Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
June 4th, 2004
Have you ever gotten that "been there, done that" feeling when watching a movie? One where you know everything that's going to happen next? That's the feeling I got as I was watching "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the latest in the ongoing saga of a young wizard who is allegedly destined for greater things. Now, that's a pretty strange thing to say about a movie that is based on one of the biggest best-selling novels in the world, but up until a few days before seeing "Azkaban," I had never experienced Potter mania. Never touched one of the books, nor seen either of the previous films. So, the weekend before this movie opened, I sat down to watch "Sorcerer's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets." I noticed the second film followed many of the same plot points as the first, and often those points were told in the same order. Sitting in the theatre to see this new film, I turned to my wife just before the lights started to dim and stated I would be quite unhappy if the film opened with a specific set of scenes happening in a specific order. I was only slightly wrong. Instead of it going A, B, C, D, E, F, it went A, B, D, C, E, F.
I can understand the nature of cyclical storytelling. The "Indiana Jones" trilogy followed the same basic plotline through each movie: Indy starts off in trouble, gets into worse trouble and has to escape in some way, gets to a safe place only to discover a deeper peril, and continues to delve deeper and deeper into said peril until the hero emerges victorious. However, each of the Indy movies can stand on their own as complete individual stories, which specific resolutions to each adventure that are not dependent on something that happened in any other story. Sure, there are minor allusions in scenes from the subsequent movies to the ones that came before, but they are merely meant to humor us based on shared knowledge. Here, in the Potter movies, if I had not seen the first two movies, I would be rather lost in the story. But having seen the first two, "Azkaban" felt like little more than a Greatest Hits repacking, remixed by a new director, with the only worthy contribution being the introduction of a new character who may or may not become more important in future tales.
After two films, we are pretty well aware that, for example, Harry does not have the best of relations with the Dursleys. We've already seen them treat Harry with nothing less than derision and scorn, seen them push Harry to the boiling point, and seen Harry break the laws of magic by performing a wee bit of chicanery. Doing it again here adds no new essential information to the stories of Harry or the Dursleys, and while being mildly entertaining, could have been completely excised from the final film without losing anything more than several minutes of running time and an excuse to get him to the next scene, another mildly amusing but unnecessary segment aboard a mystical triple decker bus which solely exists to get Harry to the next scene. Which is how much of "Azkaban" progresses: a series of mildly amusing or interesting scenes, which mostly exist to get the characters to the next mildly amusing or interesting scene.
I've voiced some of my concerns with the Potter movies to friends and acquaintances that are fans of the novels and films. Why does Draco Malfoy get any attention, when he's such an ineffective rival? "He's supposed to become important in later stories." Why is so much emphasis placed on the Quidditch matches? "Quidditch becomes really important in the next story." What's the big deal about Sirius Black? "You'll see in the fifth story." Why am I wasting my time seeing these movies, if they are nothing more than setups to future stories? "You have to read the books. They introduce so much extra texture and character to the stories."
Well, of course they do. But books aren't movies. What happens in "Goblet of Fire" or "The Order of the Phoenix" is immaterial at this point, since they do not yet exist at this level. A cliffhanger ending can be extremely effective when used properly, such as Darth Vader's chilling reveal to Luke Skywalker at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back." And I believe my displeasure with the Harry Potter movies thus far are rooted in the same place where many feel the new prequel "Star Wars" trilogy have betrayed them. Everything presented is dependant on future stories. Since Harry Potter is the title character of the series, we know no matter what, no major harm will come to him, at least until the seventh, final story. All the talk about the three lead young actors potentially being too old for the characters by the time the final story begins filming sometime in 2008 or 2009 shows Ron and Hermione will also come out of each the next three stories bruised but otherwise unscathed.
As with "Sorcerer's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets," the look and sound of "Azkaban" are first rate, as should be expected. The Dementors, the keepers of Azkaban Prison who look like they were borrowed from Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners," are quite possibly the most realistic CG created characters to be created thus far, while the Pegasus with a Pigeon Face called Hippogriff looks about as realistic as a winged horse with a bird face can look. John Williams' score is lush and grand, even if it does borrow elements from some of his older, better scores.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have certainly grown into the roles as the trio of friends, whose mannerisms and movements rightfully feel like those of long-time friends. Michael Gambon, taking over the role of Albus Dumbledore from the late, great Richard Harris, feels like he was allowed to take too drastic a turn with the character, who uncomfortably goes from regality to cryptic bemusement. Most of the rest of the continuing characters, from professors like Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) to students like Neville Longbottom and most of the Weasley clan, become little more than background players with not very much to do. Only Alan Rickman's Professor Snape is given a worthy extended role in the story. Of the new teachers, Emma Thompson's Professor Sybil Trelawney takes the place of Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart as the wacky Hogwarts professeur de année, while David Thewlis' is too undignified for Professor Lupin (whose name alone ruins what could have been an interesting twist to the story). Gary Oldman, one of the five best actors alive, rarely makes this major a misstep when choosing a role, but with the allegedly dastardly deeds of Sirius Black being talked about by others instead of being shown, the menace Black should be when he finally confronts Harry simply does not exist. This is in no means Oldman's fault, but the maniacally laughing caricature of Black seen in wanted posters in the background is a stock character for Oldman, diluting the effectiveness of said posters.
New series director Alfonso Cuarón is an interesting choice to replace Chris Columbus as the captain of the ship, but he does not deliver on the promise of a deeper, darker work, remaining with the status quo of the other films in the series. He is a very good director and he has directed a competent film, but one that does not differentiate itself from the others in the series.
I'm sure Potter fans will disagree with a number of my points, but they also have the advantage of being ahead of the story, with much more detailed information. Taken simply as a movie, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" just does not work that well to progress the overall story along. Despite the participation of Mike Newell as director of the next movie in the series, this chapter leaves me little enthused for the future.
My rating: C-