After watching the movie last night, Erin said, "if I wasn't a fan of the books, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the movie, but as a fan of the series, I have to say: that was more like it!"
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban debuted on Friday to a fraction of the hype that accompanied the first two movies (meaning that it had the publicity of a standard blockbuster release). The adaptation of J.K. Rowling' third book in the Harry Potter series boasts a fluid script that's twenty minutes shorter than the previous movie and demands familiarity with the material, lead actors who are rapidly growing up, the usual sound and lightshow from the visual effects designers and John Williams, and the services of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron.
I think it is Cuaron's touch as he takes over from Christopher Columbus (the director of the first two Harry Potter movies) which makes Prisoner of Azkaban the best movie in the series thus far, although he is helped by the developing talents of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and (especially) Emma Watson and by the fact that Prisoner of Azkaban is the best book in the Harry Potter series (mixing the depth of the later books with the tighter editing of the first two books). However, a lot of Cuaron's best touches are visual: Cuaron's Hogwarts is wilder than that of Columbus' and there are stone circles and a sense of ancient magic about the place. The time element of the story is captured by the use of huge, ponderously ticking clocks previously unseen around the place. The Leaky Cauldron is noticibly messy. Then there is the Knight Bus sequence.
The Knight Bus sequence is the scene where this movie establishes itself apart from the others, and plays off of, rather than slavishly retreading the text of the book. In Cuaron's vision, Harry's ride is manic, with a nearsighted bus driver taking orders from a talking shrunken head as they careen through the streets of London miraculously slipping through traffic and avoiding oblivious pedestrians. With this embellishment, Cuaron captures the off-kilter spirit of Rowling's text in a way that I doubt Christopher Columbus would have done with a more literal translation onto film.
I've spoken before about the first two movies of the Harry Potter series playing slavishly to the letter of the Harry Potter books while failing to capture their spirit. Cuaron manages to get freer reign on Rowling's manuscript; some plot threads are lost (and a couple are missed), but on the whole the movie captures the magic of Rowling's universe. In this movie, magic is more than just fun and cool, it's dangerous. In the opening scenes, the Durlseys are no longer the bellowing tyrants of the first two novels and films; they live in fear of Harry now, and Harry is getting to be downright scary. And throughout the movie we learn that, while magic is effectively taught, it's not something wholly learnt; rather, it's something inside you, that you yourself have to bring out.
Cuaron builds from Christopher Columbus' wise decision to balance untested child actors with the best that Britain has to offer. Robbie Coltrane does his usual standup job as Hagrid and Alan Rickman shines (as usual) as Snape. Some major actors may end up feeling as though they've spent the movie twiddling their thumbs, however. Maggie Smith in particular may have been a victim of Cuaron's plot cutting and while Emma Thompson was very effective as Trelawny, her plotline was rendered ultimately pointless. I suspect that she could have been cut entirely, but her loss would have violated the spirit of the book and would have had fans up in arms.
The new adult actors joining the cast did fine jobs. Michael Gambon manages to fill Richard Harris' shoes as Dumbledore. His less-bombastic performance actually darkens his character somewhat, and gives the sense that Dumbledore knows more than what he is telling (a useful feature if Gambon is to continue for a fourth and fifth movie) before he reverts to the old Dumbledore's way of cheekily bending the rules in order to set up the happy ending. Also, casting Robert Hardy as the Minister of Magic was a master stroke; the bellicose player of Seigfried Farnon ably fills out Fudge's pinstripe robes and gives the character the perfect mix of arrogance that will serve him so well in the fourth and fifth movies.
And special mention must go to David Thewlis as Professor Lupin. His commanding style seems at odds with my vision of the character, but he steals the show. His performance, especially in the climax, elevates Gary Oldman's Sirius (who otherwise wouldn't have had the screen time to make the impact he did), and was just mesmerising to watch. Indeed, the real climax of the movie involves David Thewlis and Gary Oldman playing off of each other in an exceptionally strong and emotional scene, and not Harry and Hermione running around afterward, setting things to rights.
Finally, there are the regulars, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. All three are coming into their own in this story, and really nail the excellent material they're given to work with (although Ron has somewhat less to do in this story than Harry and Hermione). Emma Watson gets to show off Hermione as a plucky and resourceful heroine; it's a shame that the plotline of her overworking herself to exhaustion was dropped as it would have given her character more depth. Daniel Radcliffe's Harry is given more depth (I've already mentioned how frightening he was in his early scenes with the Dursleys); he's given more to do emotionally in this story, showing off resentment, anger and tears in parts, and, for the most part, he's up to the challenge.
There has been a lot of criticism in some quarters that the actors are aging ahead of their characters, and it is remarkable to see how much Harry, Ron and Hermione have grown up, but I can easily see them handling their roles for the remaining four movies. The actors, after all, are as old as the characters they are playing, and if they seem older, I suspect it's because our perception of thirteen-year-olds has them younger than they really are. Either way, they are almost through their growth spurts, now, and twenty-year-olds can more convincingly play seventeen-year-olds than, say, fifteen-year-olds playing thirteen-year-olds. I am pretty sure there is no need to recast after The Goblet of Fire, and it would be a shame to see the characters that these actors have made their own turned over to someone else.
There are flaws in this film. I always thought that the time turner ending was too pat for its own good in the book, and the movie can't get away from that. I've also mentioned how Trelawny's plotline was rendered superfluous, and how much we miss Hermione's addiction to study. However, on the whole, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban captures the magic of Rowling's novel in the way that the first two movies didn't. Casual fans more interested in a reinterpretation rather than a slavish retelling of the books should be overjoyed. Parents may also appreciate twenty fewer minutes of being plunked on their seats.
Random Azkaban Thoughts
I was impressed by how they brought up the Lupin homosexuality allegory. It was subtly presented such that my mother-in-law missed it entirely, but I think it was quite a brave thing to do.
It's obvious that Cuaron is, as they say in Harry Potter fandom, a Ron/Hermione shipper. The two characters were quite sweet in this movie, with Ron's boyish uncertainty (a.k.a. fear) sealing the deal. Likewise, Harry and Hermione work well together as fast friends and platonic partners.
Finally, it's a shame that Cuaron won't be back to direct the fourth movie. In some ways, The Goblet of Fire is going to need far more trimming than Prisoner of Azkaban did, and I have less confidence that the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral will do a job that respects the material as much as the director of A Little Princess did.