get better as this thing continues on. For this outing, meaning Daniel Radcliffe has physically started to mature into an angst ridden teen, bringing the role of Harry Potter right along with him. Petulant and downtrodden, we find him muddling through another miserable summer with his legal guardians the Dursleys.
This time around, his muggle family has turned into something more than a pre-fabricated mix of cartoonish and hateful oafs. In just a few scenes, Cuarón manages to flesh them out into “normal” if somewhat dimwitted people incapable of dealing with the reality of having a soon to be teenage superman in their midst. In the middle of a disastrous family dinner, Harry explodes, letting loose of his emotions and as a result, wreaking havoc on an elderly and vile relative.
Evoking memories of Carrie or “The Twilight Zone”, lights sizzle ominously and papers are blown asunder as Harry terrifies his dinner guests as well as himself. The Dursleys, again dealt with the reality of a hormonal and moody child who they are unable or too scared of to control seem petrified and lost. Harry Potter isn’t just a fun boy wizard. This kid is dangerous and the Dursleys know it. The sequence itself will no doubt draw out laughter, yet Cuarón knowingly gives it an incredibly sinister undercurrent that carries throughout the whole movie.
Harry continues on to Hogwarts School, where as a burgeoning young wizard, he continues to receive instruction in the not-so-black arts. Here too, Cuarón has made slight changes in the franchise, giving the institution and its surrounding environments a much grimmer and somehow grittier atmosphere. We’re reintroduced to Hogwarts as a choir ominously belts out, “something wicked this way comes,” and are shown walls reeking of age and use. Azkaban’s world is a less flashy one than that which Columbus showed us, more what you’d expect from a film all about Witches, Wizards, and dark magic.
Once off to school Harry soon learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), his parents’ betrayer, has escaped from Azkaban prison and blames Harry personally for the destruction of the dark lord whom he served. Black is out to kill Potter and Harry is left grappling with survival and the murder of his parents in a tragic past. Though every Potter film has touched on these themes, never have they hit such an emotional and realistic chord as they do here. That’s partly because Cuarón seems to have a better vision of what’s happening in the script and partly because the kids saying the lines have aged enough to deliver emotion better.
That maturity has worked wonders not only on Radcliffe, but on the supporting players of Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as well. In return, Hermione has garnered a much more important role this time around, playing Harry’s determined partner while Ron hides in the background trying to make his hair look as red as he can. Always ready to jump forward for comedy relief, Rupert Grint appears to have found a perfect spot in the series dynamic, leaving room for the luminous wonderkid Emma Watson to step closer to becoming the real star of the series.
No longer only victims of circumstance, the gang are thrust into the thick of the journey, instead of continuing to succeed with accident and luck. The instructors too appear to play a more proactive role. Gone is the bizarre staff indifference that plagued the previous two films. When warned there may be a killer on the loose, the instructors don’t simply clump together and hope that the kids can take care of themselves.
Instead, the teachers gather their students up into the Great Hall and stand watch, while Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) responsibly suggests sending all of them home. Snape (Alan Rickman) wanders around the hallways like always, driven by Alan Rickman’s indomitable and disturbing charm, watching for truants and late night mischief makers. The staff’s latest addition, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) actually develops a relatable teacher/student relationship with his pupils instead of taking the previous films’ tact of showing up for class, almost getting your children killed, and then returning home for a nice foot soak.
The magic and fantasy elements in this entry are so effortless that it makes them all the more incredible. Magic is used in a casual every day way that is both involving and intriguing. Dumbledore uses it as a gesture, casually putting out and then relighting a candle with a wave of a hand while he speaks, as if he uses magic as easily as we use our hands.
Busboys use it to clear off tables in the background as the camera moves past and bus drivers play around with helpful shrunken heads hanging from the rearview. Magic is seen everywhere in the movie and it isn’t always blown up into a major event each time it occurs. That, coupled with tons of other little touches like letting the kids occasionally dress in normal clothes, helps make the Harry Potter world itself all the more tangible and easy to identify with.
The effects themselves are high level stuff. While sometimes you feel like you’re staring at a kid next to a screen, Cuarón’s CGI is above and beyond anything Columbus ever tried. He uses it more judiciously, working it in all the right places while thrilling us with beautiful real landscapes and front and center characters. For the very first time, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) actually looks like a giant rather than just a normal fat guy wearing lifts. The Dementors, new evil beings which strongly resemble Lord of the Rings Ringwraiths are smartly done. They cut a stark and disturbing image as they flow across the sky and I love the way the environments literally freeze as they pass. Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban also introduces the Hippogriff, a creature which I assume must be CGI, but which could easily pass for one of the most realistic works of the Jim Henson creature shop. When Harry hops on and rides him across the clouds, it’s hard not to remember those mesmerizing shots of Bastian surfing through the clouds in Neverending Story, something which you have to believe Cuarón did on purpose.
Alfonso Cuarón “gets” Harry Potter and in return, Azkaban is much more than just the middle of the road kiddie-tainment Chamber of Secrets and Sorcerer’s Stone regurgitated. Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban still suffers from many of the frustrating and fuzzy plot holes that anything attached to this saga suffers. However, Cuarón’s vision is so strong and his execution so bright that it easily overwhelms the unavoidable bevy of illogical plot progressions that J.K.Rowling’s stories have already built in. This is a darker, edgier entry that’ll let even adults love Harry Potter. Cuarón brings the Harry Potter series to life in a beautiful and living way we’ve never seen before. In his hands this fantasy has gone from the wildly absurd into the delightfully real. This is what the Harry Potter films should have been aspiring to be. Though they can perhaps make just as much money settling for something more modest, let’s hope that this movie serves as a template for what future forays into Harry Potter’s world should be.