Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

4/10

USA 2004 : Alfonso CUARON : 141 mins

In Harry Potter III, according to the poster “Everything will change.” Unfortunately, this turns out to be a classic case of plus ca change, plus ca reste: the Potter films have now become a full-blown franchise, and no matter who takes the overall reins – Y Tu Mama Tambien‘s Cuaron here replaces Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets Chris Columbus – the deadening don’t-screw-it-up mantra familiar to all directors entrusted with the James Bond series is firmly in place. Azkaban in some ways does represent an improvement on the first two episodes, but that’s not exactly saying a great deal: and it certainly doesn’t do enough to suggest that non-aficionados should bother with the next chapter, The Goblet of Fire, to which Mike Newell has been depressingly (and, post-Mona Lisa Smile, somewhat strangely) already attached.

The plot is the same-old same-old same-old: in a sub-sub-sub-Roald Dahl prologue young Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) endures grief from his non-magical relatives (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw). Makes his way to Hogwarts school, in company with loyal pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). At the school, a ‘name’ Brit thesp has larkish fun as a daffy teacher (Emma Thompson as Prof Trelawney); Harry and pals receive counsel from headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon replacing the late Richard Harris), a mild ticking-off from second-in-command McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and pastoral care from gentle-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane); Harry mopes over death of his “parents” (who will obviously prove nothing of the sort in later episodes); Harry and pals endure mild grief from bully Draco (Tom Felton); more serious adult peril hovers on sidelines (Gary Oldman as renegade wizard Sirius Black, recently escaped from Azkaban Prison); protection may or may not be provided by seemingly-friendly teacher who harbours a secret (David Thewlis as Prof Lupin); sinister Prof Snape (Alan Rickman) glowers demonically, only to prove good egg when push comes to shove. Etc etc etc.

The recipe is familiar from the last two Potter movies and it’s getting mighty repetitive and very dull third time around. Cuaron and new cinematographer Michael Seresin (replacing Roger Pratt) tone down the colour-scheme to a muted blue-grey palette, and there are one or two moments of magic courtesy of the legendarily legendary Hippogriff (“The Great American Novel is not distinct like the Dodo, but imaginary like the Hippogriff” – John Barth). And adult viewers will be amused and bemused by the star cameos dotted around the place, including a genuinely head-scratching Hitchcock-style cameo from Stone Roses front-man Ian Brown very early on, and an absurdly brief turn from none other than Julie Christie as a hard-faced landlady in an snowbound village – some kind of film-buff nod to McCabe and Mrs Miller, presumably.

But the bigger picture just doesn’t hang together very well. Revenant scriptwriter Steve Kloves – who once had a glittering career writing proper pictures – still can’t quite manage to fit the J K Rowling quart (each book longer than the last) into a cinematic pint pot (are the books simply unfilmable? or simply rubbish?). This time the pace drags and drags as, through the first two-thirds, we’re told and told again about Sirius Black – until Black finally pops up about an hour and a half in, and the storytelling suddenly speeds up to the point of almost total incoherence.

The overrated Y Tu Mama Tambien also had problems in the pacing and scriptwriting department, but at least that picture didn’t stoop to that most shamelessly lazy of scriptwriting get-outs, the deployment of time-travel to cheatingly erase tragic events. This isn’t a terrible film as such – but many cinemagoers will surely wish they could perform a similar trick and spirit themselves back to the point where they bought their Prisoner of Azkaban ticket, in the (vain) hope that something, anything, had truly changed.

11th June, 2004
(seen same day : UGC, Boldon : public show)

by Neil Young