Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The third Harry Potter film, based on the third Harry Potter novel, is definitely the best of the series thus far. I believe it’s largely due to three factors: 1) it’s based on the best of the first three books (and one of the best thus far), 2) Alfonso Cuarón directs this time around, and 3) this is the third time these actors have done this, they frickin’ better do a good job.

On top of all this, the cast (aside from the big three) is really starting to come together. You’ve got Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman (who continues his role as Snape for the third time). I’m really, really looking forward to the next films, which will (hopefully) feature Thewlis, Oldman, and Rickman in much more prominent roles. Regardless, if you’ve even got a sliver of interest in the series, you should see it.

Cuarón takes the series out of its fun but not-so-amazing rut of friendly retelling, and pushes it into adolescence with a skillful hand, developing themes with style, and guiltlessly injecting edge into the story. If you’re not familiar with Cuarón’s work, you should watch Great Expectations for a taste of his visual style, then check out Y tu mamá también* to see what films are like in a countries not afraid of their own genitals and what they do with them.

*If you’ve seen Y tu mamá también, and you’ve got prurient mind, you’ll probably chuckle at moments like Harry playing with his wand under the sheets, pretending to be asleep when his uncle rushes in to see what’s going on. I won’t mention the other moment that Alisa noted. See if you can figure out which it was.

The visual theme of Prisoner of Azkaban that jumped out the most is that of images and the deceptive nature of appearance (throw in something here about ‘duality’ because it feels almost compulsory). And, in the style of a director that isn’t afraid of his own statements, Cuarón weaves all of this wonderfully into the visuals of the film. Reflections in glass, mirrors and water, shots and transitions that travel through rippled window panes, the shifting, softened visuals of shalow depth-of-field photography, dual identities and dual forms all subtly reinforce and are reinforced by this theme with unobtrusive but shaping style.

Layered on top of this more immediate theme, is the theme of time and its passage. Again, Cuarón and his production designers express the abstract and intellectual with striking visuals. He present the ideas in a bold and up-front manner, while leaving their development until the end, where Hermione’s secret is revealed. The students run blithely past a massive pendulum as they exit the school and enter the grounds over and over again, oblivious to its ominous and weighty and rhythmic swing. The enormous metal disc swings past, marking the passage of time with a bulk that could easily crush them, yet they run to and fro carelessly between its swings, directly in the path of its arc. The third novel marks a distinct change in the Harry Potter series: a coming-of-age and the beginnings of the disillusionment that accompanies our transition from childhood into adulthood. Cuarón handles this element so deftly, hinting at it, demonstrating it, but never wasting time trumpeting the obvious and inevitable.

And speaking of never wasting time, I’d like to add that Prisoner of Azkaban tackled the task of cleaving off pages and pages of content to express the core of the story, without losing the thematic content, very deftly. While some elements I thought are important are gone, Cuarón probably just decided to leave it to someone else (or the editing process did…).

On a related note, I am extremely surprised that the next movie won’t be cut into two parts, but I’m also not surprised at all. I’m worried too, because the fourth book is very deep and very complex (relatively speaking), not only plot-wise, but also in its character developments. Add to that the full lifting of the cheery veil (for Harry, his friends, and the readers themselves), as we see the ugly adult world of political backsliding, racism and violence that plague the previously idyllic world of the witches and wizards. It’s part of what makes Rowling’s development of the Harry Potter epic so great, but I have a bad feeling it’ll be what makes the film version pale in comparison. I don’t think her novels are getting any shorter with time, either, so it’ll be interesting to see where they go with the subsequent movies.

The third film is a great step forward and upward for the series. Good luck to Mike Newell on the next movie. Cuarón’s blazed some hard-to-follow paths for him.