As the latest film entry into the Harry Potter world finishes its all-important weekend, several questions come to mind. One, when will Emma Watson turn 18; and two, who knew the execs at Warner Bros. were so smart? Hiring Alfonso Cuarón to helm was a move inspired by genius. It will pay off in spades, as Cuarón has created a film that is both refreshingly satisfying to Harry Potter lovers and mildly incoherent to those who are not in the know. Having not read any of the books, I can only guess that POA is a work of genius—what I saw, however, was more akin to two and a half hours of neck-cramping semi-entertainment.
Cuarón put his “fresh vision” into the film by giving us gliding cameras in and through window plate glass and clock gears. I guess he never saw Panic Room. The critics proclaim this the darkest of the three movies thus far, but I didn’t quite get that vibe. His placement of Harry, Hermione, and Ron in an “Y Tu Mama, Tambien” pose during one scene made me wonder if perhaps Cuarón was going to turn the Harry Potter world upside down, but nothing ever came of it. So much for improving the story.
That’s not to say that Harry Potter is blasé or bad. Indeed, the overarching story is engaging and ambitious, exercising emotional archetypes in favor of search of self. HP is, at heart, a questioning exploration of the survival of the individual in a world gone strangely dark and twisted. Though Harry is young, he is also strong; though humble and sometimes timid, he proves he can also carry himself (with a little help from his friends). However, he also has a good heart. He is the epicenter of the shift from child to adult, and his adventures are more than just wizardry and cleverness—indeed, they are rites of passage.
POA, however, seems to lack any defining moments of change; there are no “growing up” moments for Harry here, just dwelling on his parents’ death and breaking as many Hogwarts rules as possible.
“The Prisoner of Azkaban” continues with the growth of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasely (Rupert Grint) into their third year at Hogwarts. Before beginning the semester, Harry is warned that a mass murderer, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped Azkaban prison and is on the loose and searching for Harry, hence the movie’s Shakespearean tagline, “Something wicked this way comes.” To aid in Black’s recapture, Azkaban has deployed the Dementors, black creatures that prey upon the souls of those who stand in their way. When they turn their attention upon Harry, he finds help and solace in Professor Lupin, who teaches him a new spell to ward off the Dementors.
While this would certainly be enough material for one movie alone, the story grows in scope, with a subplot involving a Hippogriff (half horse, half eagle), the study of werewolves, and time travel melding into the anti-climactic encounter between Harry and Sirius Black. Despite the mileage Cuarón and cast trek through, it feels underdeveloped and rushed. Fans of the books will find that many aspects have changed in the adaptation, and I’m not sure it’s for the best, though perhaps the source material is the problem in the first place. Whoever’s to blame, POA feels like a dartboard with darts hitting all the mid-range numbers, but never the bulls-eye.
POA sports some impressive special effects; the Hippogriff is a stunning achievement, even for jaded, CG-saturated moviegoers. John Williams’ score is low-key and appropriately moody, though the sound effects work leaves some desiring. The production design is as impressive as it is complete (try to note the lettering carved into the wood paneling of Professor Trelawney’s classroom). Most noticeable though is the subtext, which actually works better than the actual film. Cuarón uses such images as the giant clock and the moon as both metaphors and foreshadowers, giving POA a wealth of underlying cinematic capital not quite seen in the previous two films.
Though small children may be frightened at some of the dark material, it is done with enough restraint that it should still appeal to most families. If only the filmmakers had delivered on the tagline, POA might have been fun for geeks like me. Sadly, the end result is less Macbeth and more a middle school primer material. Something average this way comes…