Film Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’

Film Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint Directed by Alfonso Cuarón Warner Bros. Capsule Review: The third film is a darker take on the Potter franchise, which is sluggishly paced for the first hour and a half, but takes off in the final act. The Plot: British boy wizard Harry Potter is back for […]

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Warner Bros.

Capsule Review: The third film is a darker take on the Potter franchise, which is sluggishly paced for the first hour and a half, but takes off in the final act.

The Plot: British boy wizard Harry Potter is back for his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and as per usual, is marked for death. This time, convicted killer Sirius Black has escaped the wizard prison of Azkaban in search of Harry. Will Black find Harry? Or will Harry find him first?

The Review: Azkaban is probably the worst film of the series so far, an unfortunate thing, considering the high hopes surrounding new-to-the-series director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, A Little Princess). Admirably, Cuarón does make an attempt to “mature” the series, but he unwisely focuses on visuals and scenery at the expense of characters and plot. This means non-devotees are likely to get confused with Azkaban in the first 20 minutes.

Actually, fans of the Potter series would be wise to give Azkaban a quick re-read before heading to the theatre as the book’s storyline is hacked almost incomprehensibly. Which is a shame, considering the charm of Azkaban and the series in general, lies in the familiarity of characters and places within the Potter universe. The past two films understood this, and while they may have been too slavish to the original books, they followed the Potter formula successfully.

It’s a simple formula, really. Every book must start with Harry enduring another summer with his spiteful uncle, aunt and cousin, leading to his inevitable dramatic escape to Hogwarts, his wizarding school. Before arriving at Hogwarts, Harry has to meet with his friend Hermione and Ron, along with Ron’s family. Then, the three arrive at Hogwarts where favourite teachers, old nemeses and new characters, welcome them. The plot takes off from there, while simultaneously forwarding the Hogwarts soap opera, leading to a dramatic conclusion and the promise of another year at Hogwarts.

Cuarón seems disinterested in these backbone elements, so the first hour and a half devoted to them is a bore. An infamous achievement considering Cuarón’s conducting a world filled with quirky wizards and fascinating magical creatures. And when Cuarón diverges from the expected plot, the scenes fall flat or are off-putting, like the suggestive opening scene where Harry is playing with his wand (literally of course, as he is practicing spells for his next term at Hogwarts).

The visuals in Azkaban are noticeably darker, as if filmed by candlelight, which would seem to work for a film set inside a medieval world. However, Azkaban looks less like a Potter film because of it, uninspired and indistinct, like someone cribbed the cinematography from Tim Burton’s last film. And on a very picky note, the annoying silent film-inspired elliptical fades employed throughout Azkaban, would seem gaudy even for a film school short.

However, Cuarón redeems himself once the plot picks up, investing fully in the thrilling and clever finale. It’s that final act which saves Azkaban from being “The Film that Ruined the Franchise” – a showy block of filmmaking that almost makes you forget the plodding 90 minutes before it. Almost.

Amidst the unevenness of Azkaban are some great performances though. Emma Watson’s role as Hermione continues to expand, which is a good thing, as she’s the best character in the series. Unfortunately, this may have come at the expense of Harry’s other best friend Ron (Rupert Grint), who is reduced to comic relief here. And consistently great, as always, is Alan Rickman as Harry’s antagonistic potions teacher Professor Snape.

(By the way, one of the biggest casting changes in Azkaban, that of Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, is a glaring one. Michael Gambon takes over the role from the late Richard Harris, and despite reports suggesting otherwise, viewers will miss Harris’ grandfatherly performance. To be fair, Gambon’s sly and mysterious Dumbledore isn’t given much time to settle in.)

Ultimately, this film should serve as a warning to Warner Bros. in what to do with the next films. Find directors who put characterization before style, plot clarity before visual flourishes, and above all, the director must find inspiration within the narrative structure and devices used in the books. Will director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile) do well with the now filming Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?

He can’t do any worse than Cuarón did.

2.5 out of 5