July 10, 2011

THE BIJOU RETROSPECTIVE: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”


Chris Columbus’ Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets were well-crafted, entertaining movies, but Alfonso Cuaron’s 2004 HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN was the first real Potter film.
It’s also the least successful financially (if you think $795M worldwide is something to complain about).  This may be because it’s burdened by the most insubstantial J.K. Rowling plot:  it’s the only film in which no incarnation of Voldemort even makes an appearance, and really, now that we know the entire story, did we need an entire movie devoted to Sirius Black?  Not only that, but the entire last half-hour is devoted to a time travel trope that requires the previous half-hour to be repeated in full, and becomes more annoying the more you think about it–not because it hasn’t been painstakingly worked out by Rowling, screenwriter Steve Kloves and Cuaron, but because the existence of time travel in the Potter universe unavoidably makes you wonder why it never comes up again in so many more crucial points of the saga.

And yet, Prisoner of Azkaban is a triumphant piece of filmmaking.  When Columbus decided that two back-to-back mega-productions were enough and stepped down, the choice of Cuaron to replace him was admirably daring.  Cuaron had previously made the critically praised but commercially unimpressive A Little Princess and a failed update of Great Expectations, and while his brilliant Y Tu Mama Tambien had been a notable art-house success, it was an NC-17 sexually explicit film.  Not the obvious choice to take over a billion dollar family film franchise.
Warners and producer David Heyman took the chance, and Cuaron is simply in another league from Columbus, able to mix a lived-in naturalism with lyrically surreal touches.  Just the first few minutes of the movie–Harry making his way, suitcase in tow, through the streets of the Dursleys’ suddenly realistic town, with Uncle Vernon’s inflated sister orbiting far above in mid air; the crazy magical double-decker bus ride through London that culminates in the gag of innkeeper Tom (Jim Tavare) turning off his car alarm–have more wit and visual imagination than anything in the first two films combined.
Cuaron’s touch improved everything.  Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, by now settled into their roles, give more relaxed, believable performances (they also get to dress like actual teenagers). Radcliffe, in particular, has several long scenes with Gary Oldman as Sirius and David Thewlis as Lupin, neither of them a slouch, and he holds his own with both of them.  Even though Stuart Craig had been the production designer all along, suddenly Hogwarts looks like a place that actually exists and is inhabited (on a smaller scale, compare the interiors of the Leaky Cauldron in this film with the generic inns of the Columbus films), a process aided by Michael Seresin’s lovely photography.  Michael Gambon is deftly integrated into the role of Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris.  Buckbeak is a far more accomplished digital creation than those in the previous films (although the CG werewolf later on is less successful).  The pace (editing this time by Steven Weisberg) is much faster; Prisoner of Azkaban is 15-20 minutes shorter than the previous films.  Even John Williams’ score has a snazzier, less bombastic feel.
With Prisoner of Azkaban, it became clear that Warners was committed not to just keep churning out chapters of the Harry Potter franchise, but to deepen the series and develop the quality of each successive film.  When you think about the number of giant franchises that have stumbled badly with their third installments (Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Superman, Shrek and X-Men, to name just a few), this was a heartening decision, and one that’s paid off as the series has continued.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."