Monday, July 13, 2009

Franchise Flashback: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

With Chris Columbus leaving the Harry Potter series, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón stepped into the void creating Prisoner of Azkaban as a weird and wonderful installment, besting the first two installments in nearly every way, not by smashing expectations, but by taking the great work and expanding and prodding it into better and more daring places. With this movie, the series is officially not exclusively kids’ stuff. Cuarón has a restless camera that gazes about this darker plot as it shakes and slides and shimmies up and down the corridors of Hogwarts, the streets of small communities of wizards and even the dull suburban streets where Harry spends his summers.

The film opens there with a delightful scene of macabre humor as Potter, in anger, expands his Muggle-aunt like a balloon (she had it coming). Then we’re off to Hogwarts where the students are all atwitter about the escaped killer, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is widely assumed to be hunting Harry. As a result of this new threat (more real-world than the more conceptual, fantasy threats of the first two stories) totally creepy guards known as Dementors, sucking all cheer and warmth from the characters – and the screen – with their very arrival, keep careful watch, casting a chill and setting the tone for fresher menace in this outing.

The kids’ skills have grown once again with the central trio of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint getting more talented as well as slimmer, taller, leaner, older. The adult cast continues to satisfy, each installment adding more and more perfectly cast character actors. This time, in addition to Oldman, who brings intensity to his several nice moments in the climax, there are Emma Thompson, as a greatly loony divination professor, Julie Christie as a weary tavern proprietor, and Timothy Spall, who has one scene and makes the most of it, turning his face into a ball of ticks and twitches.

But the new cast member who stands out the most is David Thewlis as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (the school seems to have that position open every year). Thewlis has a warm, easy emotional relationship with Radcliffe. In their character’s conversations there’s a sense of real connection, a building relationship of trust that starts as mentor-student and turns into something closer to father-son. They form the emotional bedrock of the film.

Between films, Richard Harris, the man who so skillfully inhabited Dumbledore, passed away. He is replaced by Michael Gambon, an equally skilled but also very different actor. He brings to Dumbledore a slightly different spin but doesn’t stray too far from the conception of the character originated by Harris. I do not envy him having to walk the thin line between creating his own character and replicating what has already worked for the series, but Gambon is up to the task.

As with the cast and casting, the score, design, and costuming continues to be top of the line (John Williams even uses the occasion to write the single best theme ever composed for a Potter movie), but what makes this installment so distinctive and compelling is Cuarón’s direction. He and screenwriter Steve Kloves realize they are making an adaptation, not an illustration. They are not supplanting the book, merely telling the same basic story in a different medium. The plot is tweaked and condensed to become a more cinematic rendering even if it crashes through plot points at times. And through it all is Cuarón’s relentless specificity.

This is a deliriously detailed and tactile picture, packed with background information and scrupulous attention to every corner of the screen with grace notes of whimsy, like a tree shaking snow off of its branches, an aunt appearing in the background sky, and the camera floating (symbolically) twice through the gears of a clock. Cuarón allows the camera a fluid grace to glide through the world which is just as magical but has a greater realism in feeling and tone. This movie gets under my skin. The fantastical realism extends to the feelings of awakening adolescence within the young characters. Cuarón understands the yearning, the mystery, of aging and depicts the vivid mental states by understanding that magic does not make these kids any less like kids. One of the best scenes, and one of the simplest, involves a group of boys eating candy and joking with each other in a way any group of 13-year-olds might. The best effect of the film is the sound-effect accompanying a very satisfying punch thrown in the face of a bully.

Cuarón makes the fantasy a wild extrapolation on the characters' uneasy, awkward steps towards adulthood, finding the intrinsic link between basic human experiences and the phantasmagorical tales we tell that is the hallmark of all great fantasy from Grimm to Rowling to Pan’s Labyrinth. This Potter is the first of the franchise to not just delight and entertain, but to sting and resonate as well.

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