Over the years there have been culture phenomena I’ve avoided for various reasons. It could be as fickle as my mood, the presence of Eric Robert’s Ugly Sister (or ERUS, as Justin coined), or the fact that I just missed the entry point before the culture became saturated by the book, TV, or film series. In “Better Late Than Never,” I look past my objections to see if the culture was right or wrong to embrace the phenomenon so strongly.
Title: Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban
Release Date: June 4th, 2004
Objection: As the years wore on in my ambivalence toward the “Harry Potter” franchise, there came to be a growing fervor in the fan-base that bordered on an evangelical frenzy. My continued indifference toward the Boy Who Lived and all things of the Wizarding World simply became intolerable for coworkers and Internet acquaintances. It was with the third film that my ambivalence took on a more marked position of antipathy. While my friends were content with me saying “I’ll wait ’til it’s finished,” others less familiar with me began a new chorus. “Oh, just skip the first two. You’ll love the third one,” they would say.
And thus, my sight-unseen hatred of The Prisoner of Azkaban was born.
By now, director Chris Columbus was gone and the marketing seemed to reflect the change of directors. The mood seemed darker and with the presence of a genuinely good filmmaker (Y Tu Mamá También‘s Alfonso Cuarón), it appeared something might be happening in this epic tale, but the more zealous fans ruined it for me … at least, at the time.
The Film: Of the three I’ve reviewed so far, this one is closest to being an actual film. The episodic structure of Sorcerer’s Stone has completely vanished in favor of a more cinematic format. There is a very strong element moving things forward as the dreaded Sirius Black creeps ever closer to Hogwarts. The Dementors, in their icy way, strip the color and that unwelcome sense of “whimsy” away from the world in favor of a more pragmatic feel. Since I’ve gone on at length about my hatred of whimsy, you can probably guess that I love the Dementors.
In Cuarón, the production team found a strong visualist who really established the tone and grammar of the series. In his vision, the world is grayer and more grounded. The artifice of Columbus’s designs has been painted over or given verisimilitude. This can be seen in the way the kids dress around Hogwarts. Instead of a neat row of children all in their robes and sharp uniforms, there is variation. In the scene where Hagrid introduces the hippogriff, Harry is one of a handful of characters wearing robes. Draco Malfoy also still has his, but there is a story reason for it. The rest of the cast assembled in that scene are in various states of unkempt uniform. Some have their shirts untucked, others came to class without their sweaters. It’s subtle, but it makes the group more natural. Outside of class, the kids appear in contemporary clothes. Unshackled from the severe costume design of the early films, Hogwarts really feels like a school of magic instead of a magic school.
And really, I think that change in tone is key.
Another good example of this shift is the (ugh) Quidditch scene. In the previous two films, the story stops for a match that really doesn’t matter or add anything to the films. They’re not exciting and they’re not informative. In this film, the scene is truncated, interrupted by the Dementors who seem to anticipate the complete shift the series would make in the subsequent films. Harry is thrown from his broom and the stick breaks in two, seemingly putting the kibosh on Quidditch forever.
But the point still stands. The film makes less of a meal of everything. There’s no visit to Diagon Alley, our time with the Dursleys is mercifully short and we even get to Hogwarts before the half-hour mark. While I still think there are some judicious edits that could be made to the early part of the film, the pace is positively brisk when compared to Chamber of Secrets.
Now, all of this is just in comparison to the previous films. Azkaban also offers us something new: interesting characters. It’s with this installment that I found myself starting to like the Weasley Twins, Snape, Neville Longbottom and Ron. Even Draco starts to become more fleshed out in his bully persona. It’s genuinely satisfying when Hermione clocks him. Beyond the established characters, the film also offers two of my favorite people in the whole epic storyline: Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.
Lupin is a key character to me because he’s the first male role model to appear in the story. Up until now, Harry has been harassed by men like Snape, mistreated by his uncle or used — after a fashion — by Dumbledore. Lupin, with his ties to the family, takes a positive interest in Harry; offering him a way to combat the Dementors and a generally sympathetic ear. I think that relationship gives the film a heart absent from the previous outings. Also, to round things out, he’s cursed with lycanthropy (not that it’s ever called that in the film) and could just as easily rip out Harry’s throat. That’s a potent and interesting combination.
I should also mention that Lupin is played by David Thewlis, one of my favorite underrated British actors. He’s got an excellent voice and terrific presence. He’d be the unquestioned star of the piece if not for Gary Oldman, who inhabits Sirius Black.
When I first watched the film late last year, I wanted it to revolve more around Sirius Black than it already does. I wanted Harry to spend more time with him and get a sense of family he’d never known before. All of those reactions speak to just how effectively the character is written and performed. He’s a tantalizing glimpse into the story of Harry’s parents and the first conflict with Voldemort. So striking was his presence, that when it came time for a dog to enter our home, he only became member of the family when we settled on his name.
While I do seem to be lavishing this film with praise, there are still plenty of problems in it that, I think, are just inherent to the framework of the series. I know I keep harping on the Dursleys, but they are just ill-conceived and while it seems like the production team understands that in this film, any time with them is too much time.
The Time-Turner sequence deflates a lot of the tension that had been building up to that point. Sirius’s debut is a great scene that feels like madness. The room is shaking, the character is trying to put his head back together, and all the while it looks like Sirius and Lupin want to kill Harry. It’s really great … but waiting with Harry and Hermione outside the Whomping Willow is not. The way the characters use the timeslip to save the hippogriff is clever, but most of the rehashing of scenes leaves something to be desired.
Also — and I’ll have to wait until I can see Deathly Hallows Part 2 again to confirm this — I think there’s a continuity error concerning the Patronus spell that saves Harry and Sirius.
At two hours and twenty-one minutes, there is still an issue of pace and, perhaps, fifteen minutes of fat that could be trimmed. The middle of the film is pretty tight, but the beginning and end lack some of the oomph that makes this one a favorite amongst the fans.
Verdict: This is a very strong film, but I’m still unsure if it would’ve swayed me at the time. It has appealing characters and a tight focus for much of the runtime, but I still think the opening of the film would’ve sent me running. Seven years on, though, I do enjoy the film as it finally gives me a set of protagonists I care about without forcing You Know Who down my throat. I’ll also give the more zealous fans that this is, by and large, a well-crafted and entertaining entry in the series.
And there’s only a little bit of Quidditch.