June 15, 2004

The Harry Potter saga continues solidly in The Prisoner of Azkaban

Tonight I once again sold my soul to Satan and went to an early screening of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, adapted from the third novel of J. K. Rowling's blockbuster series of juvenile fantasy.

Harry's third year at Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Wizardry is about to begin. The movie begins with a humorous teaser in which Harry's Uncle Vernon tries (unsuccessfully) to catch him learning spells under the bedcovers. (Potter purists will note that technically, Harry shouldn't be doing this.) After Harry loses his temper during dinner and causes his abusive Aunt Marge to inflate and float into the night, he decides that leaving is preferable to apologizing, packs his things and leaves home.

On the street, Harry is picked up on a wizard bus that takes him to London and the Leaky Cauldron. En route he learns that notorious murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban. To "protect" the students in case Black should come around, Hogwarts is now guarded by Dementors, the ghoulish and amoral guards of Azkaban. Dementors feed on human happiness, and unfortunately for Harry, they seem to take a liking to him. Subsequent exposition, heard while Harry eavesdrops under his invisibility cloak, reveals that Black is his own godfather and his father's best friend, and that he betrayed Harry's parents to the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry resolves to have his revenge.

After Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chris Columbus gave up the director's chair to Alfonso Cuaron. It shows. Stylistically this movie often differs dramatically from its predecessors Visually the film is darker and more gothic, as much of the action takes place outdoors, at night, or in the rain. We get to see more of the Hogwarts castle and the surrounding environs. Some of these establishing shots are stunning. Unfortunately some of the new visuals also offend established continuity, but not too badly.

The acting is pretty solid. The three principal actors are maturing, and so are their characters. (Note to Ms. Rowling: Get those books written so we can finish these films before all the stars turn 30.) Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is taller and broader-shouldered. The rubber-faced Rupert Grint plays a more restrained Ron Weasley this time around. For some reason Emma Watson's Hermione Granger is played as more of a tomboy than a by-the-book student, but she's not egregiously out of character.

The redoubtable Robbie Coltrane returns as the slow-witted groundskeeper Hagrid, now promoted to teach Care of Magical Creatures. Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as Headmaster Dumbledore; while the physical resemblance is there, Harris' kindly-grandfather interpretation of Dumbledore is gone. Alan Rickman again masters the sinister Professor Snape. However, Dame Maggie Smith is terribly underused as Professor McGonagall, having all of two or three lines in the entire film. David Thewlis is introduced as Professor Remus Lupin, the Defense Against Dark Arts Professor du jour. The almost unrecognizeable Emma Thompson chews scenery beautifully as the flaky Professor Trelawney, quack teacher of Divination. (Sidenote: I have a number of acquaintances who are concerned about the "occult" elements of Harry Potter. I have frequently pointed out that the one place where Rowling's fantasy magic intersects with "real" magic is the art of divination, and Rowling's portrayal of this art is uniformly negative. Trelawney is a fraud. She gets exactly one genuine message from "beyond" and she doesn't even realize it.) Gary Oldman excels at portraying characters who are on the border of insanity, and so he is a natural for Sirius Black.

The Prisoner of Azkaban's two predecessors were literal, mostly faithful, adaptations of the source material. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but this time minimalism carries the day, and much of the novel's superfluous material disappears. Gone, for the most part, are classes and the Quidditch season, apart from one match that is crucial to the plot. Hagrid holds one Care of Magical Creatures class to introduce Buckbeak the Hippogriff; we don't get to see the students learning about Flobberworms or Salamanders. This undoubtedly rubs the Potter purists the wrong way, but it does make for a tighter plot.

Many of the novel's crucial clues are revealed through exposition or dialogue. Here they are often shown visually. We are shown that Professor Lupus' greatest fear is a full moon. (Why?) Harry acquires a magic map authored by Messrs. Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, but their true identities are not revealed, nor is the reason Lupus knows the spell to reveal the map's secrets. But the answers are right there in plain sight, if you are paying attention. It's nice to watch a movie that doesn't insult your intelligence by assuming you have to be told everything up front.

Final note: Take the time to sit through the end credits. Not that there are any surprises or secrets revealed, but they are well crafted and have a touch of humour.

Also, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire began filming in March, under the direction of Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile, Four Weddings and a Funeral). Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Troy) steps through the revolving door into the Defense Against the Dark Arts chair as "Mad-Eye" Moody. The fourth Harry Potter film is scheduled for a 2005 release. Here's hoping it comes out in the summer rather than at Christmas.