For some reason I have trouble typing Azkaban. Something about it is wrong. Maybe it’s the fact that the Z follows the A. Something that nearly never happens in English writing. Makes me think Azkaban is a far off place very different from our own. I don’t know if it is though because we never see it in this film. It’s a prison of some kind. One that characters talk about with a hint of fear. Good thing there’s big old Dementor things floating about to keep people scared instead of some unseen prison.
Prisoner of Azkaban is the third installment in the Harry Potter mega-franchise and is the first of the films to not be directed by Chris Columbus. Taking his place is Y Tu Mama Tambien and (At the time) future Children Of Men director Alfonso Cuaron. An odd choice of director for a childrens film such as this but, looking over his work, he is nothing if he is not a versatile one. Perhaps the closest film in his body of work to Harry Potter was 1995s A Little Princess which at least was a film suitable for children. He lends a more unique visual tone to the film than Chris Columbus did using a lot more of the more visually interesting locations around Hogwarts. There’s a lot more of the clock tower (time itself is an element of the film so that’s a good piece of visual symbolism), we see the wonky bridge (I forget it’s name) that is the entrance to Hogwarts a lot more and see the overly steeply inclined village of Hogsmede. He’s even moved the Whomping Willow to a spot that’s more visually logical than just being in the middle of the recreation field in the last film.
The plot is fairly straightforward this time but is lacking in direction. A man named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the titular prison. At some point in the past he allegedly pointed Voldemort in the right direction to find Harry’s parents. Because of his devotion to you know who he believes Harry is responsible for vanquishing the lord and so wants some revenge. This is all communicated to Harry via hearsay and rumours though. A large amount of the film is spent just waiting for Sirius to turn up. Meanwhile there’s dark arts to defend against and lessons to be learned.
The film isn’t entirely about Harry and his pals attempting to uncover some secret mystery this time around. It’s about Harry learning to be prepared to defend himself against the Dementors, Grim Reaper like beings that feed on pain and sorrow and as such find Harry quite tasty. He must also prepare for the arrival of Sirius but he really does seem more concerned with those Dementors. A lot more time is spent with Harry actually learning spells and skills along with a little more attention paid to character relationships. Considering the first two films barely have Harry doing any magic and the relationships being pretty basic this is an improvement. It just seems to be at the expense of anything happening.
The first hour is really slow with a lot of sign posting and the kids getting involved in things and stuff to pass the time. Harry is fed up because he can’t go to Hogsmede with the other children because he did not get his permission slip signed before he ran away from home. And as you’d guess he soon solves that with the help of his cloak of invisibility and a new plot device in the form of a magic map. He learns how to fly a Hippogriff which comes in handy at the end. Hermione seems to be able to appear in any class from out of nowhere, a fact made clear by Ron saying “where did she come from” in about 4 separate scenes. Basically stuff happens and slight movements are made towards Harry being ready for the finale.
This time it’s Rons turn to sit out the final act and for the first time Hermione get’s to help out thanks to a magical necklace she suddenly has at the end. I mean, the hints are there that she’s up to something, it’s just kinda pulled out of thin air. It’s nice to see her do something more than be a bookworm or make a potion but even then she’s using the necklace to help herself be even more of a bookworm. The film is a lot less prone to Deus Ex Machina this time around though so in general story events do happen for an actual reason.
There is a sense of Deja Vu kicking in now though. The film starts with the exact same format as the previous two. Harry’s aunt and uncle are being mean, Harry takes some form of novelty transportation to London where he bumps into the Weasleys, there’s a little basic plot establishment and warnings are given and finally Harry takes some form of transportation to Hogwarts. Why can’t one of thee films just start at the school with Harry learning of what evil awaits him there? Does every story need to be spread over a year? It means that all the events are going by very slowly for the characters. It also means each film follows the same visual colour palette as the story progresses thanks to the Autumn, Winter, Spring cycle of the seasons.
The plot is a little more coherent this time around though and whilst it is very wafer thin in terms of actual events it never feels like nothing is happening at all. At least not for too long. There’s also less of the random character blurting stuff out moments to push the plot along. There is, however, one incredible suspension of disbelief stretching plot twist in the latter half. It’s the sort of pulled out of her arse stuff JK Rowling seems to love. Even if it has a few signposted moments I still found it hard to swallow that a man could have been hiding in plain sight thanks to magic for 12 years without no wizard sensing it.
Special effects are on a similar level to the previous film but there seems to have been a loss of the few practical models and animatronics that the first two films did utilise from time to time. The films plot concerns a little animal shape shifting in the form of a werewolf, the design of which is quite striking. Rather than being a straight up wolf he has very elongated arms and legs and is rather thinly covered in hair. The CGI in general is decent but still very clearly not real.
This is the first of the films to have Micheal Gambon stepping into Dumbledore’s wizardly shoes after the death of Richard Harris. It’s a relief to see that he makes no attempt to copy Harris’ quite, near whispering performance. There’s a little more life to this Dumbledore and he feels more like a teacher of magic than a very old man that probably needs a lie down. Added to the cast are a series of new teachers that either add nothing (Emma Thompson’s Professor Sybil Trelawney) or are basically a signpost for impending danger (David Thewlis as Professor Lupin). There’s no Moaning Myrtle which is a shame because she was one of the more interesting characters in the previous film, although she would have clearly been lacking a purpose here. What I wanna know is when is Luna Lovegood gonna show up? That girl was a mental case in The Half-Blood Prince game.
Overall the film is a slight step down from The Chamber Of Secrets mostly because there’s very little in the way of engaging plot progression for the first hour. Performances have stepped up slightly from the main cast but they are still prone to some very wooden delivery, especially Emma Watson. Visually the film is pretty in a Burton-esque twisted kind of way, the Death Eaters striking a memorable image as one example. I does feel rather pointless though. I figure certain characters introduced here will play very important roles in the later films but did they need this whole adventure to give them the little introduction we do get here. It’s a character and lore setting film in that it’s main purpose is to build towards the future installments but it’s lack of a genuine climatic finale and any genuine mystery for the kids to investigate leave the film falling a little flat. So far Chamber of Secrets has been the closest to a good film in this universe. I’m hoping The Goblet Of Fire, with Mike Newell directing, gives the series the Leviosa it sorely needs.