June 08, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Thank goodness, it's not just me.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and a glimpse or two of Alan Rickman
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, who is not Chris Columbus
Based on the book by J. K. Rowling.
MPAA says: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language. Parents note: something extremely gruesome appears to happen, offscreen, to a nice animal. And Ron has a potty mouth. An English potty mouth, but still.
Running time: 139 minutes
Release date: June 4, 2004

Seen at: Regal Gateway Stadium 16, Austin, on opening day; in theatre 16, where the seats are cramped and apparently spaced for people with extremely short legs. No matter how I twisted, my knees were pressed hard against the seat in front of me.
Outside Food: Jelly beans, and the hearts of small children. No, not really. Probably.
Product placement: All things Potter-related, from candy to video games. If they make a mockup of that sekrit map, I'm buying it.

To See or Not to See?

To quote (or possibly paraphrase) Hermione when Harry says it all makes sense: "No, not really."

Hermione apparently doesn't buy the final twist as explained by Harry, but I suppose the truth of it will be for the audience to discover in the next movie. Then again, the audience for the next movie has probably already read the next book. And the next one. The scattershot plot may even make sense to them.

I'll start this review with the most important question for the non-Harry Potter fan, the assessment I usually leave for the end of the review. Unless you're taking a child through whose eyes you can watch the caperings, don't bother. Although the movie comes in under two-and-a-half hours, it feels much longer, as the plot loses its cohesion, as exposition is followed by non sequiturs, as characters bounce from one supposedly deeply felt emotion to another. The young actors, at least, are much better at their craft than they were in the first movie. The adult actors do their best with a script that is at times illogical. For the non-fan, this is a long haul with only sporadic rewards.

Harry Potter for by the uninitiated

Wanted PosterRecently, I was in a minivan with six Harry Potter fans, and the conversation turned to fanaticism of the religious sort, and how intractable a certain type of evangelist can be, how for some people every dialogue will revolve around their unquestioning faith in their religion and their eagerness to convert. Then the subject turned to Harry Potter. I'll let you guess how things went from there.

Yes, I've tried to read the books. No, I don't care for them; after years in children's book publishing, I've read similar stories of better quality, and other than curiosity there's no reason for me to slog through something I'm not enjoying. More power to those who do enjoy the world the author has created. I can't fault them; I liked Timeline. I love The Rat Patrol. I dare not cast too many stones.

Clearly, something can be of only fair quality or even poorly crafted and still have an immense following who gain great pleasure from it (Friends, anyone?). As long as something in it resonates with the reader or viewer, that's all that matters. We can agree to disagree on whether or not Harry Potter (novels or films) are well crafted. Not that I'm ever going to get into a conversation with a carful of fans again. That was brutal.

Sitting through the movie itself is brutal for non-fans. If you watch it with an enthusiastic child, you may just enjoy yourself, and you may be distracted from the length if you have a child asking "what happened?" "why did that happen?" every few minutes, as the cute and merrily puzzled little girl sitting next to me in her father's lap did. The rows in front of me began swaying like octopus arms around mid-movie as the kids began squirming mightily, but the audience soon settled back into the movie. The young audience remained determined to see their heroes through to the end.

This is a movie for fans only, and there are certainly more than enough fans out there to keep its box-office aloft.

hp_adolescence.jpgWhat's it all about, then?

It's Harry's third year at Hogwarts School, and he learns that convicted murderer Sirius Black has escaped the infamous Azkaban prison and is coming after Harry next. Wraithlike Dementors, skeletal beings in tattered ash-coloured robes, swirl about Hogwarts in search of Sirius Black, threatening the life of anyone who incidentally blunders into their path. In the meantime, Harry must deal with old friends and old enemies, the vagaries of the Hogwarts faculty, and general teenage angst.

I've already written a brief summary of the film, which you might want to peruse. I'll wait.

Back? Did you read the summary? That's more or less the movie, right there. If the summary seems disjointed, it's because I couldn't make out the logic of the plot even after one of the characters spent several minutes explaining it in a jumbled scene of exposition and shifting characterisation. Here is that scene in more detail (but beware spoilers):

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe): I hate Sirius Black with a burning passion, particularly since it's totally skanky for my godfather to have betrayed my parents.
Sirius Black (Gary Oldman): As you know, Harry, I am evil and will kill you.
R. J. Lupin (David Thewlis): Indeed, Harry, he is evil, but I, your weird new teacher, will save you.
Harry: Thanks, man.
Lupin: Pysch! I am evil, too, and will kill you, Harry. By the way, I quite like you, Sirius.
Sirius: Thank you, I'm rather fond of you, too. (They hug in a somewhat suggestive manner.)
Lupin: Now, Harry, allow me to explain our evil before you die.
Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, severely underused): (appearing suddenly) I'll save you from this evil, Harry.
Harry: (whallops the living daylights out of Snape with his wand of great power, turns to the others) Do go on.
Lupin: As it turns out, Sirius and I are rather nice fellows, Sirius was framed, and this third person over there is the evil one. Allow us to explain the entire backstory.
Third Person: I'm not evil. Allow me to explain an alternative backstory.
Sirius: You are too evil!
Third Person: No way!
Lupin: Way!
Harry: Now that I've heard you exposit, I entirely love you, Sirius, particularly because you're my godfather. I want to live with you forever.
Sirius: Flattered, but I'm still a wanted and convicted criminal, so I'll be hiding out, clearing my name, and looking into some dental care.

hp_plot.jpgI do not exaggerate. Well, not much. There's a ludicrously abrupt switch from "We are evil; therefore, die, Harry!" to "Actually, what we meant was, we are good, and someone else is bad." Harry accordingly switches from the over-the-top emotions of "I will go to great lengths to show my utter hatred of Sirius" to "Sirius is the best role model ever!" I waggle an irritated finger at director Alfonso Cuarón, who may have been too enchanted with making the scenery look pretty to remember the humans.

When I analyse and reanalyse the scene, it sort of makes sense, if one re-interprets the menacing and threatening as simply trying to get Harry to sit still and listen—which they could have gotten him to do by, oh, just telling him the truth from the start instead of couching everything in moustachio-twirling. Secret Agent Jim, who has read this book, tells me the scene plays out much the same way in the novel.

This may be one of those instances where you really had to be there. You have to be a fan, and you have to have read the book, so that you can simply sit back and let the experience of being inside the pages wash over you.

Being inside Hogwarts

hp_thecat.jpg(or, Outside Food Critic says something nice about a Harry Potter movie!)

There's quite a lot to admire in the production design. Although the matte paintings often look as cartoonish as some of the books' cover art and blend awkwardly into the "real" world, otherwise the design is wondrously rich. The spooky opening of the movie sets a dark, sinister mood, and many individual shots are exquisite. One scene in particular stands out: The Nazgul-like Dementors halt the children's train en route to Hogwarts; Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), places his hand on the window and the camera pulls back to show the train perched high on a bridge, its lights blinking out from car to car and its windows growing opaque with an uncanny Dementor-driven frost, until only Ron's pale, lonely palm is visible.... Doesn't get much eerier than that. Shades of Hitchcock!

I wouldn't mind wandering around Hogwarts and its hills and halls for a week or two (except for the carnivorous tree thing, and the risk of running into Hermione's plug-ugly cat). A hippogriff, tamed and ridden by Harry et. al., fares poorly in some of its scenes as an animatronic animal, but is smoothly realised in the CG scenes, with a clever blend of birdlike and horselike mannerisms.

hp_emmas.jpgThe huge pendulum swinging through the hallways of Hogwarts reinforces hints about a key mystery in the movie, and a fortune-telling classroom is all funky bohemian charm. The animated paintings in the dormitory stairwell swell to bursting with background detail and become characters in their own right, and (another sort of adornment) darned if those redhaired twins (Oliver & James Phelps) aren't turning out to be quite the ravishing duo in an English-rock-group way. Other stand-out details: the animated wanted poster seen in all the trailers and—perhaps the best bit of "magic" in the entire film—a map that shows the footprints of people moving through its parchment corridors.

Phantom Edit, anyone?

Nonsense dialogue and plot holes and logic tears come close to sinking the movie, but the film trudges ahead until it eventually becomes something akin to clever. The magic macguffin that saves the day is hinted at throughout, and when it is finally used, the tick-tock soundtrack is a nice touch. When we're shown clues to Lupin's affliction, we're immediately distracted, cleverly, by focussing on Harry.

hp_lines.jpgOn the other hand, while little set pieces like a book on monsters that's a monster itself are cleverly brought to life, these bits tend to go on far longer than they can hold the audience's interest, and Harry spends much of the early part of the film looking soulfully at his reflection while the seconds and minutes tick by. The first half hour or more is a series of such disjointed bits strung together until finally a plot, of a sort, attempts to emerge, punctuated by musical clues to let the audience know when the dialogue is both amusing and amusingly delivered. I'm giving the movie a pass on what at first seemed to be a scene about how fat people are so fat-bad, because, in all fairness, the movie steps away from making a broad generalisation.

One unforgiveable failing: Alan Rickman, who in black Snape robes and inky Snape hair and with his face drawn downward by gravitas is the most striking visual in the film next to the computer-generated hippogriff, is terribly, terribly underused.

Three little maids from school Something about Harry

Harry can be a rude little snit, but the faculty adore him. Better he have flaws than be perfect, but in spite of some behavioural problems, he's such a teacher's pet, no wonder his nemesis, ice-blond Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), is so irritated. Apparently, moreso in this movie than in the book, there's nothing Harry can't do. One wonders why he even needs to go to school, other than to escape the headache-inducing handheld camera wobbling around his house.

Sidekick Ron has quite the potty mouth. Am I the only person disturbed by a thirteen-year-old exclaiming "Bloody hell!" at every opportunity? While I'm asking questions: Am I the only person who found that clown in the jack-in-the-box more sinister than a Dementor? Clowns are skeery! And why can't anyone ever hear Harry's laboured panting when he's under his invisibility cloak? Non-fans want to know!

As mentioned earlier, the young actors have improved immensely. They aren't Dame Judi and Sir Derek yet, but they are believable and mostly charming. Rupert Grint delivers Ron's punchlines with punch, at least until the script reduces him to saying "Bloody hell" every other line, and his character-actor face is mobile and expressive. Emma Watson's Hermione feels much more natural. Daniel Radcliffe doesn't telegraph Harry's every line as in the first film, but his emotions are rather broadly portrayed—horror, vehemence, all to the extreme, then his reversal into devotion, love, and even a bit of self-delusion. Come to think of it, he's thirteen, and all boys are a bit broad and deluded at that age. Maybe we should just blame Harry on hormones. (Speaking of age, and not to ruin a plot twist, but does this mean Hermione is actually fourteen now? How in the world is she going to put up with those immature boys now?) The other young actors in the student body are merely adequate, unfortunately, and occasionally even painful in their line delivery.

Dawn French tears up the screen (in a good way) with her short scenes as the singing fat lady in a painting; her husband Lenny Henry lends his voice to a wise-cracking shrunken head; and Emma Thompson is appropriately featherbrained as divination professor Sybil Trelawney. Michael Gambon's Dumbledore comes across as thoroughly delighted with the world, and he's a delight to watch. Many names were brought up in speculation to replace the late Richard Harris, and although I might have enjoyed seeing, oh, Gary Raymond in the role (not that I'm biased or anything), Gambon fits comfortably into his robes and bead-decorated beard. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman play off each other remarkably well in their Scene of Jumbled Exposition. Thewlis exudes pathos and dignity in his final scene, bringing just the right meaning to the thinly veiled metaphor.

hp_thewlis.jpgThank goodness, it's not just me.

I had to ask around about the Thinly Veiled Metaphor and my reading of the bigotry against Lupin and "people like [him]" teaching presumably impressionable young students. It could be the skill with which Thewlis delivers his lines and the pain crisscrossing his scarred and weary face, but it could also be that the book itself hit just the right note. If so, I applaud Rowling for handling the subject so well. In this case, thinly veiled metaphor was just what was needed.

The End

The credits are long. Extremely long. They are prettily animated over Harry's magical map, with some cute touches here and there (keep an eye out for "The Owlery" on the righthand side) and a minor Easter Egg at the very end—not an additional scene, just a brief voiceover. If you sit through the credits you can hear the entire "Something Wicked This Way Comes" chorale, which I'll admit I enjoyed.

Pet peeve:

Book of Monster's Repair Shop, on the map. Mind your apostrophes! Has Hogwarts no English Department?

hp_hippogriff.jpgTo See or Not to See? revisited

If you're a Harry Potter fan, haven't you already seen this movie? You may find some of it lacking and some of it disappointing; and you may fidget during the long stretch around 90-minutes in; but you should enjoy wandering around the expanded vision of Hogwarts and you won't miss anything by taking breaks to stretch your legs or powder your nose or have a nap or do the entire NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle. It's great fun to watch the hippogriff fuss with its feathers.

If you're not a Harry Potter fan, I doubt this will convert you to the true faith. It's an awful lot of movie to sit through just for a hippogriff, a pretty map, and a pendulum.

As Harry would say, Mischief Managed.

Posted by OutsideFood at June 8, 2004 06:05 PM

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