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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The first two film adaptations were huge hits, but were derided by some as being too loyal to the books that it stifled the creativity. Now, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is out and it’s the first film to deviate from the books. How will Potter nation take the news?

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his third year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is also getting older, getting angrier, and learning more and more about his parents. He’s on alert that the murderer, Sirius Black (played the fabulous Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison and is out to get Harry. Black had a hand in the deaths of Harry’s parents, and now it seems he’s looking to finish what he started as a follower of Lord Voldemort. Harry relies on his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and a kindly new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher named Lupin (David Thewlis) to conquer his fears, his burgeoning hormones, and to face Black when the time comes.

The best decision the Harry Potter producers made for this chapter of the series was in getting a new director. Alfonso Cuaron finally infuses the Potter series with a sense of visual life. Instead of Chris Columbus’’ stubborn admiration of his fake opulent world, Cuaron keeps things fluid with a constantly roving camera and long takes. For the first time in the series, you can argue that this Harry Potter film looks and feels like its own actual movie. Gone is Columbus’ annoying penchant for displaying everything in close-ups. The film also benefits from some new realistic exteriors and dressed-down attire, ditching the school uniforms. There’s also a new cinematographer, so instead of Columbus’ dull amber glow, the series takes a gratifying turn toward the menacing, with an emphasis on dreary blacks and silvers.

The best improvement of all, however, was in getting away from the apparent slavish loyalty to the books. The third book is the longest of the three but the third film is the shortest; 15 minutes shorter than Sorcerer’’s Stone, and 25 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets. Thank God. At the rate they were going I thought the next book, Goblet of Fire (700-some pages), was going to be like 9 hours.

So, under Cuaron’’s guidance, Prisoner of Azkaban eschews the unnecessary plot elements and details fans will grumble over but moviegoers couldn’t care less over (Quidditch?). Cuaron’’s film may be heavy with exposition, but it never talks down to its audience. The result is a movie trying to be a movie and not trying to cram in as many details of the world as possible so fans won’t have their feathers ruffled.

The young actors of Hogwarts have definitely been struck by puberty, and it has done their acting a world of good. Radcliffe will never be an exceptional actor but here he presents new and interesting dimensions to Harry demonstrating his arrogance and tempestuous anger. Tom Felton, who plays the snarky blonde-haired Draco Malfoy, appears to be maturing into a ganglier Macaulay Culkin. The one actor that truly seems to have a bright future, though, is Emma Watson. You cannot help but love her whenever she’s on screen and she seems to be developing into a fine actress.

The most notable addition to the adult staff in the film is Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts’ headmaster, Dumbledore. Gambon turns the character from a kind-hearted grandfather type to more of an aging hippie – but it works. Emma Thomson also appears as some sort of psychic professor, teaching students to read tea leaves; however, her entire role seems superfluous unless it impacts future installments (I have not read a single book). Once again, Alan Rickman rules all and needs to get more time in these movies. I don’t know how, but it needs to happen. Thewlis is the most welcomed addition in his pivotal role as Professor Lupin and delivers some of the more dramatic scenes of the film with radiance and ease. He creates a lovely father-son relationship with Harry that supplies Azkaban with a nice sense of compassion. Oldman is similarly great but unfortunately he shows up so late into the film that he seems terribly underused. There is a scene late into the film, where Thewlis, Oldman, Rickman, and the great character actor Timothy Spall share a scene. I never thought it would be a children’’s fantasy series that would finally unite all these talented British stage actors but I’m thankful for it nonetheless.

Prisoner of Azkaban is the darkest tale yet, and Harry Potter works best when things get scary. The nightmarish element design creates a wonderful sense of dread, and Cuaron deftly handles his young characters dealing with rage and death and, scariest of all, budding hormones. There’s even a sly nod to Cuaron’’s steamy coming-of-age film, Y Tu Mama Tambien (it involves a three-way hug between our trio of kids).

he effects of the film are beautiful and greatly add to the entertainment value of the film. The Dementors, cloaked flying guards of Azkaban prison, are terrifying to look at, and their leitmotif of chilling the air when they are near makes for some great visuals and ominous moments. I got actual goosebumps the first time they arrived on-screen, and then when I saw this film a second time, fully knowing the story, my skin still crawled when they arrived. Perhaps the greatest addition to Harry Potter‘s special effects bestiary is the Hippogriff, which resembles a combination between an eagle and a horse. It is a gorgeous creation and worlds better looking than the three-headed dog from the original film. It also provides one of the more breath-taking moments of the film, when Harry goes soaring across a lake on the back of the Hippogriff.

Having said all this, yes Prisoner of Azkaban is the most exciting and visually alluring film of the series, also its darkest, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the central storyline. Most people will love it, especially fans of the books, but after walking out of the theater I could not help but wonder if the film had a climax at all? It really kind of didn’t. There was no sense of real story momentum and the middle had some definite moments of drag. The last act of Prisoner of Azkaban is exactly like Back to the Future Part 2: time-travel, correcting the future, not running into your past selves. This is not a good comparison. So while the characters are getting more interesting as they get older, this plot doesn’t really hold up very well. It almost feels like a preface of whatever events will come in the fourth film.

Prisoner of Azkaban is an interesting watch. I am told it deviates the most from the book and it manages to generate a considerably darker and scarier atmosphere than its predecessors. For my money, any changes are good, as films are about ADAPTATION and not copying, so dispensing with subplots and details is A-Ok with me. But how will the die-hards react? I’m sure you’ll hear plenty of grumbling all over, but Cuaron has injected needed life into this series and presented an idea of what it can grow to be. So, while I think Prisoner of Azkaban has a superior visual sense, pacing, and adaptation; I also feel the story may be the weakest we have been told. I can only imagine what the outcry will be among the fan base when Goblet of Fire is released November 2005 as one film.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

So is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets better than the first film? Well, mostly yes. The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is still living with his abusive relatives and barred in his room. He’s warned by Doddy, a self-abusive CGI house elf, not to return to Hogwart’s School of Magic because he will be in grave danger. Fat lot of luck this does. Before you can say Jar Jar Binks, Harry’’s timid friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his flying love bug rescue Harry. They meet up with old friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and begin their second year of magical education. But danger surfaces as students with Muggle (a non-magically inclined family member) blood are turning into petrified statues. Lots of other stuff is crammed in (like broomstick rugby, Nancy Drew-like detection, and spiders oh my!) but let’s all be honest here, it’s not like a plot synopsis is going to push you into seeing this movie.

Much of the acting responsibilities falls on the shoulders of our three young leads, and all I can say is what a world of good puberty has done them all. Radcliffe, stiff and overly subdued in the first film, has grown a deeper voice. He seems to have settled into the part nicely. Grint, playing a noble coward, goes from squeal to grimace in 3.5 seconds. Watson has a winning smile and bounces with enthusiasm but sadly sits the last half of the film out.

Some notable additions to the Harry Potter family include Kenneth Branagh as the narcissistic new professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Can anyone do ham better than Branagh? I don’t think so. Jason Isaacs is malevolently delicious as the aristocratic father of Harry’s school rival, Draco Malfoy. You could start shivering from the icy glare this man casts.

Chamber of Secrets is better than the earlier Sorcerer’’s Stone in many ways. The story has less exposition and contains darker elements that suit the story surprisingly well. The special effects are vastly improved from the first film. The child acting, as previously mentioned, is much better.

Despite lacking prolonged setup, Chamber of Secrets clocks in around 2 hours and 40 minutes — 9 minutes longer than the first! You could watch your life go by sitting through a Potter movie marathon. This might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series.

So remember when I said Chamber of Secrets was “mostly” better than the first film? Well that “mostly” is because the amazing adult cast is hardly seen. Gentle giant Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith are mere background noise to the story. Headmaster Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris) has a weathered feel. What Chamber of Secrets needs are more scenes with the brilliant Alan Rickman, as moody professor Severus Snape. Rickman (Dogma) is perfect and a thrill to watch. I got a fever and only more Rickman can cure it.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone) is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied. It should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. Chamber of Secrets plays toward audience expectations, but all of the components involved seem to be settling in their roles. Chances are whatever you felt about the first film you’ll relive during the second.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

If you don’t know about Harry Potter at this point you must be living under a stone, perhaps a Sorcerer’s stone. The little tyke with glasses and a lightning scar has become a sensation across the seas and of course a big budget movie was merely just a matter of time. The imagination of author J.K. Rowling is bustling with a complex world that has given her acclaim from children and parents all over, not to mention made her filthy rich. The movie is a meticulously faithful adaptation but this is both its strength and its weakness.

The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphan living with his nasty aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Riachard Griffiths) who force Harry to live under the stairs. Harry is informed one night by a gigantic and bearded figure named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) that both Harry’s parents were magically inclined and he is to gather his own education at Hogwarts School of Magic. On his way there, after picking up supplies in a special place I have forgotten totally the name of, Harry meets and befriends the aloof Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the Type-A studious Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Once there Harry picks up a rival in Draco Malfoy, a cold glare from Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), a good scare from a poor CGI three headed guard dog, and a mastery in the art of broomstick flying. The school sessions are a barrage of characters and minute plot points that readers will just be grinning that have been included.Through later revelations it is divulged that Harry’s parents were killed by the powerful wizard Lord Voldermort. It seems that old Voldy for whatever reason decided not to kill Harry. Thus because of this Harry has worldwide fame as the boy who lived against Voldermort. It seems as well that this evil wizard is trying to achieve immortality by using the advantages of the hidden Sorcerer’s stone. It’s up to Harry and his friends to stop this from happening.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) wrestled this franchise away from such directorial heavyweights like Spielberg, and it’s clear to see why he was selected. Rowling ordered the movie adaptation to be completely faithful to her book, and Columbus is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied, which is fine for most people. With this project he seems like he is basically a go-between with Rowling and the studio suits. Basically it should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Large portions of this film need to carried by the acting of several of its young stars and it’s quite a 120 million dollar weight. For the most part the child actors in Harry Potter deliver. Emma Watson is the standout as Hermione, with her extra energy and enthusiasm in every step and every smile simply winning over the audience in spades. The only real detraction acting wise in the entire film is, unfortunately, the star. Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry in a very stiff manor and spends most of the film looking overly subdued. After you experience more time with the other characters in the film one realizes how frightfully dull the character of Harry Potter really is. Any of the characters would be more exciting to watch than Harry. As characters go, he’s about as interesting or entertaining as stereo instructions.

Harry Potter contains an all-star all British cast for the fanciful faculty of Hogwarts. Everyone seems so meticulously cast that they were born to play these roles. Richard Harris becomes a gentle grandfatherly figure as the headmaster. Robbie Coltrane is a large and lovable figure that the audience can rely on again and again. Richard Griffiths is so over-the-top in a very entertaining light. Alan Rickman owns every scene he is in with such a snarling and full-of-life presence. He is perfect, as is most of the adult casting.

The most exciting moment of the film occurs during a match of Quidditch, which is basically like rugby in the sky. Two teams on broomsticks whiz and zoom around one another in a fierce aerial competition. At this moment Columbus can declare himself the true director. The entire sequence is done that it perks the viewer’s imagination and also provides great moments of excitement. Seeing the scene itself was a testament to the wizardry of special effects.

The length of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone clocks in around two hours and thirty minutes, which might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series. The film is structured more like a novel than a screenplay (again with the induced restrictions), so instead of a usual three-act system it has moments that drag and moments that seem to go on endlessly (like the final near obstacle course the three kids must go through). The entire first hour or more is set-up explaining all of the characters and the world they inhabit, then they just sneak in a mention to the Sorcerer’s stone toward the end and introduce our titular story line. Hopefully, with the set-up out of the way now, the next movie will be a tad shorter.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. The first four books have been optioned by Warner Bros. so expect to see an armada of kids dressed up in Halloween costumes around Thanksgiving for the next few years. Harry Potter is a fairly light-hearted but entertaining venture that I wouldn’t mind revisiting and reacquainting every now and then like an old friend.

Nate’s Grade: B

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