The Spiral Notebook

writer and editor Lacy Boggs

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban

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Before I begin this review, I have to give you a brief disclaimer: as I write this, there is a Harry Potter coffee mug with the cold dregs of my morning tea sitting at my left hand. I own all 5 books in the Harry Potter series in hardcover (because I couldn’t possibly wait for them to come out in paperback) and I have read all of them a minimum of two times, some as many as six times. Seriously. On top of the same bookshelf on which these books reside sits a Harry Potter trivia game (in the vein of Trivial Pursuit) and a Harry Potter chess set (from the first film). If you were to look at my DVD collection (which, for a film major like myself is surprisingly small), you would find both of the first two Harry Potter films. My point is, I am not your average adult Harry Potter fan; I have chronic Potter-mania at a level bordering on that of an 11 year old child. I will admit to you that I waited in a bookstore until midnight to be one of the first to get the fifth book when it came out. I was number 472 at my store. I know that because I kept the ticket. Such is the level of my mania.

That being said, (in far more words than was strictly necessary), I did not really love the first two Harry Potter movies. I went to both on they day they opened. I bought both of the DVDs as soon as they came out (the first before I even owned my own DVD player). Yes, it can safely be said that I like the first two movies quite a lot.

But I don’t really love them.

Until Friday June 4th, I couldn’t really have told you why. True, they weren’t entirely faithful to the books, which I passionately love. True, some of the characters weren’t entirely as I pictured them. True, some of the scenes that were cut left me asking why, as did some that were left in. But all of this is to be expected when a beloved book is made into a film. I’m a film student, for God’s sake! I know better than anyone that it is impossible to fit a 200 page book into a few hours of screen time, especially a book as impossibly detailed as one of the Harry Potters. Cuts must be taken, sacrifices made. This is why they’re called “adaptations.”

But knowing all this didn’t make that uneasy feeling go away. Something was wrong. Something was missing. What, I couldn’t say.

Then, at 8:30 on Friday night, as that delightfully catchy John Williams theme began playing and the entire theater around me erupted into spontaneous excited applause, I began to find out.

I don’t know who made the decision at Warner Brothers to hand the reigns of the Harry Potter franchise over to a new director. I suspect, from what I’ve read, that Chris Columbus wisely thought that the series would get stale if not reinvented periodically. Who actually decided to take that leap of faith and hire a new director, we may never know, but he should be awarded an honorary Oscar for saving the Harry Potter film franchise.

Cuaron is, in every way, the best thing that ever happened to the franchise, and I will tell you why. Cuaron envisions the world of Harry Potter and his friends and enemies as a real world. An existing world; not a figment of the imagination. Harry’s muggle family no longer seem to live in a cast-off section of EuroDisney entitled “Suburbia,” but in the real, and infinitely more frightening and depressing world of cookie-cutter suburbs and urban decay. The castle is no longer a pretty CGI fabrication of a pastoral, run down building, but a truly ancient, magical place with a sense of time and history to it. The children are no longer puppets moving through a technicolor set of brilliant backdrops, but real adolescents with real problems that just happen to also include magic. The difference between Cuaron’s vision and Columbus’ is that Columbus envisioned his films as fantasy; Cuaron envisioned his as drama.

Although one can tell from the opening frame that this version is going to be different, the true magic doesn’t happen until the second hour of the film, when I finally, finally found myself reliving some of the page-turning anticipation and involvement that had kept me so glued to the books. Finally the pace, action, and acting all have come together to produce that tightly knit and masterfully woven exhilaration that Potter is famous for. Finally, I fell in love.

The most convincing evidence I can give you for this, is that my complaints about the original two films still hold true: I am still disappointed by some of the things that were left on the cutting room floor, or indeed, never even made it before the cameras. I am disgruntled that the crew didn’t take a little more care in keeping continuity with the first two films (Professor Flitwick anyone??), as this film, no matter how different, is still intended to be a part of a whole. And I do challenge a few plot holes that would have left an uneducated viewer (ie: one who has not read all the books multiple times) scratching his head. The real difference is that this time, I don’t care! None of these little shortcomings overshadows the overall success of the film. THAT is the thing that truly sets this film apart from its predecessors.

I could go on and on about all the little things that I loved. I could praise the art direction and cinematography for days on end. I could extol the much more judiciously used effects until I am hoarse. I could talk about the delightful changes in all the young actors, their growing into their trade, and the impossibly wonderful cast of brilliant adult actors who nurture them into their roles. And I may do all that and more, at another time.

For now, I will finish with this simple statement of fact: I have already dusted off a space on my shelf for the third film in my DVD collection, and I am already trying to determine what would be a reasonable amount of time to wait before going to see the film in theaters a second time.

I love this film.

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