Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [Retro Review]

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

The Scoop: 2004 PG, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Daniel Radcliffe, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman.

Tagline: Something wicked this way comes.

Summary Capsule: Boy wizard enters third year and tries to defeat a mass murderer, and an ogre is killed at the box office.

Lissa’s Rating: Doesn’t a cult become a religion when there’s a certain number of followers? Welcome to the religion of Harry Potter.

Lissa’s Review: I may be 29, but I am such a Harry Potter fanatic. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read each of the books, I own two Harry Potter trivia games (and believe me, I kick butt!), I wear a Gryffindor Quidditch jersey to youth group and make my kids jealous, and you’d better believe I slurp up J.K. Rowling interviews like they were chocolate cheesecake ice cream. Even my tae kwon do bag is infected by Harry Potter. And I’m not remotely ashamed of this. Instead, I’m cursing the fact that book six isn’t coming out for a whole YEAR yet. ARGH!

Fortunately, while he might not share my obsession, Duckie shares my love of Harry Potter. And when he suggested we go see Prisoner of Azkaban Sunday, I almost beat him to the car. If only I had a Firebolt.

I’ve quite liked the first two Harry Potter movies. They’re good, they’re solid, and it’s so much fun to see Hogwarts brought to life and to nitpick about how I think it should be better. As an adaptation I’ve never put them on par with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I also haven’t been scratching my head like I was with The Fountainhead or like I currently am with The Princess Diaries.

I anticipated Prisoner to be better than the first two. First of all, the director changed from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuaron. Everyone said this would be good. (To be honest, I was undecided about that. But I went with it.) But more than that, this was Prisoner of Azkaban. And just about any Harry Potter fan will tell you that Prisoner is where J.K. Rowling really hit her stride. The movie definitely reflects that.

One of the disadvantages of the first two movies was that viewers were either being initiated into a new world or seeing a world they loved on screen for the first time. As a result, there were a lot of toys and emphasis on effects and scenery, and the castle was as much a character as the kids. Cuaron (and possibly Steve Kloves, who wrote the movie) decided that the environment had been emphasized enough — let’s pay attention to plot. There’s a fabulous scene that really illustrates this: right after the kids arrive at Hogwarts, Harry, Ron, Dean, Neville, and Seamus are sitting around in their dorm room. They’re calling each other names, rough-housing, cracking up, and eating candy that makes them make very realistic animal sounds. It showed the characters as kids, but kept the magical flavor of the wizarding world.

If you have not read Prisoner of Azkaban, I suspect the movie will be very difficult for you. I don’t know, given that I can practically recite the darn thing. But there was a lot — too much, I think — left out of this one. Some cuts were good. I was pleased to see less Quidditch, and cutting Buckbeak’s trial down to the bare minimum was a good call as well. The Crookshanks/Scabbers feud was handled well, and I’ll even accept the license taken with the Firebolt. However, some cuts were baffling, especially since they would have taken seconds to keep and would have provided important details. For instance, would it have killed them to point out who wrote the Marauder’s Map? Or how about some more backstory with James and his crew? (Did James even exist in this movie? Sheesh.)

How much adaptation a movie can take really is a personal decision. What they cut out didn’t bother me so much, to be honest. Not when there were things they put IN.

Some of the new inclusions were mildly annoying. A Hogwarts’ choir? That was just sort of silly. But then, just because we’ve never seen it mentioned doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. None of the three main characters seem to have any musical bent at all. But the one that REALLY annoyed me was Lupin’s sudden close relationship with Lily Potter. (Forum readers, I’ve vented about this already.) Unless the movie people have been told something we haven’t, I NEVER got the impression from the book that Lily and Lupin were all that close. Lupin and James, yes. Lupin and Sirius, well, let’s just say I got a severe attack of the giggles when Snape said they argue like an old married couple. But Lupin and Lily? (And most annoyingly, Lupin and Lily at the expense of the relationship between Lupin and James?) Lupin is one of Harry’s strongest links to his father, and that was removed in the movie adaptation of Prisoner.

And speaking of Lupin, what was up with that cheesy mustache? I have to admit that David Thewlis was excellent as Lupin. Coming from someone who was very disappointed when it was announced Ewan McGregor wasn’t playing the part, this is a very high compliment. All right, I’ll be honest. I don’t know that Ewan McGregor would have been as right for the part — at least not the way it was written for the movie. (You can pick yourself up off the floor now.) I’ve actually started envisioning Lupin as the way he was portrayed in the movie. Sort of. Almost. But the mustache! UGH! Oh well. It goes well with the cheesy werewolf.

Acting is excellent in this one. I’ve always thought the kids do a good job. I think being a child actor must be very difficult, because you don’t have the range of experience to draw on to portray some difficult emotions. And I think the part of Harry Potter is VERY difficult, partly because he’s such a beloved character and partly because he’s such a complex one. David Radcliffe is coming along nicely. Rupert Grint (Ron) is definitely doing well in a comedic role, but he’s the one role I can’t come to terms with. Not because of Grint, but I don’t like the way Ron’s been written and directed in the movies, and I still think of Ron as having a much longer face and being a much gawkier kid.

I’m never going to think an adaptation of a Harry Potter novel is perfect. I love the books too much, and there’s too much in them to put every last detail into a movie. That said, I could have sat through a longer movie no problem. I could go on about what they didn’t put in and what they changed all day (ask my coworker who works out with me!). But even as I nitpick, I really enjoyed this round with the Boy Who Lived, and can’t wait to see what they do with Goblet of Fire.

Justin’s Rating: Sure, he’s got a wand, but has he made the Statue of Liberty disappear?

Justin’s Review: I think I might well be the first movie reviewer to talk about a Harry Potter film without making some sort of reference or comparison to the books (except that one, of course). I do this because I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the mini-Holy Crusades people put on when it comes to book-to-film adaptations.

If this isn’t you, then I’m sure it’s someone you’ve known or witnessed many times: You leave the movie theater after the end credits, and a person you’re with practically puts on a pair of spectacles, steps up to a lectern, and starts pontificating about just how accurate the adaptation was. What was done properly and correctly (as if there’s an invisible procedures manual out there that dictates exactly how and what should be included from the book), and what was left out — to the filmmaker’s shame! That ignorant savage director! He or she should just put themselves to the sword and be done with it all!

Many times, the person going on and on about whether this movie translation was accurate enough to properly enjoy is a person who (a) has read that book and pretty much only ever that book, or (b) someone who’s jumping on the phenomenon bandwagon while it’s still chic. You know what? I read many books. I see many movies. I, with all the power of my BRAIN, am able to allow for the possibility that there can be two interpretations of the same source material in the world. If the movie version doesn’t exactly jive with what’s in my head from reading the book, then oh well. I’m able to cope. The one doesn’t ruin the other. Yet so many people can’t seem to comprehend how to do this.

It’s for that reason that, while I really loved the first two Potter novels, I could still loathe the sappy Sorcerer’s Stone and the crappy Chamber of Secrets. It’s also how I was able to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without that weird neurotic tic that most of the audience had, jerking and whispering about how so-and-so was in the book but NOT IN THAT SCENE, or how the filmmakers really should have done it THIS WAY. I loved the book, and I saw the movie separate from that, giving it its own chance to fly… or to flop.

Chris Columbus’ vision for Harry Potter in the first two movies was to fixate on the word “Magic!” until that was all that was left. He kept pulling out CGI rabbits from a glitzy hat, kept shoving a musical score that all but hummed “magic!magic!magic!” in your right ear, and turned Harry Potter into a high-profile, superficial Las Vegas act. I shed no tears that he was replaced (or bowed out, take your pick) by a new director and a new vision. Alfonso Cuarón, formerly of the “Teens having sex can be sexy!” school of thought, yanks the franchise almost 180 degrees from showy-sparkly-magic to a darker place that oddly suits the Harry Potterverse much better.

As Harry grows up, his world — like ours — becomes more complex and shaded. In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry is no longer a naïve waif, waving a wand and wishing for gumdrops to fall from the sky. HPPoA is a grim (heh) tale of an escaped murderer searching for Harry, and all of the shadowy secrets that people carry with them. The atmosphere of the film reflects this, from start to finish, as Hogwarts and parts beyond are colder and spookier, with only hints of light and life glowing within. The worst of this is the Dementors, the freezing, soul-sucking monsters that formerly guarded Azkaban and now hunt for the escapee.

I find that even in the scariest of night journeys, there can also be beauty and peace to be found in taking strolls after midnight. Cuarón keeps the darkness at bay with friendship (between Harry and his new teacher Lupin, or his pals Hermione and Ron), black humor (the Whomping Willow constantly devouring birds in mid-flight was an audience favorite), and some really clever storytelling. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you might want to skip the next paragraph, but the spoilers therein aren’t too major.

One of my favorite scenes, and one which is left out of a number of reviews I’ve read (probably because it’s more toward the start of the film) is when Harry takes a ride on the fabled Knight Bus. It’s just a wild and crazy ride, full of classic British humor — treating the most odd things with a serene bemusement. When you have a triple-decker bus full of beds sliding around as the vehicle careens wildly around London, complete with commentary by a Jamaican shrunken head, we get the absolute best taste of the wooly imagination of Rowling coupled with a Tim Burton-ish twist from Cuarón. Splendid!

As good as the bulk of this movie is, and it really is excellent, the quality ramps up in the last act as Fantasy gets a visit from cousin Science Fiction in the form of time travel. Yes, time travel in a fantasy film! Back to the Future flashbacks abound as the movie wraps around on itself, throwing characters through time and forcing you to see the same scenes twice through different sets of eyes. Maybe time travel is a major cop out in most stories, but here it makes a good ending grand.

There’s so much more about HPPoA that I wish I could convey, such as how the background magical acts (pictures moving, chairs stacking, candles floating) just seemed to “fit” more than the previous movies, where magic was used mostly as a “Look At Meeeee!” thing. But ultimately, it’s good enough to say that on its own, Prisoner of Azkaban is a strong contender for a highly enjoyable and reachable film. Harry Potter’s under New Management, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

PoolMan’s Rating: Let’s hope the trend continues…

PoolMan’s Review: Oh, Prisoner of Azkaban. Why must it be so? Why is it that you suddenly have to turn your predecessors (Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets) into barely watchable husks? Why must such a suddenly noticeable breath of life render the first two Harry Potter movies stale and boring by comparison?

Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. Obviously, I’m not going to lean too far out of step with my Mutant brethren and declare Prisoner of Azkaban a flaming train wreck. It’s good. Quite good. The world of wizards and witches has really settled nicely into its dark little niche, following the style of the books very well indeed. My wife being the excellent bellwether for all things Potter that she is, her ravenous excitement for this movie is quite enough to convince me it’s the best of the three existing films so far. However, if you don’t have immediate access to my wife, you’ll have to make do with me. Appealing, I know.

It’s quite natural, of course, for the movie critic (sorry Justin, reviewer!) to compare the latest sequel in a series to its predecessors. What better way to express satisfaction with a movie than to shuffle it around in order of “liketitude” within a given series? (Yay, Empire Strikes Back! Boo, Phantom Menace!) And here’s where PoA really looks good. The young actors (yes, even Daniel Radcliffe) seem to be finally fully out of their shells, casting about with all manner of convincing facial expressions besides “Naïve Wonderment” and “Where’s The Food Cart?”. Harry in particular is finally as emotive as he needs to be, becoming the surly young teenager that he is, more and more concerned with Numero Uno than necessarily following the rules, per se. The world takes another dark tumble down the path that Chamber of Secrets set. Who would’ve thought it would take a director whose previous claim to fame was a movie about Mexican teenagers having sex?

But the problem is that the new movie is almost so good that it wrecks the ones that came before. I watched Prisoner of Azkaban followed by Philosopher’s Stone within a two day span of each other, and it’s enough to set my teeth grinding. Watching Radcliffe stand around and grasp at the air like he’s looking for which eyebrow position means “I’m surprised” makes the first movie in particular a trying experience. Now that the wonder of the Potter universe has been firmly established in the cinema (and therefore the onus is on the characters to be more interesting than the environments), the early films are just that much more easily knocked.

Still, it’s not purely a comparative exercise. Prisoner stands extremely well on its own. I see between two previous reviews and about 18,000 words, neither Lissa nor Justin actually outline the plot, and seeing as my eye twitches when there’s no plot rehash, here it is. Harry’s back for year three at Hogwarts, having already sent his aunt ballooning into the sky for calling his mother a nasty name. He hears through the grapevine that a mad wizard named Sirius Black has escaped the wizard prison, Azkaban, and is on the loose. A little more Scoobyific digging reveals that Black was the man who lead Voldemort to the Potters’ hideout, allowing them to be killed, and that he’s now gunning for Harry himself. As a result, the school is being guarded by the fearsome Dementors, wraithlike beings who feast upon souls and happiness, and who also seemingly have taken an interest in Harry as well. Toss in a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, time travel, executions, one whopper of a case of hidden identity, and other magical miscellany, and you’ve got a great little story to tell.

The new additions to the cast are terrific. David Thewlis as Professor Lupin is better on repeated viewings than I found him to be on my first. He’s got just that right mix of fatherly and scholarly that Lupin surely needs. Newcomer Michael Gambon does well stepping into the role of Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris. Gambon does look an awful lot like Harris, particularly under the beard and hat, although it’s a pity he wasn’t able to ape Harris’ voice. I liked the reedy whisper Harris brought to the old wizard, but Gambon’s as fine a replacement as advertised (certainly better than the admittedly difficult casting the Wachowski Brothers faced replacing the Oracle for Matrix Revolutions). The lovely Emma Thompson even pulls off a great turn as the bumbling Divinations Professor Trelawney. And for me, there’s none better than Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. Got an insane, dirty, English character that needs bringing to life? Zorg’s your man. Oldman quite simply steals every scene he’s in, as far as I’m concerned.

Prisoner of Azkaban is undoubtedly the best Harry Potter flick yet. The series has gotten over its newcomer’s status, and is well on its way to becoming a classic set of movies. Let’s all just hope that things keep moving in the direction they currently are, even in the face of another upcoming change of directors. Don’t make me turn this car around, you kids!

Personal ads in the wizarding world are not like ours.

Intermission

  • Ewan McGregor was originally considered for the part of Lupin. Additionally, rumor had it that Christopher Lee and Sir Ian McKellan were both being considered as the new Dumbledore.
  • Apparently, the director inadvertently put in a few things that foreshadowed future books. Can’t wait to see what they are!
  • The cast was told that the Honeydukes candy was lacquer-coated, when in fact it wasn’t, to prevent candy from disappearing between takes. The setting for Honeydukes was previously used as Ollivander’s Wand Shop.
  • Director Cuaron coached Daniel Radcliffe in one scene where the latter had to act awed: “Pretend you’re seeing Cameron Diaz in a G-string”. It worked.
  • Illusionist Paul Kieve served as a consultant. He taught magic to several members of the cast including Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson (Harry and Hermione) and worked extensively to create physical magical effects. He is the first illusionist to have worked on any of the series of films and makes a cameo appearance in the film in a scene in the Three Broomsticks pub.
  • In order to acquaint himself with his three lead actors, director Alfonso Cuarón had each of them write an essay about their characters, from a first-person point of view. Emma Watson, in true Hermione fashion, went a little overboard and wrote an 11 page essay. Daniel Radcliffe wrote a simple one-page summary, and Rupert Grint never even turned his in.
  • There’s a wizard in the Leaky Cauldron reading A Brief History of Time?
  • Origami birds are pretty cool ways to torment your enemies.
  • Ron’s voice has finally settled.
  • Birds shouldn’t go near the Whomping Willow.
  • Don’t spend 12 years as a rat. It really does a number on your appearance.
  • If Pettigrew shrank out of his clothes when he transfigured into a rat, why wasn’t he naked when he was forced to reveal himself? (Hahahahaha.)
  • They never explained how Sirius escaped Azkaban. I don’t think they even do this in the novel.
  • Alfonso Cuarón (director) is in a painting scolding Harry for his candle light when the young wizard is searching for Peter Pettigrew in the hallway.

Groovy Dialogue

Harry: Messers Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, offer their compliments to Professor Snape and request that he keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.

Ron: [dreaming] The spiders… they want me to tap dance, I don’t want to tap dance, they’re making me.
Harry: You tell those spiders, Ron
Ron: Tell ’em… yeah…

Snape: You two bicker like an old married couple.

Hermione Granger: [after Hagrid gives Ron Scabbers back] I think you owe someone an apology.
Ron Weasley: Right. Next time I see Crookshanks, I’ll let him know.
Hermione Granger: [annoyed] I meant me!

Hermione: Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?

Harry: [pointing wand to Marauder’s map] I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

Hermione: That felt good.
Ron: Not good, brilliant.

Sirius Black: Brilliant, Snape; once again you’ve put your keen and penetrating mind to the task and as usual come to the wrong conclusion.

Professor Trelawney: Cup… tell me what you see.
Ron: Oh yeah um… well um Harry got sort of a wonky cross, [checks the book] that’s ‘trials and suffering’. And that there could be the sun and that’s [checks book again] ‘happiness’. So you’re gonna suffer but you’ll gonna be happy about it.

Harry: I knew I could do it because I already saw myself do it. Does that make any sense?
Hermione: No, and I hate flying.

Aunt Marge: They use the cane at St. Brutus’s, boy?
Harry: Oh. Yeah, yeah. I… I’ve been beaten loads of times.

If you liked this film, try these:

  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • The Brothers Grimm

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11 Comments

  1. Black escaped from Azkaban by transfiguring into his dog animangus personna. The Demetors don’t focus on animals, and he was able to slip past them easily. This was explained in the novel but not in the film.

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