Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Like the last two films, Azkaban covers an entire school year for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Also like the last two films, the plot is split between the ongoing struggle between Harry and the forces of evil wizard extraordinaire, Lord Voldemort, and Harry's smaller-scale problems at school. As Harry prepares to return to Hogwart's wizard boarding school, he notices wanted posters for a man named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) everywhere he looks. Black, a disciple of Voldemort, had just broken out of the super-secure wizard gulag, Azkaban; this is a big deal for the wizarding world because Black was the first-ever escapee of the prison and also because his crimes were especially heinous. Not only did he blow up a fellow wizard, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), with only a finger escaping total incineration, but Sirius Black was the man who led Voldemort to Harry Potter's parents on the night they were murdered. Out of prison, it just makes sense that his first move would be to kill Harry for his master. When Harry learns Black's history, he welcomes the fight and declares his intention to kill Black. Apparently, having evil wizards try to kill you every year can make thirteen-year-olds get a little aggressive.
The other plot line follows Harry's progressive immersion in the world of magic. As a side effect of Black's escape, Azkaban guards (called Dementors) arrive, looking for Black. Dementors are not people, but soul-sucking monsters that find Harry a particularly tasty morsel. Harry takes lessons on how to deflect these creatures from his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Like Harry's last two DADA teachers (villains in the last two films), Lupin has a secret that plays a part in the film's climax. Also playing a part is the school groundskeeper, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who earned a promotion to teacher. He introduced a hippogriff (a magical half-horse and half-eagle creature) to some students and, despite it being very friendly to Harry, it injured a student, perennial Potter bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). As such, the animal receives an execution date. I wonder...will these seemingly dissimilar plots ever coalesce in time for the film's end?
At the time of its publication, the book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was the longest in the series. Since the last two films went over two hours to cover everything in the books, it became necessary to cut the novel into something more digestible in movie form. As such, Azkaban is the first Harry Potter film to take liberties with the source text. That's great news for someone like me, who liked the first two films, but felt that they could have done more to adapt to the film genre. That means that this film is more plot-driven that the others. The other big change is Alfonso Cuaron's assumption of the director's role; aside from making a very good cutting of the story (in my opinion) for the screenplay, Cuaron played with the film's color palette, opting for more blues and a general washed-out feel, which I thought matched the story's being-hunted-by-a-murderer plot. The DVD special features also point out an instance of Cuaron's dealings with his teenage cast; he asked the three main actors to write an essay about their characters, and the responses he got were surprisingly in-line with the work the characters themselves would have done: Watson wrote a fifteen-page paper, Radcliffe wrote a few pages, and Grint didn't do his homework. Well, I laughed, anyway.
The acting in this film is a marked improvement over The Chamber of Secrets. Daniel Radcliffe not only looked the part, with the most Harry Potter-ish hair of any of the movies, but his casual acting skills showed a lot of growth. He doesn't quite nail every emotion (anger seems a little out of his grasp), but it's still a big step. Emma Watson is, once again, the most natural actor of the three, but this movie gives her less screen time and, thus, less to do. Rupert Grint manages to make ugly faces whenever he's supposed to be frightened, which is often. I wasn't terribly impressed with David Thewlis' Lupin, but that has more to do with the CGI used on his character and my own impression of the character from the book than any particular shortcoming in his performance; I thought he would be more...raggedy, I guess. And I'm still not certain why his CGI-aided moments went with such a lanky character design instead of the more traditional bulk. Gary Oldman, one of the great actors of the 90s, took this role to make some money, but his performance is still pretty good; I loved the design for his character, from the hair and tattoos to his emaciated body. Much of Oldman's presence in the film comes from wanted posters, but they are pretty awesome, just the same. Tom Felton's turn as Draco is far less sinister than in previous movies; here he is used as comic relief instead of a legitimate rival to Harry. Michael Gambon replaced Richard Harris as Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, and his performance had the subtle mischief I felt was lacking in Harris' performances. Emma Thompson and Timothy Spall make their Potter debuts here in limited performances and cast staples Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane all do fine work in their small supporting roles.
Personally, I think this third installment surpasses the first two Harry Potters easily. The acting is better, the pace of the film is better, and several details are glossed over in favor of a more seamless narrative. Not only were the individual acting performances better than in previous films, but I think the more casual scenes showing the kids goofing off and having fun felt natural an unforced, which was a huge departure from the I'm-waiting-for-you-to-stop-talking-so-I-can-deliver-my-lines performances from the last film. This movie also helped build the budding romance between Hermione and Ron a bit, something the other films left on the cutting room floor.
Not every choice was well made, though. The Jamaican shrunken head in the early stages of the film was just obnoxious, for starters. There were a few instances where the token black student at Hogwarts makes some reference to Black (as in Sirius) being up to no good, or how he could be anywhere, or whatever --- I'm not a racist, but unintentional racism makes me giggle. I mean, really? You couldn't find any other actor to make negative comments about "Black"? Those aren't major complaints, though. The one thing holding this movie back is the source material. There is a plot element that is revealed in the final third of the movie (to be fair, it is foreshadowed) that essentially acts as a deus ex machina. As such, the final third of the movie can seem somewhat contrived, but that is what the book offered, so I guess the filmmakers were kind of stuck. Still, even with the contrived ending, this is the best of the bunch so far.