HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
For the third film, Chris Columbus has chosen to step back and hand control over to Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Alfonso Cuaron is certainly a surprising and controversial choice in that his previous film to make it to English-language speaking audiences was Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), a raw and frank account of teenage sexuality and about a 180 degrees remove from the pre-pubescent innocence of the Harry Potter universe as one could imagine. On the other hand, one of Alfonso Cuarons previous ventures into English-language Hollywood filmmaking was the delightful A Little Princess (1995), a quasi-fantastical childrens film that conjures a certain magic that is not too far removed from the Harry Potter universe. Cuarons one other Hollywood outing was the banal modernization of Charles Dickens Great Expectations (1998), although he would subsequently go onto direct the fine dystopian sf film Children of Men (2006) and the excellent Gravity (2013) about two astronauts trapped in orbit. He has also created and produced the short-lived tv series Believe (2014) about a young girl with psychic powers on the run, as well as produced the true life psycho film The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) and his son Jonass film Desierto (2015) about a white vigilante hunting Mexican illegal immigrants through the desert.
As though all that it took was a change of directors, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban emerges as a quite good Harry Potter film. In the previous two films, Chris Columbuss direction was bland, sentimental and mawkish, substituting cliché emotional cues for any real drama. On the other hand, Alfonso Cuaron has a much better sense of drama and a perfect ability to make the special effects overkill of Chris Columbuss films take a backseat to the telling of the story, not become a substitute for it. There is another quidditch game sequence this time but the sequence is not constantly trying to wow us with the numbers of people spinning around on broomsticks and high speed chases but concentrates on the drama of Harrys mid-air fall. Other scenes like the meeting with Hippogriff are not attempting to dazzle you with the effects but on creating a near-perfect sense of wonder during the meeting with and the bowing down of the creature. Other effects-driven scenes like the attack by the tree and especially the scene driving the Dementors away at the climax work with all the amazement and wonder that they should. We have the first sense of one of the Harry Potter films telling the story of the book in a dramatic way rather than Chris Columbuss films, which seemed more like hurried, potted accounts of the main incidents of the books.
Alfonso Cuaron gets much more finely shaded performances from his cast, especially the newcomers, with Gary Oldman and particularly David Thewlis giving subtlety and depth to what are fairly one-dimensional roles in the book and Emma Thompson proving a scene-stealer as the batty tealeaf-reading expert. The Prisoner of Azkaban is also a much darker Harry Potter film. This is something we started to see in The Chamber of Secrets and starts to grow here. You can tell from the opening, which plays on the Warner Brothers logo in much the same way that Tim Burtons magnificent and moody duo of Batman films did. The predominating colours throughout are black and midnight blue, while the central character at one point makes a determined decision to kill the villain of the show. Alfonso Cuaron creates some wonderfully scary and suspenseful scenes with the appearance of the Dementor on the train and particularly during a marvellously eerie venture into the darkened hallways of the school at night.
As with the other films, the main problem one has with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is J.K. Rowlings writing itself. In the books, Rowling has a bad tendency to overstate and heavily signpost her dramatic cues, as well as come up with annoyingly convenient deus ex machina plot devices that are not dramatically earned. As I accused Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets of doing, Harry Potter is an unearned hero whose triumph all comes handed to him. This is not so bad here there is a climactic scene where Harry wins the day by standing up to become a heroic wizard and the time travel plot gives the latter quarter of the film a certain fascinated cleverness. However, Harry still gets most of his knowledge and ways in and out of scrapes handed to him by others the twins giving him the map, Hermione standing up against Malfoy, Hermione producing the time travel device, the bus just appearing to rescue him. You do keep wondering what it actually is that Harry does that makes him so great as everybody keeps saying.
However, the biggest complaint about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the villain. The entire film builds Sirius Black up as a total blackguard of the most evil order. He is considered a murderer, a disciple of Lord Voldemort, the photos of him circulating show him as a screaming madman, he has the magic world in a panicked uproar at his escape, even manages to scare one of the ghosts in the paintings (an amusing cameo from Dawn French) into hiding. Yet when Sirius Black is finally encountered he turns out to be ... a fairly decent chap who is misunderstood and with Harry overwhelmed to accept as a substitute father figure. Dramatic reversal of expectations is one thing but this is misdirection to the point that it is dramatically false. The moment that Gary Oldman is found any hint of the threat and sinisterness that he earlier manifested vanishes and is forgotten about.
The subsequent films in the Harry Potter series are Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011). A further spinoff of the Harry Potter series began with the prequel series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018).
(No. 4 on the SF, Horror & Fantasy Box-Office Top 10 of 2004 list).