Sunday, June 06, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated among Potter fans as the best book of the series; and now, it is also the best movie of the series! Sure, the story is great, but for the first time it is backed by imaginative direction, a creative screenplay and young actors finally getting into their mold.

After the usual Muggle-baiting that kicks off each adventure, Harry Potter, who is 13 now and about to begin his third year at Hogwarts, runs away from his hateful relatives, the Dursleys, after transforming a particularly obnoxious houseguest into a balloon (‘found floating near Sheffield” as one of the characters reveals later in the movie)! Picked up by the Knight Bus, magical (and hair-rising) transport for the “stranded witch or wizard”, he manages to reach London where he runs into his best friends from school, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson).

All is not well in the magical community, though, as Ron’s father Arthur informs him. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), notorious mass-murderer and big time supporter of You-know-who, has escaped from the wizard prison Azkaban, the first wizard ever to do so. And it gets worse – Black is believed to be looking for Harry in order to kill him! On the prowl for Black are the guards of Azkaban, nasty, wraith-like creatures called Dementors who have the unfortunate habit of attacking anyone that comes in their way. They like to suck the happiness out of people and seem to have a particularly strong effect on Harry.

But help is at hand in the form of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), who not only guides Harry in sorting out his “Dementor issues” but also helps him unravel a little of his tragic past. Everyone’s favorite giant Hagrid is also a Professor now, for Care of Magical Creatures, and his new pet is a wonderful half-horse-half-eagle (computer generated) beauty called a Hippogriff who answers to the name of Buckbeak. Not every teacher is sweet and tender however – Harry still has to put with the sneers of Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman at his most menacing) and the whacked-out Divination teacher Sybill Trelawney (Emma Thompson) who seems to take particular joy in predicting Harry’s death.

With a ton of material to cover, director Alfonso Quaron (of Y Tu Mamá También fame) does a terrific job in sustaining the momentum through the movie. His sets, where it’s always raining or snowing (it is set in England after all!) have a darker, more surreal feel to them when compared to the first two movies. He is helped by the script which, for the first time, doesn’t seem obliged to follow the book scene-by-scene. The actors have also done a fairly neat job this time with everyone appearing comfortable in their roles (including Michael Gambon who replaces the late Richard Harris in the role of Dumbledore).

The movie’s taut script, which gives it a relatively shorter running time of 139 minutes, does have its drawbacks however- not everything is explained satisfactorily in the end after a climax which seems greatly rushed; gone also is most of the Quidditch from the book - the one game that does does make it into the movie is tremendously shot (but woefully short!). These are minor shortcomings; at the end of the day, this movie works and that’s what matters!


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