Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, November 18, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

For “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” director Chris Columbus would step away from the franchise, reportedly because he wanted to spend more time with his kids. Stepping into the director’s chair was Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican director best known for ribald coming-of-age story “Y Tu Mama Tambian.” This led to many crude jokes about Harry Potter getting into steamier adventure, since people evidently forgot that Cuaron also made “The Little Princess.” The resulting film would receive the best reviews that series had gotten up to that point, while also grossing slightly less at the box office.

J.K. Rowling had always intended her famous wizard to grow up alongside the audience. Since Harry and friends are officially thirteen year olds now, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is easily the darkest of the films up to this point. The story revolves around a dangerous criminal escaping prison and pursuing Harry, presumably with the intention of killing him. Soul sucking spectres, called Dementors and resembling the Grim Reaper, feature prominently in the story. A werewolf and an ominous black dog show up too. The tone is growing chillier too, to match the darker story and the stormier hormones of the main characters.

Chris Columbus seemed to consider the “Potter” films simple children’s stories, handcuffing his own imagination in favor of a uniform product. So Alfonso Cuaron becomes the first director to really have fun with the Potter-verse’s magical qualities. He adds whimsical elements to the story, many of them from his own imagination. Such as a double decker bus, which is invisible to mortal eyes, squeezing between traffic. One of Hogwarts’ buildings is decorated with a giant pendulum that spends back and forth. The ghosts and living paintings receive larger roles, often sprinkled into the quiet scenes. A nice touch has the Whomping Willow illustrating the changing of the seasons, the tree either covered in snow or swatting away young birds. Even the elements Cuaron inherits from the book, such as the Marauder’s Map, he brings a unique charm to.

The first film seemed satisfied to be a simple story of discovery while part two was basically a murder-free murder mystery. The third entry delves a little deeper, thematically. “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is interested in how the past connects with the present. Harry’s death filled history comes back to him literally, as Sirius pursues him. Later, Harry learns more about the legacy he has inherited from his parents, one that comes with quite a bit of baggage. Moreover, an atmosphere of secrets characterizes the film. Truths are being kept from Harry, about his parent’s death. Soon, he discovers, yet more secrets lurk among people he’s been told to hate and people he’s been told to trust.

The story’s central trio are growing more hormonal and temperamental. Harry is getting angrier, outright confronting those that attack him. He’s not the only one. After Draco Malfoy makes some racist remarks towards Hermione, she punches him in the face. Considering the bully’s role in the story are growing increasingly unnecessary, it’s a satisfying moment. Meanwhile, love is in the air more. Ron and Hermione are seen getting closer in a few scenes, their future romance being hinted at more then ever. The character seem more in line with the actors playing them.

“Prisoner of Azkaban” also features some sweet fucking monsters, an opportunity which Cuaron seems to revel in. The Dementors, written by Rowling as a metaphor for her depression, appear as wispy spectres that suck the souls right out of people. Their appearances are treated as appropriately sinister, the air freezing around them. A boggart – a British boogieman – also makes a memorable appearance, a sequence that concludes with a spider on roller skates. Black Shuck, the ominous black dog of Anglian lore which Rowling calls the Grim for some reason, puts in several memorable appearances, each one creepier then the last. This seems to foreshadow a honest-to-God werewolf showing up. Instead of the wolf-headed man we usually see in fiction, the werewolf is portrayed as an emaciated large dog, frightening but pathetic.

The supporting cast continues to be excellent, many of the same talented performers returning. Alan Rickman’s Snape is given more to do, allowed to fill out his role as a grouchy but well-meaning mentor. Richard Harris passed away between the second and third film. Michael Gambon filled his robes. Gambon’s Dumbledore is distinctly different from Harris’. He’s less like a charitable old grandfather and more like a prepared leader without loosing the sense of warmth or humor. Several notable names join the cast.  Gary Oldman is properly unhinged as Sirius Black, yet does show a second side before the end. Timothy Spall is fittingly rat-like as Peter Pettigrew, a sniveling minion. David Thewlis projects a helpful energy as Lupin while hinting at the character’s darker aspects. Emma Thompson is the showiest addition as Professor Trelawney, a kooky character that adds some humor and color to several scenes.

“Prisoner of Azkaban” features a prolonged denouncement, involving time travel. As has often been pointed out, this more-or-less breaks the entire plot. Not just of this film but all of them. Which is true. But the time travel reversal of the last act provides plenty of fun for the audience. It gives us more of Buckbeak, the delightful hippogriff that features in several key scenes. Previously seen events are revisit but somehow become more exciting then they were last time. It also pays off nicely on several small moments introduced earlier in the film.

It seems, at least for now, the quality of the “Potter” films are increasing with each new entry. “Chamber of Secrets” was better then “The Sorcerer’s Stone.” And “Prisoner of Azkaban” is better then “Chamber of Secrets.” There’s several moments of pure joy, such as Potter’s flight on the hippogriff, and thrilling action sequence, such as a fight with the Whomping Willow. Cuaron’s visual design is better, the story is sneakier, and the film utilizes its fantasy setting better. [7/10]

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