by Mel Valentin
To compare the new, "darker" Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" to the first two films in the series is to compare a filmmaker and a technically competent craftsman. Chris Columbus approached the first two Harry Potter films with over-reverent awe and wonderment to the source material (and the author). The end result was minimally engaging book-to-film adaptations that could best be described as too-literal, pedantic, and pedestrian. Where Columbus relied on classical Hollywood technique, static camerawork (establishing shot, shot/reverse shot, medium shot, repeat), Alfonso Cuaron approached the material on cinematic, visual terms.The Prisoner of Azkaban's darker tone, of course, can be immediately seen in the desaturated, muted color palette Cuaron picked for the film. Cuaron's approach to filmmaking is evident through the use of multiple (CGI-aided) tracking shots through a mirror, windows, and the Hogwarts clock. Cuaron also uses crane shots to open up and travel through the sets, giving the audience a vertiginous sense of possibility, and making the audience more active participants in the unfolding narrative. Cuaron deftly compresses time using visual shorthand, from fall to winter, by a white owl flying across a landscape (later, winter turns to spring in a similar manner). Cuaron's other visual flourishes include the Dementors, the Azkaban guards who have been dispatched to Hogwarts to protect Harry from Sirius Black, the escapee of the film's title (one particular shot of the Dementors floating above a lake in the moonlight is probably one of the most striking in the three-film series thus far), plus more cinematic techniques, that reference silent film (iris ins/outs used to dramatize Harry's recurring blackouts). These techniques do suffer from overuse, however, as thus the clichéd freeze-frame, an obvious reference to Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.
"Skip the first two and start with the third film in the series."
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, however, isn't without significant problems, due in large part to the adapting a 400-page novel into a two-hour and twenty minute film. The Prisoner of Azkaban suffers from too much incident, too much plot which results in breathless, furious pacing, but with too few expository or transition scenes (i.e., scenes that prepare the next scene or aftermath scenes review the prior scene or scenes). The Prisoner of Azkaban needed more scenes in repose, scenes that focused not just on plot or character development, but offer the audience a moment to reflect on the story development until that point. Buffer scenes could have been used to temporarily lighten the film's tone or offer some misdirection (i.e., scene with Harry and friends eating magical candy).
There are other problems that are due more to the source material than the adaptation. The main problem with The Prisoner of Azkaban is a weak, missing in action antagonist. The adaptation offers no buildup of the presumed antagonist, scenes are missing that would otherwise increase dramatic tension. Instead of scenes telling us about the antagonist to remind us of the threat he presents to Harry Potter through character dialogue. The film should have shown the audience several scenes with Sirius Black. He appears on moving posters, and then again at the third-act climax. Additional scenes could have shown him escaping from Azkaban, or moving closer to his quarry (he knows Harry's location, but there should be obstacles for him to overcome to make him appear more menacing, as well as reminding us of the threat he poses). Tension could also have been heightened through parallel action (cross-cutting between Harry and Sirius as they head toward the climactic confrontation). Those scenes could also serve another narrative purpose: ambiguity to support the third-act plot turn, the big reveal and reversal, so that the audience could at least anticipate that reversal. Instead the third-act plot reversal comes as a complete surprise, with no foundation.
Professor Dumbledore, alas, proves himself, once again, to serve as a deus ex machina. For no apparent reason, he shows up after the "false" climax, to both offer the audience some exposition, and to give Hermione and Harry permission to use a magical device that will, in effect, reverse events. By that point in the story, Hermione had the device, and apparently, only needed approval from an authority figure. Given the newer, darker tone, and Harry's more rebellious attitude toward authority (especially with Snape), Dumbledore's entrance and exit is extraneous, and could have been handled through dialogue alone. The obligatory wrap-up scene/epilogue could then have included Dumbledore.
Additionally, problems with the Harry Potter "formula" are starting to surface: the Dursleys, especially, have become superfluous, the comedy overly broad and by now, overly familiar (not to mention distasteful). Given the continuing problems with adapting the Potter novels to film (since each novel is longer than the last), it might be better to dispense with the Dursleys altogether, in the interest of saving time and extending audience patience. Converting Draco Malfoy from minor antagonist in the first two films (and books) into a buffoonish coward subtracts one potential source of conflict from future films.
On the level of performance, the actors, from adults to the child leads acquit themselves well, with one exception, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the films). His performance appears to be limited to furrowed eyebrows and a voice out of register. Like Malfoy, his character is played for comic relief, primarily through his cowardice. Unfortunately, as each book and film gets released, it becomes evident that his character has become superfluous (burgeoning romance with Hermione aside), as he proves by his absence in the "real" climax of the film. The dynamic between Emma Watson (as Hermione) and Daniel Radcliffe (as Harry Potter) is sufficient to generate character and plot development. Hermione proves herself Harry's equal or better on multiple occasions, especially at the "real" climax where her decisiveness drives the storyline forward.Issues and minor flaws aside, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" succeeds where the first two films failed, cinematically. "The Prisoner of Azkaban" is the only film in the series worth revisiting. Let's hope Cuaron returns for the fifth installment in the series.
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originally posted: 08/26/05 22:41:36