There’s a scene early in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where a housekeeper for The Leaky Cauldron knocks on a door to see if she can clean the room. The door opens up and an enormous roar launches out of the door, accompanied by the breath of some unseen monster. The door slams shut, and the housekeeper drily says “I’ll come back later.” It’s not important at all, and it’s not even a particularly clever joke. But the way it’s staged and timed is so funny to me, and it’s even more delightful because it’s not in the book at all. It’s just a funny little detail that was thrown in. Prisoner of Azkaban is filled with little bits like that. It relishes the little absurdities of life in the wizarding world, like the guy who is stirring his drink by twirling his finger to make the spoon turn. Surely it would be easier to just stir the spoon by holding it?
Like the book it’s based on, Prisoner of Azkaban is something of a transition for the series. It’s the first time a new director would take the reins, it introduces a major casting change, and it’s the first time (though certainly not the last) that the script had to make some major omissions to fit everything in. It’s probably the most fast-paced of the Harry Potter movies, and it’s no coincidence that it’s many people’s favorite. I’m not sure I’m willing to make that assessment until I’ve seen all of them again, but it’s definitely up there. Rather than just follow the methods laid out by the first two movies or even the novel, it makes the material its own. It brings the growing darkness right to the front, all the while layering on a wicked sense of humor that harkens to the Roald Dahl inspirations that informed Rowling’s books.
Director Alfonso Cuaron has ended up being the highest pedigree that the series would attract. His 2006 film Children of Men is generally considered one of the finest works of science fiction made in the 21st Century, and you can see little hints of that brilliance all through this film. He uses most of the same sets from the first two movies, but Hogwarts doesn’t seem quite so homey anymore. There’s a touch of menace to how he shoots everything. The angles look a little sharper, the hills a little steeper, and even the covered bridge doesn’t seem totally straight anymore. And of course, a large portion of the movie takes place in the rain or snow, lending it a dreary air that would be oppressive if the rest of the movie weren’t so full of life.
Cuaron treats the wizarding world as just a little more gruesome and alien. We are reminded over and over again that it’s not a world like ours, that the rules for how things operate are different and maybe just a little uncomfortable. He drives it home by going again and again to an image straight from Lewis Carol. He literally takes us through the looking glass at least four times, whether through the mirror in Professor Lupin’s class or through the glass by the clocktower. Like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, things are strange here. It’s filled with hunchbacks who show you to your room, books that try to bite you, and of course, the most dreadful of all Harry Potter creatures, the dementors.
The dementors are one of Rowling’s finest creations, a horrible creature that eats away at your happiness until you are left with your worst memories. Here they are realized as a mass of floating shrouds and limbs, freezing water and frosting flowers as they pass by. They look just terrific, and it’s plain that Cuaron enjoys the effect they have on the characters. The script makes the interesting choice to never totally explain what they do. I originally thought this was a mistake, but I think the dementors function better as a purely visual threat. They are the guards from Azkaban prison, and that is all we need to know. We are given a couple of passing descriptions of their effect, but that is all.
As usual, the casting is spot-on. Gary Oldman acquits himself nicely as Sirius Black, considering his role through most of the movie is to look fierce in wanted posters. He gives a gaunt, hungry feel to the part, with that core of tenderness towards Harry. I’m even more impressed by Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew, all sniveling and buck-toothed. He’s an inspired choice, and I like that we see more of him going forward. David Thewlis does an admirable job as well of Remus Lupin, the best teacher we ever get to see at Hogwarts. The scene where he teaches the class about how to deal with boggarts is one of the best in the movie. Of course the big change is Michael Gambon, who took over the role of Dumbledore after Richard Harris passed away. I don’t think anyone would speak ill of Harris’s performance in either of the first two films, but I confess that I actually prefer Gambon. He’s a spritely wizard, with a more impish nature that will suit the character as the role becomes more demanding. At this point he still resides a little in Harris’s shadow, but he does quite well all the same.
The movie is helped immensely by what is surely Rowling’s tightest story. The last four books are sometimes given to red herrings and overdone subplots, but we aren’t there yet. Steve Kloves uses it as an opportunity to really make this one fire on all cylinders. The story moves along at such a brisk pace that this is actually a shorter movie than either of the first two, even though they were based on shorter books. Indeed, it moves so quickly that the final reveal of Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew is almost just a little too quick. The first time I watched this was with a friend who hadn’t read the book, and she needed me to explain it once more to her. But they do leave in all of the vital information. It’s a trick that the later movies will have to employ more and more, the art of figuring out exactly what is and isn’t important to move the story forward and going from there. I do miss the reverent tone of the first two films, but this is a more visceral story. It’s a threat to Harry specifically, and it deserves a more heated adaptation. Besides, at this point it’s just necessary to keep the movies to a reasonable running time.
So is it the best Harry Potter movie? I’m not sure I’d definitely say that, but its main strength is that it’s more than willing to be its own movie. It forges ahead with its visual design in a way that is both refreshing and creative, and it finds humorous details in the margins of the story. Just like the book it’s based on, it sets a template for the rest of the series. The stories will get darker, but thanks to this excellent entry it’s not a totally jarring transition.
- I thought that we get a good look at Harry’s patronus in this movie, but the Patronus spell is rendered simply as a blinding white light. Probably just as well, since the movie never bothers to explain the explicit connection between Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs. They’re mostly just the guys who made the map.
- Now I’ll be watching to see if they call Pettigrew “Wormtail” through the rest of the series. I’m almost certain they do.
- A friend of mine once commented that Draco Malfoy looks like Nick Carter in this movie, and now I can’t stop seeing it.
- Did you notice that in the last movie Harry and Ron had to save the day without Hermione, and now Hermione and Harry have to change history without Ron? I think there’s a literary term for that, but I can’t think of which it would be…
- I like how Hagrid is skipping stones the size of manhole covers on the lake.
- The scene where Harry rides Buckbeak is another highlight, because for the first time we get a real sense of how huge the grounds are.
- This is the last time that John Williams provides the score for a Harry Potter movie, and he turns in some of his best work. I like the little harpsichord flourish when Pettigrew is revealed, as well as the “Something Wicked this Way Comes” theme that keeps cropping up.
- Speaking of that theme, I like that the choir performs with toads. Why? Because reasons!