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Ten Years Too Late: Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban

Well, that was different. In fact, it was...pretty...awesome? Yup, I have to admit it. I have officially thoroughly enjoyed a Harry Potter movie. And it didn't happen like I thought it would, where I would be stubborn and curmudgeonly for a long while until I finally just gave in. No, I was pretty firmly set in the eye-rolls-galore-with-a-glint-of-optimism camp throughout both Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, but then only about twenty minutes into the third installment in the series I suddenly found myself wanting to soak in every second of it. Of course there's a catch, though. By "it" I mean the absolutely indispensable direction of Alfonso Cuaron, who I am so pissed to find out didn't direct any of the subsequent HP films. What gives? If he was offered but turned it down, I understand, because he had bigger fish to fry, like Children of Men, one of the top ten films of the 00s, as ultimately determined by a bunch of friends and I over a lengthy New Year's Eve discourse that went on until 6 a.m., long after our spouses and significant others attempted to go to sleep in the same room as our loudmouth selves in a secluded Wisconsin cabin.

But really - I'm glad I don't have to go back to the whimsical generic boredom of Chris Columbus's directing, but I honestly don't know how I'm going to do without the inimitable style that Cuaron stamps all over Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now this is going to (if it hasn't already) sound a lot like extended hyperbole, so I want to make something clear up front: I'm not out of the blue now an HP fanatic. In fact, there was still things going on in the screenplay and in the younger actors' dumb faces that made me cringe slightly until the next artistic flourish of the camera came along. So it's not like I want to have Azkaban's babies, though I would at least entertain the notion of having Cuaron's. I'm sure a lot of this new found fandom has to do with seeing things like the giant living tree outside of Hogwarts or the obnoxious Aunt and Uncle's house that were previously overly twee and totally insufferable, respectively, were now reborn with a hefty dose of originality and panache by a more than competent director. When the tree shakes from a distance and water gets on the lens? Mwah! When Richard Griffiths finally gets to act as the muggle Uncle and not just be a comedic setpiece and reacts to Harry blowing up his sister as she's about to float away? The man can assign emotional weight to the silliest crap!

I think the obvious reference point for what Cuaron did with this franchise is to consider if HP existed when Tim Burton was around and doing exciting things as a director still, before he devolved into a bored caricature of himself. It didn't hurt that I revisited Pee Wee's Big Adventure shortly before seeing Azkaban, which helped remind me of a time in which dark tinges of humanity can turn even the most wackadoodle and transform it into something real and palpable. That Cuaron can do this while still retaining so much of the charm and family friendly qualities of the first two films is admirable, though Ebert would beg to differ with me. But I really don't see it like he does; yes it's blacker and bluer in palette, but never once did I feel a sense of hopelessness in the aesthetic like I did when, says, Soderbergh continually reminded us how sad Americans were in Traffic with a similar lens coloration. And we should be rejoicing when kids' movies can still be kids movies but also complicate the feelings the audience has. It shouldn't be all just sharp manufactured pangs of suspense followed by smiles and string swells. It needs to ebb and flow like a real adventure that stems from an orphan's parents being murdered in front of his eyes.

Alas, even with all this freshly cultivated respect for HP by way of Cuaron's deftness, there were still things that bothered me, though only a few of them are repeat offenders from the first two films. Rupert Grint annoyed me far less here, but he's still straddling a line between just making faces and seeming to have a real purpose. I actually enjoyed the twist that Pettigrew turned out to be his pet rat, because we've had to accept Ron as a part of Harry's crew, but if this was a one-off film, everyone would be looking at each other saying, "so this is why he's a character." At least in Chamber of Secrets they tried to build his family into the plot and make him more integral that way. And I'm not much of a shipper, but I did like the subtle (in terms of kids' movies) hint at his and Hermione's future romance, accidentally touching hands and being surprised/aghast at the encounter. Likewise, though Emma Watson's still outshining both of them, Daniel Radcliffe has also improved. The triumphant ending I think he dropped the ball on, trying to play it simple and revelatory like the first two (and don't get me started about the dumb freeze frame ending, even in its hue-streaked impressionism), but overall he's not acting clueless anymore, which is refreshing.

The new problems that arose, however, are typically what happens with ambitious sequels that have basically too many good ideas. I call this The Dark Knight syndrome. Like I said before, I liked the Pettigrew twist, especially because I'm a big fan of Timothy Spall from his work with Mike Leigh, but boy did that ever detract/create a convolution of the dynamic between David Thewlis's lycanthropy and Gary Oldman's innocent madman shtick. Spall barely got to do anything, though like always he clearly put a lot of work into portraying this tortured scaredy-cat in self-imposed exile. Plus you put anyone in a room with Oldman and you're going to have barely any acting room. Hell, Oldman didn't even have to actually be in a room. His face in the animated GIF newspaper (or whatever) was enough for me to nominate him for Best Supporting Actor. Then there was Thewlis, seemingly just playing the formulaic teacher-with-a-secret. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize was Snape was doing teaching the kids about werewolves (also, really? I don't have to deal with this enough via Twilight, Teen Wolf on MTV, and True Blood?), but I was very pleased to find out he wasn't evil or only had his self-interest in mind. Unfortunately because there were three great actors and bit parts, they all ended up sucking away significance from each other, leaving a slight unsatisfying feeling in the viewer.

Bloated screenplays aside (I actually thought the time travel bit was very well done and mind-bendily delicious, though some may argue that only added to this problem), I am both excited and horrified to get into the next one of the docket, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. On the one hand, Mike Newell directed Donnie Brasco, one of the grittier crime movies of the 90s. On the other hand, he directed Four Weddings and a Funeral, so I'm bracing myself for goofy antics that detract from the drama, which thus only makes the drama more cloying when it does appear in act three. Who knows, though? Maybe enough goodwill has been instilled me that as we get closer to meeting Voldemort, I'll get giddy and freaked out and become a true Potter acolyte. Don't count on it, especially with Cuaron gone, but I think he at least helped increase my odds of getting through all eight movies by about 50%.

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  1. Blogger Juwkey | 9:13 PM |  

    Told ya! This was partially the reason I wanted you to skip to HP3 instead of sitting through the first two. Although, now that you've slogged through the introduction movies, it kind of makes this one just that much more amazing. Yes....that was my plan all along...

    I keep wanting to apologize for Rupert Grint's acting, but then I realize that it is not my fault and he is just a terrible actor. The whole acting range of great (Emma), average (Daniel) and terrible (Rupert) somewhat mirrors the characters, but that could just be random happenstance. Or a plot by the Illuminati. Going to go with the former, just in case.

    Prisoner of Azkaban managed to stay on the line of "dark whimsy", which is what the book managed to accomplish as well, so that is another reason this installment in the series is tying for my favorite. It definitely helped that they brought in Cuaron, because he seemed to understand that this movie was the first of the Harry Potter series to get dark. Not to say that there weren't some dark and ominous moments in Chamber of Secrets, but by this movie, the viewers (and readers) start to see that the world isn't all golden-hued (probably another reason the blue scheme worked brilliantly).

    Spall playing Peter Pettigrew AKA Wormtail made me hate him for a long time, probably because he was so convincing in his role of a rat of a human being that would do or say anything to get out of a situation. Finally got around to just loving his little bits in 'The King's Speech'. As for Thewlis and Oldman, they worked perfectly for the characters they were cast as. Although I do agree with you, putting all of them in one room (then adding Rickman), it was an overload of great acting.

    Now, onward to Goblet of Fire!

    By the time you get around the Deathly Hallows Part II, it should be starting in the second run theaters. Just something to consider.

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