Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

August 13, 2010

I love this book.  I love this movie.  I’m not too proud too admit that I when I saw a pink hoodie like the one Hermione wears through the climax sequence of the movie I bought it on the spot.  And when I wear it I still feel extra bad ass.  I think Alfonso Cuaron took the franchise to a whole new level with this film and we all owe him SO much.  Its dark.  Its dramatic.  Its complicated.  Its not afraid to condense here and there to tell the story it needs to.  And the whole movie is just beautiful.

The way they changed the set: In the book Rowling implies that you walk down the main steps from the front door (which is the one Harry always seems to use even when sneaking out of the castle in the middle of the night … seriously, the castle doesn’t have a single side door?) and out to the lake.  Hagrid’s hut seems to be somewhere off around to the side (past the greenhouses).  In the first two films, the kids bop down the steps and walk across a wide open green and straight up the steps to Hagrid’s.  It is, when you think about it, a little abrupt, and makes the hut feel a bit like a doghouse in the front yard – its too close to the castle and too out of scale.

For the third movie they redesigned the front entrance into a courtyard with covered walks on each side, one of which extends out into a stunning bridge that extends over a wide chasm and then lets out at the top of a rocky and rugged slope down which winds a sinuous path to Hagrid’s.  Its really a great choice because it allows for more exposition to take place as groups of Hogwarts students process back and forth along it.  They also use it as a place for some really great heart to heart talks between characters as one leans out on the rail and looks pensive and another comforts or exhorts them.   It works admirably in many scenes through the rest of the films but particularly in this one its a great setting for the camera following the trio (or the trio plus Hermione and Harry again) down the hill to Hagrid’s before Buckbeak’s execution and also for Hermione’s showdown with Draco.  Which leads me to …

Hermione in general: This is really Hermione’s movie nearly as much as its Harry’s.  That’s less true in the book (because the movie edits out the months in which Ron and Harry shun her for having told Professor McGonagall about the mystery Firebolt).  I don’t mind losing that although it does unbalance the movie in her favor … which I, again, don’t really mind.

Hermione action I love in this movie:

  • She generally kicks academic ass and takes names.  How many times have I wanted a time turner in order to take more classes than there were hours in the day?  Too many.
  • Specifically, she takes no crap from Divination (although I’m not sure she actually quits the class in the movie the way she does in the book).
  • She punches Malfoy.  In the book this happens differently; Hermione first slaps him and then escalates to pointing her wand at him … at which point he runs away.  But I actually like this better.  Her instinct is to use magic but instead she does something more physically satisfying and less potentially dangerous.  And I’m glad she punches him rather than slaps – its much stronger.
  • She puts her body between Harry and Ron and presumed danger in the form of a werewolf and an Azkaban escapee.  Nobody puts Baby in a corner and nobody messes with Hermione Granger’s friends.
  • She’ll hang dead ferrets around her neck in order to save the life of a Hippogriff.
  • The pink sweatshirt.  Its an interesting choice to put the kids in street clothes for so much of the movie and in other circumstances I might have some complaints about it … but I’m totally disarmed by my love for that hoodie.  Incidentally I think its great the way they use the action sequence that the Whomping Willow to get it so dirty that the two Hermiones are easily distinguished.
  • She’s got time travel DOWN …

They absolutely nail the time travel: This is a tricky concept in any movie.  There’s a scene I love at the beginning of an Austin Powers movie (I no longer remember which) where Austin’s boss is explaining to him how the time travel has worked in order to get him back to the same place as Dr. Evil and after a minute of long winded convolutions Austin makes a terrible face and says “Oh no, I’ve gone cross eyed.” At which point his boss says some thing like ‘Yeah, well that can happen if you think about time travel too hard,’ and then turns to the camera and says “That goes for you too, audience.”  Its so true.

But in this movie it really works.  This is partly due to Rowling’s careful plotting but also due to some great visual material.  And its so well shot that I don’t mind watching a few of the scenes twice, as when Hermione and Harry watch the confrontation with Malfoy and then follow themselves and Ron down to Hagrids.  Its so beautifully shot that I’m actually grateful to see it again from a different angle!  The time turner stuff works out perfectly and the theme of time is woven through the whole movie in a lovely way which brings me to …

The things they got just right: The clock.  I don’t even care how ridiculously impractical it is to have an enormous bonging clock not twenty feet from the door of the Hospital Wing, the image of Hermione and Harry spinning back through time and then running out the door and down the steps as the camera dollies across the clock mechanism is so stunning it doesn’t matter.

Also, the Whomping Willow is beautifully done.  And I simply adore the way they use pans across the castle and to the willow interspersed through the movie to show the passage of time: the scene where it destroys the twittering bird in a puff of feathers (which reminds watchers that it is a tree not to be trifled with) and then when we’re brought back to it, in the fall when a single leaf drifts to the ground in a beautiful moment and then all the rest of them drop, and again to show that spring has arrived when it shakes all the snow off itself.  Its lovely and also serves to keep the tree in mind as the movie unfolds.

The maurader’s map is lovely.  I think having different pieces fold up and pop out is inspired.  Although Harry can describe it in the book as a mere “bit of old parchment” it works visually to have it be a little more complicated – after all Hogwarts castle is a very complex place.  I do wish they’d taken ten seconds to make it clear to Harry and the reader that Lupin, Sirius, Pettigrew and his dad were responsible for making the map.

Gary Oldman: He’s not what I had in mind when I first read the books but he’s completely become the character for me.  What a brilliant casting choice!  He has all the right layers of first appearing criminally insane and then turning out to be a truely good guy in a bad situation and then (further) turning out to be a bit damaged, irresponsible and reckless under all that as well.  I think I extrapolate from his general personality into all sorts of material that the movie didn’t actually have time to cover.  Its hard to praise one actor too much when just about every English actor of note has been cast in the Harry Potter films but this is really one of my favorite performances.

The score is much improved: This is the best of the John Williams scores (for Harry Potter).  He really tones himself down and the music transitions from exciting and cute to dramatic and moving.  The “double double toil and trouble” theme drives me absolutely up the wall.  I really hate it.  But for the most part it was this movie I was thinking of when I was shocked that they were bringing in a new composer.  Now having gone back and watched the first two … its clearer.  And even at its best the soundtrack is constantly echoing the driving theme from chases in Indiana Jones, the melodramatic strings in the love theme from Star Wars Episode 2 with little hints of ET cropping up constantly.  Still the “Window to the Past” theme is lovely and can easily make me tear up if I’m not paying attention.

But they did miss the mark with: Some of the effects.  Lupin’s werewolf form is just dreadful.  Actually Lupin in general left me pretty cold.  He’s one of my favorite (if not actually my favorite) adults from the books and yet in the movie … he just felt ever so slightly off.  Oh well.  The whole knight bus bugged me – I was afraid right off that the movie was going to veer off into the riduclous (that talking head!) but fortunately it course corrected shortly after Harry got to the Leaky Cauldron.

Still I love this one will all my heart.  It renewed my faith in the movies and even kept me going back for more after Goblet of Fire.  Its beautiful and worth watching again and again.  Two enthusiastic thumbs up (and some jumping up and down on the sofa with glee).

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