June 10, 2004  
Volume 98, Issue 04  

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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Harry matures in The Prisoner of Azkaban


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron

By Mark Polishuk
Gazette Staff

Gazette File Photo
“BLOODY ‘ELL, ‘ARRY, WE CAN’T PRONOUNCE THE LETTER H!” Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint keep on the lookout for puberty in the latest Harry Potter movie.

The first scene of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban makes you wonder if you’re watching one of those British “angry young man” dramas from the 1960s.

Harry (Radcliffe), acting as a glorified servant for the Dursleys — his mean aunt and uncle — must stand silent as his loud-mouthed Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) berates the memory of Harry’s deceased parents. The claustrophobia of the Dursleys’ home combined with the lack of musical score makes for a scene that doesn’t need any magic or special effects to be genuinely affecting.

Harry ends up casting a spell that turns his aunt into a human balloon, but nevertheless, Azkaban is an interestingly realistic perspective on the popular series that treats J.K. Rowling’s magical world of wizards like an actual place.

The film takes place during Harry’s third year at Hogwarts Academy, with the school virtually locked down following the escape of murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban Prison. It soon becomes apparent that Black is after Harry due to Black’s childhood ties to Harry’s parents. Harry decides to avenge his parents’ death and enlists his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to catch the killer.

Not much is changed plot-wise from the novel, and the convoluted, Back to the Future-esque climax is actually much easier to understand on screen than it was in the book. Azkaban, however, is Rowling’s most dialogue-driven book, and it translates to a film that is very entertaining but lacking the feeling of urgency that propelled the other movies.

While the first two Potter films were directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone), Azkaban is the work of Alfonso Cuaron, best known for the Oscar-nominated 2001 drama Y Tu Mama Tambien. Cuaron brings an overall darker tone to the series, both in a thematic sense and in such basic elements as set design and camerawork.

Cuaron also accentuates some of the natural creepiness of the Potter-verse that was not exactly glazed over by Columbus, but perhaps made a bit more kid-friendly. For example, the moving people in the pictures were played mostly for laughs in the first two films, but the aggressive menace of Black’s wanted poster is enough to establish him as a threat right away.

After three films, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become so subsumed as Harry, Ron and Hermione that it will be difficult to think of them as anything else in their future careers. Cuaron’s longer camera takes, however, do tend to expose their limitations as actors; they say a line and then pause rather than keep the momentum going throughout the entire scene.

This isn’t any problem for the rest of the cast, which is an all-star team of British actors. Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith return as Professors Snape and McGonagall and Robbie Coltrane as Gamekeeper Hagrid, and all continue to be perfect in their roles. New additions include Thewlis as Professor Lupin, the friendly new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Emma Thompson as the ditzy divination professor and Michael Gambon, who takes over the role of Headmaster Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris. Oldman, one of the best actors in the world, actually doesn’t get much screen time, but he is well-cast considering (spoiler alert!) Black’s importance in the later novels.

It is unfortunate that Cuaron’s appointment is a one-time gig (Mike Newell is directing the fourth installment), but it shows the commitment of the Potter producers to keeping the series fresh. Azkaban represents the necessary evolution of Harry Potter, since as the stories get grimmer, the films can’t just be for kids anymore.

 

 

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