Friday, June 4, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Here, Harry Potter takes a turn for the dark. Harry runs away from home in a fit of anger, discovers that a murderous madman is hunting him, and learns a terrible truth about his parents' murder.

The levity of The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets is mostly exchanged for a kind of shadowy fantasy. New director Alfonso CuarĂ³n manages to craft a much more organic-feeling fantasy world, making the prior two films feel jumbled and almost silly by comparison.

The characters are all a bit better this time around. The kids seem to have all gone through puberty at once, and are about twice as mature as they were last time. Harry in particular gets a rather large dose of grow-up potion, as he is finally forced to realize his potential as a powerful wizard. In the past, Hermione was the only one out of the trio who could effectively use magic of any sort, with Ron and Harry being virtually useless in that regard. Here, Harry is clearly shown to be the most powerful of the three, and it's very cool.

Before the making of this film, the actor who portrayed Dumbledore, Richard Harris, died, and is replaced here by Michael Gambon. The old Dumbledore will be terribly missed, but the new one, while different, is also very compelling. He's perhaps a bit too similar to Gandalf the White from Lord of the Rings, but not to a terribly distracting degree. He's got that certain playfulness that Gandalf lacked, but the old Dumbledore always had plenty of.

Some of the best scenes in the film are the quiet moments between Harry and new teacher Remus Lupin. They have a very strong master/student relationship, and it does a lot to ground the story in real, relatable emotion.

The visual style of Harry Potter is reworked in a darker, more cohesive fashion. While the first two films sometimes felt like a jumble of bright colors, this one has a much more uniform and precise look. Much of the imagery looks as though it's taken out of the absolute best of dark fantasy art.

Many of the horror elements of the film are genuinely scary. The dementors are textbook death monsters, and Remus' transformation into a werewolf is horribly twisted—in a good way.

The visual effects get one notch better. The extremely brief Quidditch scene appears to be entirely made of live-action footage rather than CGI. The CGI creatures seen here are still not entirely perfect, but move realistically enough that it's easy to let it slide. Of special note is the extremely lifelike quality of Buckbeak the hippogriff. He moves and acts like a real animal, complete with all the bird-like quirks that you'd expect.

The music here is truly remarkable. John Williams' score feels far different from the first two films, utilizing an entirely new set of themes and a darker, less bombastic tone. There's still a few places where similarities to the Star Wars prequel scores seem to pop up, but it's likely not the kind of thing that anyone other than soundtrack buffs will recognize.

There are a few problems with the way the story is presented. Sirius Black's entrance portrays him as a madman, but he somehow becomes a likable, rather gentlemanly person in less than ten minutes. Harry is shown to completely change his opinion of Sirius in an instant, going from utter contempt and hate to regarding him as close family. It all happens entirely too fast.
Another confusing point is the final confrontation with the dementors and Harry's Patronus Charm. The animal identities of individual Patronus charms are never explained in the film, thus Harry's belief that his father summoned the stag-shaped Patronus doesn't make any sense. It's not plot-breaking, but it does create a mental stumbling block.
Finally, the last real problem with the film is the fact that it doesn't have a definitive ending. The villain escapes and Sirius' name isn't cleared. The kids discover the truth behind the the Potters' betrayer, but very little comes of it. All in all, Prisoner of Azkaban is more of an in-between chapter than a fully-realized story on its own, and comes off slightly as required viewing for future stories. It's no different than the book, but that doesn't necessarily help it much. At the same time, even if this is no more than an in-between chapter, it's still good enough that it's hardly a chore to get through—and the events of this film, while rather minor in the larger scope of things—do definitely become vastly more important in the sequels.

This really is the best Potter film yet. True, it's not as lighthearted and childishly fun as the initial two, but it's overall more enjoyable and feels every bit as magical as it did before.