Something wicked this way comes.
No doubt you've seen the trailer for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban set to a choral rendition of this, the witches' chant, and if you have even the slightest sense of whimsy it made you anticipate an excellent third installment to the cinematic series of J. K. Rowling's novels.
You will not be disappointed, provided that:
- Faithfulness to the novel is of no great concern
- You didn't think much of Chris Columbus' handling of the first two films
Happily, I am of both these camps, and so can unhesitatingly call Alfonso Cuarón
's effort the best of the three. Darker, faster, with an excellent cast and top-shelf direction, Cuaron takes the series in a slightly new direction, altering the tonal and physical universe
established by the books and previous films. Look for greater attention to detail, a fuller soundtrack, better performances, more sophisticated camerawork
, and generally next-level filmmaking.
Some Wizarding families are better than others
Cast and crew are as follows:
- Alfonso Cuarón, director: Oddly enough, he seems most famous for the least likely project--Y tu mamá también, 2001's sexually-charged Mexican bildungsroman. He also brought us Great Expectations and A Little Princess, the former of which I didn't see because, well, Ethan Hawke, and the latter because, well, isn't it obvious.
- Steven Kloves, screenwriter: He has adapted all three of the films so far, and has outdone himself here. He may or may not be more proud of this than of his Oscar-nominated pass at Wonder Boys.
- Michael Seresin, cinematographer: Taking his first crack at the Potter series, his tapestry is a bit richer and his camera control a bit more fluid.
- Steven Weisberg, editor: Goes a long way back with Cuaron, editing both Great Expectations and A Little Princess. Moves this film along at a nice little clip that seems rushed at first but quickly finds its pace and carries you ahead nicely.
- John Williams, composer: A ha! you say, I knew something sounded familiar. Spielberg fortuitously lent out his court musician to this project, and he gives it a much-welcomed new theme--the Double Double mentioned above doesn't replace the old familiar, but adds tremendously to the scope of the score. Listen for a nice Renaissance rendition over the closing credits.
And of course, the always improving (key) cast:
The new grownups in the cast are uniformly excellent.
Ms. Thompson doesn't quite outdo her ex's fantastically over-the-top Gilderoy Lockhart, but only because the script doesn't give her as much to do. What she has, however, she has a lot of fun with.
David Thewlis' Professor Lupin is fatherly, restrained, and excellently understated, given his moonlighting activities. He's perfectly professorial; his character loves his work, and it's wonderful to see a Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor who knows something about Defense Against the Dark Arts. The man knows his way around a boggart.
Michael Gambon does as good a job filling Richard Harris' shoes as anyone could be expected to. Harris, I thought, was pretty much the perfect Dumbledore, but if a change had to be made...Gambon's is a different sort to be sure--more robust and energetic, a little big shaggier and, I think, with a littler more mischief in the twinkling of his eyes. I for one fully embrace his interpretation. It's good to see a little spring in Albus' step.
Gary Oldman. Perfect. A perfect Sirius Black. Mysterious, half-crazed, gaunt, cryptically tattooed, wild-eyed, and manically avuncular. Not nearly enough of him, and so can't wait for more.
And the rest grow up so fast.
I've always thought Daniel Radcliffe was the weak link in the chain, performance-wise, but he's come on a bit. Cuaron seems to have him under control, and has cut down on the constantly flat interrogative tone of the first two films. Kid's got a bit more edge on him. Just a bit.
Poor Rupert's still the cracked-voice comic relief, but he too hasn't got much to do here. The quality of his performance and character are consistent and consistently good; his old-married-couple squabbles with Hermione re: Crookshanks v. Scabbers are cute, but I'm not yet quite buying any budding romance between them.
Gentlemen, any uncomfortable feelings you have regarding Emma Watson are between you and your inevitable years of therapy. We have merely to thank the production's common sense and good taste for not tarting her up like some drunk American pop-tramp with a learner's permit. Her acting is improved, a bit more refined; the film shifts her somewhat closer to the center of attention. She remains a workaholic know-it-all, but with a greater sense of humor and a lot more assertiveness. The film likes her. So will you.
And just a sidenote--Malfoy's awkward years have to be some of the most awkward I've ever seen on kid. He's a foot taller than he should be and his face seems to want to do at least three things at once. And do go ahead and drop your jaw at the rather incredible change in Neville Longbottom. Astounding thing, the pituitary gland.
Change Is Good--Non-Plot related Spoilers Ahead!
Hogwarts is not as you left it. Cuaron has given a new look and a new geography to the place, relocating key structures and adding elements not previously seen. The castle is now not only in the midst of woods and water, but mountains of Scottish highland quality. The atmosphere is much more lush and full, and not so clean as in the first two films. You get a much better sense of the grounds, and the world of the film is better for it. Hagrid's hut is nowhere near where it was initially, having moved to more rugged ground beneath the castle, which itself looks a bit older and more lived-in. The film, like the students, treats it less as a place of uncommon otherworldliness than a real structure in a magic world. It's more of home in this picture.
Keep your eyes on the time throughout. Clocks are everywhere in Azkaban, from the gigantic pendulums swinging about beneath the works of the clock tower to the complex brass, marine chronometer-like devices in Lupin's classroom. Hermione wears an hour glass pendant, which will become important, and the ticking of a clock runs through one whole section of the film. These sorts of details vastly enrich the film, giving you the sense that a great deal of throught went into every aspect of its making in an attempt to unify thematically what critics of the films often cite as overly episodic structure.
Overall, the set design and art direction are vastly superior to those of the previous films. The gothic turn taken by Cuaron in terms of tone and the increased frequency and power of magic in the plot are evenly tempered by a realistic portrayal of the three principle characters, who are less in awe of their own abilities and more often than not now appearing in regular clothes instead of school robes. There is a bit more of "our" world in theirs this time around, more of us in them, the effect of which is to make everything--moving stairwells, hippogriffs, and time-travel included--somehow more real. Cuaron establishes a sense of magic realism that I don't think the books quite hit, though that's entirely a matter of opinion. In any case I think the change is well-made.
The Plot Thickens--Real Story-Related Spoilers Ahead!!
Most of you will have read the book, and so are already privy to most of the pertinents. Expect some reordering, shifting priorities, and an only somewhat lamentable reduction of backstory. Once it gets started, the film doesn't do a lot of lingering. You're not going to learn much about anyone or anything; something you loved will have been left out. Accept it, and move on.
I'm only going to hit the high points here. A few major scenes and plot points, I don't intend to ruin anything for you even if you want me too.
The Something Wicked coming this way could, depending on one's interpretation, refer to the escaped alleged murderer Sirius Black or the absolutely evil Dementors, ringwraith-like guards of Azkaban prison. They are the Big Bad of the film, the subject of Dumbledore's first warning at the top of the school year, and they have an unfortunate taste for human souls. More on them in a minute.
Harry Potter doesn't want to be at the Dursley's, and neither does Cuaron. The first fifteen minutes of the film are the weakest, with unsettling hand-held camerawork and Daniel Radcliffe at his ill-acted adolescent anger worst--the same sort of sentiments about "my father was a good man" that had me wanting to smack Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Carribbean. Happily, Aunt Marge gets blown up in short order and we're out of the house before Dudders or Mrs. D get a single line in. It's not long after that Harry gets aboard the Knight Bus, for which scene I was not onboard, thinking the comedy too broad and the set-piece special effect not particularly convincing. "Oh dear," I thought, straining against the suspicion that the film had missed the mark.
Once Harry arrives at the Leaky Cauldron, however, we're back in the world as it should be, with suspect asymmetrical architecture, darker colors, and dirty work afoot. The film, like Harry, is more comfortable with itself from then on. After a brief couple of words with Cornelius Fudge and a glossing-over of his use of magic outside of school grounds, Harry is reunited with Ron and Hermione. Mr. Weasley fills Harry in a bit about Sirius Black's intentions to murder him, and from there it's more or less straight to the Hogwart's Express. Ron nearly, and oh-so-foretellingly, leaves Scabbers behind, though thanks to his mum this crucial plotpoint makes the trip.
The three share a berth with cloak-covered Professor Lupin, and it is at this point we are introduced to the Dementors. The train stops, everything goes dark and the windows glaze over with frost. The cold effect is an excellent prelude to an entrance, and I found the appearance of the Dementor appropriately disturbing. Wraith-like, as I said, but shrouded instead of faceless, with a round hole cut out over the mouth. Harry is none-too-taken with them either; after a bit of soul-sucking, he passes out.
When he comes too, he finds himself again to be evil's special little victim, and it's business as usual at Hogwarts.
Moving quickly now--the students arrive in the Great Hall to the choral rendition of Something Wicked with huge bullfrog accompaniment, are introduced via a new Dumbledore to the newly arrived Professor Lupin and newly made Professor Hagrid. After dinner it's on to Gryffindor dormitory, where an amusing Dawn French (of French and Saunders) holds sway over entry. Adolescent hijinx ensue.
The students get a dose of Divination under the tripped out Professor Trelawney, where Harry sees the figure of the Grim in his tea-leaves (the Grim being a large menacing dog and omen of death), are set against a shape-shifting boggart by Professor Lupin (who wonderfully sets his class to music and gives us a chance to see the menacing Severus Snape in Neville's grandmother's clothing), and meet Buckbeak the hippogriff under Hagrid's instruction. Harry goes on a ride of Luck Dragon proportions, and Malfoy gets the scratching he so richly deserves. These last are two wonderful scenes. The special effects are very well done; the boggart's transitions only slightly cartoony, and Buckbeak surprisingly believable. We get a hint through the boggart that Lupin has a particlarly telling fear, and the hippogriff puts the absolutely awful CG centaur and too puppety Aragog of the previous films to shame.
Because Harry hasn't got his permission slip for daytrips to Hogsmeade signed, he has to sit out, and on one occasion has a heart-to-heart with Lupin. We get a bit of Lupin and James and Lily Potter backstory, during which it's first suggested that James wasn't always a perfectly nice wizard. Troublemaking and a certain flouting of the rules is apparently genetic.
Bear in mind that through all of this, the Dementors--endowed with the power of flight--are swirling around the Hogwarts perimeter with an eye out for Sirius Black, who true to form manages to infiltrate the castle anyway and does a mischief on the Fat Lady's painting. Or anyway that's the way she tells it from behind a large boar on a different wall. Dumbledore puts the castle into lockdown, but Sirius is nowhere to be found.
Snape gets extra cranky. When he tells you to open your book to page three-hundred-ninety-four, you'd best do it. Hermione--who keeps showing up in classes from nowhere--mouths off a touch, and gets the class saddled with a paper on the difference between animagii and werewolves. And this the day before Quidditch.
There is only one Quidditch match in Azkaban, and it's the most exciting, if briefest, of any thus far. Begoggled players race through rain and lighting; someone's broom is struck and down they go in flames. A suprisingly masculine-looking Harry Potter zips high into the clouds after the Golden Snitch and quickly finds himself surrounded by Dementors. Some impressive evasive maneuvers notwithstanding, Harry's broom freezes over and the bad guys get a soul-destroying whiff of him. He falls off his broom and plummets toward the ground, saved at the last second, of course, by a spell delivered with the calm voice and magical hand-gesture of Albus Dumbledore. Harry comes to (for the third time) in the hospital wing, glad to hear of the Dementors' banishment back to the perimeter but lamenting the loss of his broom to the bad tempered, bluebird-crushing Whomping Willow. He soon asks Profesor Lupin for Dementor defense lessons. "After the holiday," Lupin tells him, which means it's time for--
Snow. Crisp, clean, happy white snow, and another trip to Hogsmeade. Harry tries to sneak out under cover of Invisibility Cloak, but is waylaid by the Weasley twins--who provide him with the film's best plot device: the Marauder's Map. Solemly swearing he's up to no good, Potter get access to everyone's whereabouts and all the secret ways in and out of Hogwarts.
Harry interrupts an almost-moment between Ron and Hermione outside the Shrieking Shack, Britain's most-haunted building, to defend them against Draco Malfoy and company. He then sneaks into a tavern to eavesdrop on an entirely too expositional scene between the Minister of Magic, Minerva McGonagall, and Madame Rosmerta, wherein we get all the lowdown on how Sirius Black supposedly put the finger on the Potters for Voldemort and left nothing but a finger of their friend Peter Pettigrew. Harry sneaks away to whimper a bit, but then comes out vowing vengeance.
It's a brief winter. Spring springs with all speed and it's back to classes. Harry goes straight to work on the Patronum spell under Professor Lupin, and the Marauder's Map reveals a very alive if a bit oddly gaited Peter Pettigrew scuttling around the castle. A nightime encounter with Snape sees an ever more defiant Potter telling him to stuff it, and Lupin intervenes to save him but confiscates the map.
Hagrid, as the new term proves, hasn't been sacked but it's curtains for Buckbeak, condemned to death by the offscreen but no doubt infuriating demands of Lucius Malfoy. Hermione continues her habit of appearing from the ether in classes she couldn't possibly be attending due to conflicting scheduling, which phenomenon she shrugs off right before giving Malfoy a solid right jab to the nose. The three rush down to Hagrid's place before the bell tolls for Buckbeak, and sneak out the back after unknown stone and snail-throwers alert them to the approach of Fudge, Dumbledore, and an Executioner wielding a tremendously large and freshly sharpened axe. The three are well away when the axe falls, signalled by a flight of ravens from the pumpkin patch wherein the condemned was remanded. Hermione buries her face in Ron's neck, her arms around his shoulders; Harry puts his hands on Hermione's arms, but it's clear she's chosen, as all the smartest girls do, the redhead.
Scabbers, just returned to Ron by Hagrid and apparently uneaten by Crookshanks, nips his finger and makes a run for it. Ron gives chase and ends up in the shadow of the Whomping Willow and worse, the Grim. The pooch grabs him by the ankle and takes him for scrape through a tunnel under the tree. After a sound thrashing by branch and leaf, the Willow deposits Harry and Hermione at the entrance to said tunnel, which rather predictably--by which I mean that Harry predicts it--leads to the Shrieking Shack. Ron sits in a chair all a-tremble, holding Scabbers and pointing to paw-prints on the floor above which stands--Sirius Black, the escaped animagus of Azkaban!
Harry grabs him round the neck and draws his wand, which is expelliarmused out of his hand by the suddenly appearing Professor Lupin. There are about thirty seconds of "o-ho, a nefarious twist, they're in cahoots" and "let's kill hims" apparently referring to Harry, which of course are soon revealed to refer to Scabbers, who is rather another animagus, Peter Pettigrew. We're nearly convinced when Snape crashes the party, sneering at Sirius, who zings him one about going back to his chemistry sets before Harry delivers an expelliarmus of knock-out proportions. Now back to the rat. After twelve years as a rodent Pettigrew's human form remains rather mousey, and he pleads for his life as Sirius and Lupin prepare to do the worst. Harry demands he be turned over to the Dementors. His elders agree.
Once again in the shadow of the Whomping Willow, Sirius suggests that Harry move in with him--he is, after all, Harry's godfather, and all seems to be wrapping up nicely until Hermione poignantly notes that the shadow is being cast by a full moon. Lupin starts to wolf out, and Pettigrew takes the opportunity to go rat and scarper. Sirius turns on the Grim and the two hounds clash, but Lupin has the advantage. He's about to go teeth out for Harry when a mysterious howling calls him away. Harry follows the wounded Sirius, now back in human form, to the edge of a pond in the woods, which soon ices over, announcing the arrival of the Dementors. Harry gives it his best Expecto Patronum, but it's not enough. The Dementors overcome him, and the bright white dot of Sirius' soul ecapes his lips to the Dementor's Kiss. Harry's in agony, about to give up the ghost himself, when a strange figure emerges from across the pond. The figure casts a Patronum spell measurable in kilotons, its luminescent blast wave carrying off the Dementors and saving Sirius and Harry, the latter passing out--again--before being able to identify his savior.
He wakes up--again--to be filled in on the aftermath by Dumbledore, who informs him that the Dementors have taken Black again and locked him at the top of the tallest tower. Ron, out-of-commission due to a Grim dog-bite, sits out the next adventure, suggested with a mixture of mischief and gravity by Dumbledore himself. Hermione reveals a charm around her neck which enable her to time travel--thus explaining her bizarre class attendance--and takes Harry back in time so they can change the future and save the day.
It is at this point I would remind you not to bother with setting your head against the inherent plot-holes of time travel. Just don't do it.
The two go back in time to save Buckbeak, and you essentially watch the film from that point on from a different perspective. Harry throws out the super-Patronum at the opportune moment, and as they are plus a hippogriff, they have the means both to rescue Sirius from the tall tower and provide him with a means of escape. He shuffles off, and the two get back to Dumbledore just outside the room in which he just left them. Tied, as it were, with a bow.
The story ends with Lupin packing up his office, having resigned his position to Dumbledore and himself to life as a werewolf. He offers Harry some fatherly parting words, and implies his reappeance in subsequent installations. Harry joins his crew in the Great Hall, where all are gathered around a package recently delivered for him--a brand new Firebolt, fastest broom on the market, given by an anonymous figure along with what looks not a bit unlike a hippogriff feather. Harry zooms into the sky for a test flight, and the words "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good" open the Marauder's Map into the ending credits.
Was All That Really Necessary?
No, probably not, but I hope the long summary above might serve to highlight some plot differences from the book, and in any case I haven't mentioned everything.
The storytelling is better, the performances better, the effects better, the cast stronger--and let's face it, they were all working from better material than they had for Chamber of Secrets. Many feel that Azkaban is the best of the series so far; I'm something of a Goblet of Fire man myself, but that's as may be.
I think the filmmaking did an excellent job of growing up with its story and cast, and can only say it's a shame Cuaron won't be back for the next insofar as I don't know what Mike Newell has in store for us.
Oh yes, and I'm seeing it again tonight.
Five points to imdb.com.