As the third book in J.K. Rowling's popular series about boy wizard Harry Potter was my favorite at the time, I had a lot of expectations going into
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Many of them were met, but unfortunately, some of the license taken by new director Alfonso Cuarón led to a few disappointments, but not enough to ruin the experience of this thoroughly delightful installment.
After performing some angry magic on his uncle's sister, Harry runs away from the Dursley home only to be met by the Knight Bus, which not only takes him where he wants to go, but first informs him of the escape of Sirius Black from the notorious Azkaban Prison -- the first wizard ever to escape the Dementors (ethereal creatures that act as the prison guards). Black is later connected to the death of Harry's parents and it is universally concluded that Black has escaped to finish the job with Harry. There is also a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, R.J. Lupin, with a secret (which can also be taken on another level), and the movies have a new Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) since the passing of Richard Harris.
Cuarón does a bang-up job with the heightened level of tension in this book: Harry is much angrier and the emotional heft of the storyline (the reason the book is my favorite) wreaks havoc with his raging endocrine system. The special effects keep getting better (although humans in flight still needs work) and there were some scenes where I hardly noticed them; Buckbeak the hippogriff is a particular triumph. Gambon carries the mantle of Dumbledore well by not attempting to mimic the late Richard Harris' performance. He looks different, dresses differently, has a different manner, and has even gained a slight Irish accent, yet he retains the benevolence, intelligence, and confidence that makes him entirely Dumbledorean.
My only problem with
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the level of slapstick that Cuarón has chosen to insert. I understand the need for comic relief in such an intense film, but some of the scenes descended to a level of cartoonishness, specifically the one involving the Whomping Willow. Shades of Wile E. Coyote abound in one instance, which just took me right out of the world that had been created. There is another scene where a bar patron (apparently the lead singer of
The Stone Roses) is seen reading
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, that I didn't like. Don't bring reality into my fantasy world. I understand that it takes place in a parallel England, so keep it parallel. We don't see them watching
Eastenders, so why would they be reading our books?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, so far, my favorite adaptation of the books. Yes, they left a lot out, but it's cinema: you have to. (Just imagine how much of
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire they're going to have to omit to get that down to two (or three?) hours.) The point is that Cuarón and company has fashioned a phenomenal entry -- complete with author Rowling's blessing -- that enhances the experience of the book, without entirely duplicating it. And isn't that what an adaptation is, anyway?
Say the name "Harry Potter" in a crowded room and watch all the children's faces light up with recognition. For that matter, you can say it on a crowded commuter train and watch the adults hold up their copies of the popular books. It seems that this is the kind of story that speaks to the masses, and the movies are faithful to the books, to a fault. Repeat viewings help (and, believe me, I've had opportunities for those due to my wife's fandom), but these are still missing the spark that was finally found in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In this case, the third time really was the charm.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are fun films, don't get me wrong on that account. I just don't get into them as much as others do. They have many things going for them. The lead child actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and the lovely Emma Watson) are a little stiff but mostly all right. They get progressively better in the second and third films, and as the series continues, the viewer realizes just how perfect their casting is. There is a vast array of character actors in supporting roles (the late Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese). And the special effects are stunning (although anything involving CGI-people still doesn't look quite right). Unfortunately for me, the movies just don't have the energy and fun of the books.
However, my wife loves them and so I'll likely be watching the entire series (a prospect that is likely to take up the next five years) and, while this is not an idea I find abhorrent (not as much as having to watch the Lord of the Rings series ever again), it is not one I look forward to with any relish. Director Chris Columbus has taken a couple of fun pieces of fiction and tried his best to duplicate the experience onscreen. Unfortunately, that prospect is nearly impossible and we are left with a couple of dry interpretations.
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