Many fans consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling’s third excursion into the world of the boy wizard with the lightning-bolt scar, the best of Harry’s adventures to date.
The film version, directed by Harry Potter newcomer Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess) after two-time Harry Potter director Chris Columbus stepped aside, has the makings of the best of the three films so far. Where Columbus was content to reverently visualize his source material, Cuarón successfully imagines it as a movie.
The first two films were slack at times; here the story is taut and well-paced. The three leads, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron), inhabit their characters more comfortably and convincingly than ever; perhaps they’re simply growing into the roles, or perhaps credit is due to Cuarón for eliciting these performances.
Hogwarts, at times in the earlier films a bit too transparently an artificial assemblage of various effects shots, sets, and locations, has never felt more like an actual place. Grainy, bleached cinematography brings a slightly chilly, gritty atmosphere to a story where the dangers are darker and the emotional stakes higher than ever. The Dahlesque blend of the grotesque and whimsical is still in evidence, but leavened by a new flavor of persuasive reality.
There’s a sense, though, in which the film is a victim of its own success. Where its predecessors felt a bit padded and overlong, The Prisoner of Azkaban feels incomplete and overly edited. If the first two films could easily have been tightened up by a half-hour or so, this one left me wishing for the first time that there were an “extended edition” DVD coming, as with the Lord of the Rings films.
This isn’t just because Cuarón has turned the longest of the first three books into the shortest of the first three movies. Nor is it just because important subplots and elements from the book were excised. Rather, it’s because important elements included in the films no longer totally make sense, or have the necessary significance, in the absence of what the film doesn’t tell us or show us.
For example, Harry, Hermione and Ron visit a rundown cabin called the Shrieking Shack, but we’re never told why it’s called that, nor what connection it has to events or characters in the story. A delightful artifact called the Marauder’s Map is introduced, and one character displays a surprising knowledge of its workings, but its history and connections to the characters and story are likewise left unexplained.
Two characters turn out to have a talent for a certain kind of transformation, and a third character also has a transformation issue, but once again the connections, the history, the relationships aren’t clarified. A fourth character, present only in spirit, is never explicitly connected either to the transformation theme or to a key plot point toward the end of the book — which leaves that plot point without any explanatory context at all.
In the book, these are all key plot points. Obviously the film can’t do everything the book does; but at least whatever it does do, it should make sense of. Oddly, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the only film so far not to feature a dénouement wrap-up speech from Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, more than ably replacing the late Richard Harris). Two or three minutes of Dumbledore explaining the finer points of the plot to Harry and/or Ron as well as the audience would have gone a long way.
I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that viewers who haven’t read the book may feel somewhat lost at times. At the same time, fans of the book, even those who aren’t rabid purists, may be upset or disappointed by the loose ends and neglected explanations.
Even so, taken on its own terms, The Prisoner of Azkaban probably remains the most enjoyable of the three films, despite its drawbacks. It may resemble a jigsaw puzzle with about a fifth of the pieces missing, but the resulting picture, though incomplete, is richer and more pleasing than the more nearly complete pictures represented by the first two films. Certainly it’s the one of the three I would be most interested in revisiting.
Creature effects this time out carry more of an imaginative and emotional punch. Buckbeak the hippogrif, a CGI horse-griffen hybrid, has far more character and presence than Fawkes the phoenix from The Chamber of Secrets or the Cerberus-like three-headed dog from The Sorcerer’s Stone. And neither the basilisk nor the troll from earlier films holds a candle to the wraithlike, hooded Dementors, truly creepy creations that hold up surprisingly well so soon after Peter Jackson’s terrifying Nazgûl.
One creature effect, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as impressive or dynamic as it should have been. At a key crisis one of the heroes casts a spell that involves the appearance of an animal, but because the animal’s significance is never clarified and the animal itself doesn’t actually do anything, it’s almost a throwaway effect.
This is especially unfortunate because this creature is a sort of icon of goodness opposed to the Dementors, in much the same way as Fawkes the phoenix was an icon of goodness opposed to the basilisk in The Chamber of Secrets — and this creature has the same problem as Fawkes, namely, that it never matches the impression created by its own opposition. The icons of goodness just don’t have the same impact as their evil counterparts.
As usual, the adult members of the cast are generally delightful, though some, including Gambon as the new Dumbledore and Maggie Smith as MacGonagall, are underused. New characters include dreaded convict Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), recently escaped from wizard prison; self-effacing Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, whose last name at a school where students study Latin and magic you would think would raise a few eyebrows; and dotty Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson), teacher of a dodgy course on divination.
This last course of study represents an exception to the general rule of the Harry Potter stories that the magic tends to be of the flying-broomstick fantasy sort rather than anything relating to real-world occult practices. In contrast to this general principle, Professor Trelawney’s tea leaves and crystal balls reflect actual divination practices of the sort forbidden by sacred scripture and Christian tradition.
This difficulty is only partly mitigated by the fact that Trelawney herself is depicted as ridiculous and her art as highly suspect, in marked contrast to the more reliable disciplines of other faculty members (a fact emphasized even more pointedly in the book). Absurdity and unreliability are not the same as morally unacceptable; and to associate such practices as fortunetelling, astrology, and the like with the harmless make-believe of hippogrifs and invisibility cloaks would be both wrong and potentially dangerous. (See “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” for more on the moral issues of magic in the Harry Potter stories and in fiction generally.)
Magic isn’t the only morally problematic issue. Harry’s patterns of reckless rule-breaking and his near inability to turn to adult authority such as Dumbledore when such help is obviously needed are ongoing problems.
There are also unsettling questions about wizard society itself. Consider, for example, the role of the Dementors, which are described as "the foulest creatures that walk this earth… they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
In any humane wizard society, one would think that such ghastly specters would be either destroyed, banished, or otherwise neutralized. Yet in the world of Harry Potter, they actually have an official function in wizard jurisprudence: They are the guards of Azkaban prison, and are permitted to work their horrors on the prisoners there. What kind of monstrous society could condone such a thing? Are we meant to discount moral issues like basic human dignity and refraining from cruel and unusual punishment while in Harry Potter’s world?
On the other hand, there are also positive moral elements. Harry has always been brave and loyal, and here he shows that he can be merciful as well, refusing to let others kill two characters whom he has every reason to want dead.
Critic Peter T. Chattaway also observes that The Prisoner of Azkaban gives Harry his first meaningful relationship with a sympathetic adult, as well as an important emotional connection with another surprisingly sympathetic adult. As Harry grows up, it’s nice to see the stories growing up in certain ways too.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.