29 September 2013

ALFONSO CUARÓN: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

The question I would ask, for a start, is whether Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is chiefly a Harry Potter movie, or chiefly an Alfonso Cuarón movie. This is, of course, dumb as fuck: there are people who have seen and worshiped and idolised Prisoner of Azkaban who probably haven't even heard the titles of the director's other six features, and would possibly drop dead of mortification if they ever accidentally stumbled upon the sex-soaked Y tu mamá también. That being said, it's awfully easy and darn near obligatory to suggest that the eight-film franchise stretching from 2001 to 2011 breaks into two very different phases: the first two films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, are fundamentally different than the six movies that followed them. And this shift, which I think unambiguously favors the latter six, can be attributed to Cuarón as readily as to any other individual. So perhaps the trick isn't think of Prisoner of Azkaban as the one impersonal film that Cuarón made, but to think of the latter Potter movies as Cuarón films that happen to have been directed by other people.

In at least one respect (besides the fact that it's his only mega-budget studio film), it is a clear outlier: it is the only feature in the director's career not shot by the great Emmuanuel Lubezki, replaced for reasons unknown to me by Michael Seresin (who would later shoot Cuarón's segment in the omnibus Paris, je t'aime). And Seresin is not at all without talent, and Prisoner of Azkaban is gorgeous and deeply characteristic in its visuals, but it's not, like, Lubezki-gorgeous. That's still enough for it to have ended up directly influencing the visual style of every one of the subsequent Potter films: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell and shot by Roger Pratt, copies it almost exactly, and while the four films directed by David Yates have three unbelievably talented men shooting them (Sławomir Idziak, Bruno Delbonnel, and Eduardo Serra), using three distinctly different and personalised aesthetic appraoches, all of them are largely within the wheelhouse that Cuarón and Seresin piloted in this movie, viz. sparkly black children's fantasy that has one foot in a ghost story and one foot in a beloved childhood picture book of fairy stories. Compared to the blandly over-lit and vigorously unmagical approach that director Chris Columbus and cinematographers John Seale and Pratt used in the first two movies, this isn't just a revelation; it's more than that. Prisoner of Azkaban had to prove that a decade-spanning franchise guaranteed to be a gigantic hit because of the brand name could be more than financially successful; it had to prove that there could be thoughtfulness and artistry applied to the material, that it would actually be possible for these movies to be nice to look at and fun to watch, two phrases which apply in no degree to either Sorcerer's Stone or Chamber of Secrets.

Nearly ten years past the commanding success of Cuarón's rather drastic re-conceiving of the material, it's hard to remember how bold this was at the time: the director of a wildly well-received travelogue about sex and politics in Mexico (though it's a matter of record that the reason he got the job was his sparkling A Little Princess) being given the keys to the biggest moneymaking machine in the world, what with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy having wrapped up the prior year, and instead of copying the model of his predecessor, pulling at damn near everything and starting from scratch with all of it. The quantum leap in the lighting, and the encroaching gloom of the atmosphere thus generated, are one obvious example. The fact that he freed up his young trio of stars to wear street clothes almost the whole time instead of their twiddly school uniforms from the first movie is another one, that frankly has just as much impact: instead of seeming like kids playing dress-up on great big sets, the movie is suddenly about actual young people. The full-on embrace of horror is another: J.K. Rowling's source novels are chock full of the normal fantasy monsters and things going bump, but the movies as a rule have edged back from that, and only Deathly Hallows: Part 1 can be compared at all to the gleeful embrace of genre technique that Cuarón explores here - it's also worth pointing out that nothing in his career before or since much resembles this, either. The results pay off splendidly: an early sequence set in a park in the dead of night, with little beads of dew backlit like the teeth of some unseen demon, and a somewhat later scene of a wraith-like Dementor reaching its skeletal hands at the heroes, are still among the very best moments of the entire franchise, and the latter might still be the best.

It all goes to prove that you can do visual and tonal darkness, mixed with gobsmacked fantasy (something else Cuarón and Seresin achieve that the previous films did not: make the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry actually look like the splendid carousel of wonders that the scripts insist on it being), and make a film that's tremendously appealing and fun and not at all too scary or glum, and the fact that any adult has ever once had something kindly to say about the Harry Potter film franchise can ultimately trace back to that incredibly important achievement.

Thank God for it, too, because outside of Cuarón's incredible accomplishment, Prisoner of Azkaban has some severe problems, starting with its script, which I genuinely believe to be the worst of all eight films. Other than Chamber of Secrets (which paid for it by being the most protracted and deathly dull of them all), each of the Potter films suffers from too much compression and rushing, mercilessly sloughing off incidents, subplots, and even entire characters, in the interest of making Rowling's doorstops reasonably contained in a running time that anybody would be willing to sit through; not a damn one of them actually manages, after all that, to tell a completely functional story. Prisoner of Azkaban, I am convinced, is the least-functional of them all: in the first hour and a half, it achieves some measure of coherence but not momentum, clanking through the worst kind of "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" anti-narrative, consisting of nothing but a long chain of scenes that are connected solely because they all involve Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Chosen One of the British wizard world. In the remaining 50 minutes (resulting in the series' first entry to make it in south of two and a half hours), momentum is achieved at the cost of sense; from the very moment that the first of many Big Reveals takes place, the film descends into a maelstrom of tossed-off developments and undernourished backstories, hitting the bare minimum of plot points required to have the semblance of form at all (it doesn't help that, even as a novel, Prisoner of Azkaban is unique in not really possessing a "confilict" as such). The only thing that compares is the failure of Half-Blood Prince to satisfactorily clarify who the half-blood prince, in point of fact, is; and that's just one minor plot point. Prisoner of Azkaban doesn't really clarify two entire acts.

The other big issue is the acting: over the course of the franchise, Radcliffe generally got better, while Emma Watson (as the smug intellectual Hermione Granger) and Rupert Grint (as lovable schmuck Ron Weasley) both got worse, and it's in this film and the very next one that they averaged out to the lowest overall capability: a lot of super intense staring and shouting from Radcliffe, a lot of pedantically over-delivered lines from Watson, and I don't know what the hell Grint was doing in this movie. Moving on to the huge panoply of British character actors filling in the corners, some are good (David Thewlis as a Big Secret-keeping professor), some are amazingly good (Gary Oldman as a Big Secret-keeping escaped convict; Emma Thompson as a nutty, pretentious clairvoyant with, alas, no secrets of any size). As is common with these films, several are given hardly anything to do - the descent of Maggie Smith into overqualified set-dressing began in earnest here - and Michael Gambon, stepping into the shoes of the late Richard Harris, was at his very worst as the kindly, mysterious Dumbledore, trying much too hard to evoke something of Harris's characterisation in his own performance and missing by quite a lot.

That being said, the film's chief failures are dramatic, not cinematic, and as escapist fantasy spectacle, there's much to love: John Williams's final score for the series is his best, much deeper and more interlocked than the auto-pilot collection of Spielbergisms he'd used twice before, the new sets (especially the quirky little town of Hogsmeade) designed by the inexhaustible Stuart Craig are more playful than before, the CGI is pretty great across the board. Except for the werewolf, because for whatever reason, CGI werewolves never work.

And it's all shown off to beautiful effect by Cuarón, employing his trademark tracking shots (though none of them very long) to dance around the sets and explore them (the opening shot, a grand track in and then track back, gets us off on the right foot: the camera is there to sweep us into and around the movie), relying on a motif of silent-movie irises to give the film a much-welcome sense of wide-eyed storytelling, incorporating a few pitch-black jokes about harmlessly flying creatures being violently killed, and even given the three-way hug that was so crucial in Y tu mamá también a cameo. It is closer to his least complicated and rewarding filmmaking than otherwise, and like many gifted filmmakers who primarily work with humans, he seems to have been unsure what to do with CGI beasts that weren't there yet. But all in all, the filmmaker who made A Little Princess such a playful bit of fantasy and deeply respectful depiction of children is unmistakably the filmmaker behind Prisoner of Azkaban, even with all the pressures and studio tinkering that comes with making a massive-budget adaptation of a fiercely protected brand name. Whatever failures it has, it's arguably the most fun Harry Potter film to watch: inventive, quick-moving, playful, beautiful.

24 comments:

Travis Earl said...

For all of its technical brilliance, this is the film that made me despise the Harry Potter franchise and it's because of the reason you mentioned above: the terrible, terrible script.

(Spoilers) I never read the books and from what people have told me the introduction of time travel is built up far better in the novel but I remember watching this film in theatre (for free I might add as a friend had free tickets -- I still felt cheated) and just becoming positively livid when two thirds of the way through Hermione is like: "by the way I have the ability to travel through time; let's go back and fix the narrative dead end we've reached".

I know earlier in the film they show her being in two places at once but just watching the film as a film, sans the backstory provided by the novel, this came across as the most egregious example of deus ex machina I've ever encountered in any film I've watched before or since. I found it insulting frankly.

It ruined the movie for me and made it so I couldn't enjoy Harry Potter at all. I know it's a fantasy series geared towards children but this one glaring hole in the logic of the narrative made it impossible for me to take the franchise seriously.

Great write up though, Tim. Cuaron definitely gave this movie atmosphere to spare.

David Greenwood said...

This another point where I must wholly depart from your POV Tim... I fucking loved Chamber of Secrets. It was, by a sizeable margin, my favorite Potter film, partly because it was the most scooby-doo-ish. It was very much a shiny kids film, and while I understand it's fashionable to diss Chris Columbus, I can't fault his direction simply because he's not by any stretch an auteur. He gets the job done, and it was all generally better than the Sorcerer's Stone, which I will agree had a bit of a clunky, embalmed quality to it, not to mention a go-nowhere story.

The plot in CoS was much improved from the book, fixing a few logic lapses, and the movie as a whole had precisely as much darkness as I want from a Harry Potter story. Because at the end of the day, I want a mystery solved by plucky kids with magic powers. That's probably why I didn't give two shits about any of the books or movies after Goblet of Fire. The climax was awesome IMO... I loved that Basilisk.

I'll agree with you on Prisoner of Azkaban though. Terrific mood in the service of an utterly broken script. I'd read the book and still found the movie hard to follow. While Goblet of Fire was even more pruned down to fit in feature length, I thought the filmmakers did a much better job that time of making sense while managing to hit the most important emotional notes of the novel.

Malte said...

For some reason, that CGI werewolf really ruined the film for me. Nine years on, it's practically all I remember. It's probably because I'm a huge fan of that character, so the disappointment was especially severe.

Bryan said...

My brothers and I still joke about Radcliffe's dreadful crying scene. Besides that (and an absurdly misjudged freeze frame ending), I remember enjoying the tone of this movie a great deal more than the first two.

Trish said...

I generally like this one the best out of the Harry Potter movies, largely because it's visually interesting and is the first of the film series that doesn't feel like somebody is just reading the book to you. But you are dead right that CGI Werewolf is terrible. For me it comes down to the design: if it's just a lanky dude with a canine snout and ears creeping around in the woods, why is it even CGI at all?

Travis - The time-travel aspect really is not handled well. If you ever want to pick a fight with a Harry Potter fan (Pott-head?), ask them why Hermione didn't just use her Time Turner to go back and send Tom Riddle to a really good therapist.

Tim said...

In a series where just about every single book introduced a new God Machine that didn't end up putting in a re-appearance where it really should have,the time-turner is EASILY the most irritating to me, especially since, in book and film, its single real purpose seems to be setting up the SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER scene where Harry sees himself creating the stag. A scene that the film already botches awfully, by failing to include some necessary backstory.

Anyway, I'm glad that we have some interesting disagreements going on here. Keep it up, everyone!

Brian said...

Easily the best directed, and rivals only the second for worst story (which, to be fair, the second one is hamstrung by being the worst book in the series by far. This one has no such excuse.)

My favorite thing about this movie is a story Cuaron tells about giving the three leads and assignment to write an essay about their character. Watson did a deep, several pages long essay, Radcliffe tossed off a page, and Grint never did the assignment, which is pretty much par the course for all three characters.

Brian said...

Oh, and of all the failures of the script here, the worst is that it never establishes who Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs are. Which is the major hook of the whole movie.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm with David in that Chamber of Secrets is my favorite of the series, followed by The Goblet of Fire. This one falls third on the list for me. And yes, I know I know, liking a Chris Columbus movie enough to call it the "best" of anything is grounds for having ones cinephile card revoked, but I agree wholeheartedly with David that there's just something about the "plucky kids solve a mystery" aspect of that second film that warms my heart every time I watch it.

I don't remember much from the films in the series, but the Basilisk setpiece is one I will always remember as being so much damn fun, clunky as the direction may be.

Still, it's a helluva a lot fun to see a relatively unknown (to the public) filmmaker like Cuaron get the keys to one of the biggest series in recent film history. I would have liked to see him swing for the fences more with his one opportunity with this beloved series, but even a safe version of an Cuaron film is interesting enough to make it my third favorite in the series.

Amazing how the quality and entertainment value really dipped after films two, three, and four in the series.

Really looking forward to your thoughts on Gravity.

Brian Malbon said...

Oh man, where to begin? My favorite of the first four books (you can really divide the books in half in terms of "episodic Scooby Doo mystery stories" and "frightening war stories"), and the first one I got actively excited about in following the production, so my expectations going in were so high they couldn't be met. In retrospect it probably is the one I'm likely to pull of the shelf of an evening, but at the time I remember being incredibly disappointed, and never really seeing the irony of being a nineteen year old disappointed that a children's movie want scary enough. But that was the problem for me - a complete lack of building-up of tension throughout what I believe to be most tense of the "pre-war" series. Cuaron gave the first three quarters ofthe film a very lackadaisical, slow-moving vibe, more "here are the changing seasons as children go to school" than the all out creepiness I felt the sorry called for. Basically, the two Columbus films all felt like Christmas; Iwanted Azkaban to be all Halloween.

On the other hand, the final act time travel gimmick remains, contrary to everyone's opinion and the plot holes it established, my favorite sequence in the entire series.

David Greenwood said...

Kevin - Rather like how the entertainment value of the books massively dropped off after four IMO

Brian - The time travel sequence in PoA was probably the coolest part of the movie (well, maybe behind that terrifying quidditch match). It happened to be where the screenplay completely lost its shit, but Cuaron's direction made it a very exciting section.

Even from a plot perspective, I like the time turner, at least in that one book. It's a shame Rowling didn't seem to give a thought to how it undermined the credibility of the series as a whole. The more scooby-doo books could handle something like that. But when the plot stakes escalated in later books, people began dying (with startling regularity) and nobody brings up the idea of time travel as a potential solution, it's a bit unbelievable.

StephenM said...

Wow, so--basically everyone totally disagrees about which HP books and movies are the best, and they are absolutely certain that everyone else agrees with them, even though that is demonstrably untrue. I guess I've encountered this phenomenon before, but it's been awhile.

Anyway, my takes: Prisoner of Azkaban has always been my favorite film of the series, precisely because it deviates from the book so much with the direction and addition of new scenes and jokes and weird things that feel genuinely surprising and thrilling, while the other movies, none of which are what I would call *bad*, follow the books so slavishly that they never offered that much excitement to me. The one thing the movie does wrong is, as previously mentioned, the script's appalling lack of explanation/backstory concerning Mooney/Wormtail/Padfoot/Prongs--which is one of the central story details of the entire series. Heck, why is Harry's Patronus a stag? From watching this movie, we don't know! But for a reader of the books, all this is already known, so I've always found it a mild irritation (and anyway, the other movies leave out even worse explanations for other things).

My take on the books: I didn't start reading until about the time the fourth book came out, when I was in 5th grade. The first couple are fun kids stories, the third starts really going somewhere, but it's Goblet of Fire that blew my mind. I still think it's probably the best in the series, although Order of Phoenix is about tied, because even though it's the longest and everyone thinks it could be shorter, Harry is at his most believably screwed-up and teenagery, and the satirical targets feel the most real-world applicable to me. HBP is mostly good with a great ending, and TDH wraps up everything up very satisfyingly, though not structurally elegantly.

As to the movies: the first two have their charms alongside horribleness, I would probably have to rank Chamber as the worst, Goblet of Fire is fun but it destroys the plot of the book and loses too much of the fear and dread so it's third from the bottom, and then I put Half-Blood Prince second best after Azkaban, with Deathly Hallows2 third, and Order of Phoenix fourth. The final two movies look extremely good and seem like they should be amazing, but I've always found them just a little too predetermined and rigid: I've never felt the same jolts of fear or danger or sadness in them that I get from those books, and I'm not really sure why. Something in the scripting that leaves out the best lines? Or something in the direction that doesn't know how to hit the beats quite right?

StephenM said...

Oh--and I really like the time travel stuff in the movie, but I agree that it undermines everything in the books, which is why Rowling sweeps it under the rug in the later series and basically implies it's illegal for anyone to use them normally (SO WHY DID THEY GIVE IT TO A 13 YEAR OLD GIRL?) and then has them conveniently get destroyed when the kids fight the Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic.

Pintu said...

Is it just me, or does the music during the beginning of the time turner sequence deliberately pay homage to back to the future 2?

i was really struck by that during a recent viewing. I thought it would be a well documented thing, endlessly discussed among fans, but couldn't find anything about it.

Can Tim (or anyone else) confirm or deny?

Brian said...

I am legitimately surprised to learn there are people who don't think Chamber of Secrets (the book) is the worst of the series, and nearly a beat for beat redo of the first book, and thus, combined with Columbus's rather flat direction and the lack of it being "HARRY ON THE SCREEN" it easily produced the worst movie of the franchise.

Ah well, live and learn, I guess.

David Greenwood said...

Brian - For the record, I thought Chamber of Secrets was one of the crummier books in the series. That said, I think the movie improved on it by tightening up the plot. I liked the movie better than Sorcerer's Stone because A) It was just darker enough for me to like it, B) We didn't spend 80% on an origin story, and got right to the scooby-dooing.

Tim said...

Pintu- I didn't notice that, but you've got me very curious to go back and re-listen.

Brian, David- CoS happens to be my least favorite entry in either medium, and I think we've hit the point where I have to do this:

RANKING THE BOOKS
1. Goblet of Fire (love)
2. Half-Blood Prince (like significantly)
3. Prisoner of Azkaban (like a little)
4. Deathly Hallows (like a little less)
5. Sorcerer's Stone (find a little bland)
6. Order of the Phoenix (love the version in my had that's 400 pages shorter at the beginning)
7. Chamber of Secrets (find incredibly bland)

RANKING THE MOVIES
1. Half-Blood Prince (8/10)
2. Order of the Phoenix (7.5/10)
3. Goblet or Prisoner (7/10)
4. Prisoner or Goblet (7/10)
5. Deathly Hallows 2 (6/10)
6. Deathly Hallows 1 (6/10)
7. Sorcerer's Stone (5/10)
8. Chamber of Secrets (5/10)

I will confess to not finding CoS, in any case, to be meaningfully dark. And the basilisk scene in the movie is great, but it takes, like, seven hours to get there.

Merrick said...

From what I understood, the time-travel was not an events-changing device (at least in the movie; I'm not sure if what I'm going to say also applies to the book). Harry realizes he knew he could summon the patronus becasue he had seen himself doing it earlier, meaning there was no "changing the timeline". The device lets you travel back in time but there is only one timeline, meaning there had already been another "you" the first time in that moment you are going to travel to. That's also playfully implied in the scene when you see the executioner kill Buckbeak, you just assume he doeas that butyou don't actually see it; afterwards, when they travel back in time, you see he was just slicing a pumpkin.

Brian said...

Books

1. Order of the Phoenix (Too long? BAH.)

2. Goblet of Fire

3. Half-Blood Prince

4. Deathly Hallows

5. Prisoner of Azkaban

6. Philosopher's Stone

7. Chamber of Secrets

Films

1. Goblet of Fire

2. Half-Blood Prince

3. Deathly Hallows Pt. 2

4. Prisoner of Azakaban

5. Order of the Phoenix

6. Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 (wow, does cutting it in half really highlight how little happened in the first half of the book.)

7. Philosopher's Stone

8. Chamber of Secrets

Pintu said...

Tim, should you go back and re-listen please do report the results of your investigation. I'm really interested to know if you hear it too...it's been nagging me for some months now!

Matticus Rexxor said...

Y'know, as bad as Chamber of Secrets and Socerer's Stone are, I think I'd still put PoA as my least favorite Potter film. I admit that the majority of the changes that started here ended up working quite well, but they were so abrupt that it threw me for a loop. Like, the Whomping Willow was clearly established as being on the castle grounds in the last movie, but now it's like a mile away? And the castle looks completely different now?

Really, though, it's the script and that fucking freeze frame ending that killed. I distinctly remember almost throwing my popcorn at the screen out of rage at that part. And I'm sorry, but if you can't establish who the Marauders are (easily the single most important piece of information for the final two acts), then you cannot call your film a successful adaptation.

Brian said...

The Whomping Willow moving never bothered me, because it's a pretty established bit that Hogwarts changes on a regular basis anyway, so why not the grounds as well?

Andrew K. said...

I'm always more likely to avoid critical evaluation of this series because of how attached I've been to the series - the release of the books and films were beacons of my adolescent years.

I always remember this as the best of the film series on a technical level (HALF BLOOD PRINCE being the best on an actual level, for me) and I re-watched last month and it's still good but I didn't remember its story being so odd in some places. Gambon is still struggling to fill the shoes of Richard Harris, Emma Thompson is lovely as Trelawney but also so weirdly different from the book incarnation she seems more ridiculous (albeit hilariously so) than unusual, Cuaron seems delighted - sometimes to his and the film's detriment - with just exploring non-plot related bouts of magic just for the hell of it (which makes me think he may have been better suited for the first of the series even as I like Columbus work in the first film fine, although again: head v heart).

Ultimately it acquits itself more than well by getting more right than wrong, in reading Azkaban is so immediately darker than the previous incarnations and the film captures that. It also captures how difficult adapting this to film could be, you understand why the first three-quarters is so rushed when you realise they want to give the final bit so much time and it works in part although the final shot of the film is so silly and almost childishly bizarre I have to wonder what Cuaron was thinking.

(But I do really like this one, a solid B+ for me and though faulty on story excellent on creating mood and tension. It also has one of my favourite single shots of that intrepid trio watching Buckbeack being slaughter before things hit the fan, which is a perfect reminder of how Cuaron can zero in on emotional resonance in a second amidst frenetic tension.)

Grint has always been my favourite of he non-adult actors in the series (his worst outing was Goblet of Fire which I like more as time goes on but has almost everyone suffering from some frightful hair [and makeup] work which seems to affect their performances) and I think it's here that I really grew to like him even as he's saddled with the worst written incarnation of Ron in any film. The fact that he manages to, maybe marginally, sell a character where his main arc is responding to Hermione's magical appearance in class shows some dedication. Same for his reaction to being dragged through the forest by the Grim.

(He also gets my favourite line-reading of the film, "He bit me.")

Addendum 1: CHAMBER OF SECRETS is the worst, though. That ending where the school cheers for Hagrid's return, someone no one even really cares about much is inanely bizarre.

Addendum 2: Also, I think Merrick is right re the time-turner. It's one of Rowling's favourite tricks of sort of subverting what you think you know because I don't think the timelime is changed, Harry only now realises he had the power etc. If I recall correctly, there's more explanation on why time-turners aren't regularly used and McGonagall decides Hermione doing too many subjects isn't worth the trouble of using it.

(Whoa. This comment thread sort of ran away from me, Tim. Apologies. But, you know I can get over-zealous. Also, I haven't haunted this place in a while.)

Francis Shoup said...

I didn't feel too bothered or copped by the time travel aspect. They never go back and change events of the past to create a "fixed" alternate timeline but rather the time turner was fated to be used and there is no other conceivable reality. There are two Harrys and Hermiones in the same space and time, so I guess I had more fun with the them watching themselves type thing. It did feel more like an "extra life" though.