Prisoner Of Azkaban simultaneously opens up the world of Harry Potter and deepens it. Taking the action outside of the hermetic settings of Number 4 Privet Drive and Hogwarts and suggests the global implications. It also introduces the generation who came prior to that of our main characters, with Lupin and Sirius. I’ve always thought that adding this parallel story was one of the smartest moves Rowling ever made as a story teller. It gives her world and her story the epic sweep of one that has been on going for decades. Finally, Rowling taps into some dark and primal places in her imagination. Azkaban is the first of the Potter books to end with an ambiguous victory. And it was the only kind the characters would get for a startlingly long time.
I’ve written before that Rowling shares the gift that I associate with English Fantasy, that of a kind of weight. Her creatures and concepts, like the note perfect Dementors, seem to have been around for a very long time. The concept of these things which literally feed off of happiness and sanity, leaving their victims empty shells, seems to have struck a cord in Rowling just as much as in the reader. And leads to some of her most vivid prose.
Things are darker within as well as without. Rowling didn’t always know how to handle her cast in their adolescence, but she does quite well in this initial schism between the three. Though it eventually became part of the formula, to the point were I would pick up the each new installment only to wonder “Whose going to have the falling out this time?” its handled quite well here, and ads greatly to the threat. Harry is being attacked on the outside, and his support is crumbling beneath him. The world has grown much more hostile in the interim between the two books and the comforts of it much less certain.
Of course Rowling was never one to wallow in darkness, she allows for redemption, and forgiveness, and the last minute save. She introduces Sirius, her most noble and unpredictable creation (and if I can get fanboyish for a moment my favorite character in the series) and everything ultimately comes out right in the end.
But it’s not the same series it was in the books opening chapters. The prologue is over, the ground for the series appealing anti authoritarian streak has been laid and we know now how far Rowling is willing to go. If Chamber Of Secrets felt like Rowling shirking her potential, The Prisoner Of Azkaban is her embracing it.
Luckily the film is actually able to follow suit. Though it still suffers from many of the problems that plague The Potter films, compression rather then adaptation and long meaningless set pieces (An extended run on The Night Bus at least allows Cuaron to play around with some nifty visuals. The extended Whomping Willow sequence does not).
But I’m sure that I won’t be telling anyone any news if I say that Alfonso “Hurry up and make another movie for Christ’s Sake” Cuaron is roughly ten trillion times the filmmaker that Christopher “Oh please never make another film again for Christ’s Sake” Columbus. Columbus would never have the grace to feature a shot like the rain on the windowpane of The Hogwart’s Express freezing in the presence of The Dementors. Or one so Daffy as the school choir aided by a Toad Bass Line.
Much of the movie is simply a pleasure to look at. The ever churning gears and shroud covered Dementors (brilliantly visually reimagined from Rowling’s Grim Reaper knockoffs) seem like something out of one of Cuaron’s cohort Guilmero Del Toro’s films (he was originally supposed to direct, but passed for Hellboy). The Palate is rich and autumnal, and Cuaron’s imagery often surprisingly delicate.
The casting is as always spot on. I may not think much of Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore, but David Thewlis is well used and Gary Oldman is most rewarding of all. Perfectly cast in the role that would begin his richly deserved comeback.
If the film has one problem it’s that it has a strange bit of Narrative laziness at its center. I’m going to be vague here, but a revelation is made in the book that is not in the film. Yet when the climax comes, the film still plays as though it did make the revelation. Now here’s the thing it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the source material to NOT bring in the emotional resonance with the books information. But Cuaron hasn’t taken the time to establish this for himself. Frankly this is cheating.
Still though it’s a sizable flaw, it’s not a mortal one. Azkaban might win a lot of points by comparison alone. It’s not a perfect film, but it is the first that reaches to be an actual film rather then a summation. Its heart is firmly in the right place.