Director Captures Shape and Spirit of Harry Potter Books

Birmingham Weekly | June 8, 2004
Odd — of all the magic on display in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the single greatest trick involves director Alfonso (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Great Expectations) Cuaron’s bringing the series back to life after professional embalmer Chris Columbus’ previous two attempts (in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) at sucking the life and charm out of author J.K. Rowling’s unruly creation. Faithful to a fault, Columbus clung to Rowling’s words without, it seemed, understanding what they meant aside from the possibility of merchandising opportunities; the books’ jagged edges were smoothed out and made dangerously wholesome and square, perfectly shaped for a Happy Meal.

But enough of that. I haven’t come to bury Columbus — though his filmography suggests that wouldn’t be such a bad thing — so much as I’ve come to praise Cuaron, who only benefits from a comparison to the sturdy hackwork of his predecessor. Working with Steven Kloves, the screenwriter responsible for the first two movies in the series, Cuaron has managed to capture the shape and spirit of Rowling’s books, and his respect for the audience — young and old, but especially the young — is remarkable in a time when the average family movie seems incapable of chewing, let alone digesting, a complicated thought or an honest scare.

Because I’m assuming you’ve already read the book, or have already seen the movie, or are unprepared and unwilling to dive into a planned seven-part series almost halfway through its theatrical run, I’ll skip the plot synopsis and focus on Cuaron’s weird, wonderful world. The only problem in doing so involves the starting point. There’s so much to talk about, and I suppose the treacherous nature of Azkaban is as good a place as any to begin. From the movie’s opening, Harry Potter’s world seems more dangerous that before. The landscapes seem older, more potholed with danger, more alive and unafraid to assert themselves: Witness the mid-air explosions when unlucky birds fly too close to an animated, almost ambulatory willow with a bad attitude, or the rain-slick streets and pieces of playground equipment Potter finds himself wandering in the movie’s first minutes.

At 13, Harry Potter’s problems are internal and external; his untimely death would please a great many people in his world, sure, but his more immediate problems involve his uncertain place in the world and the same old unfamiliar emotional questions kids his age find themselves grappling with as they move into young adulthood. Cuaron and Kloves tie all this into the physical world of Azkaban, which is rooted and unsteady at the same time; just when you think you have your footing, the floor slips from beneath you, and the floor is always slipping away. Adults (the wonderful, too-little-used David Thewlis plays Professor Lupin, the latest additional to the faculty at Harry’s school, and Gary Oldman plays Sirius Black, the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, freshly escaped from that institution and by all reports eager to pay young Potter a potentially fatal visit) aren’t always what they appear to be, and the things you’ve always held to be true about the world have a nasty routine way of proving false.

Potter may have it worse than the average kid, though. What’s the onset of puberty, after all, when compared to the Ring Wraithy guards of Azkaban? Called, ominously enough, Dementors, they’re placed on guard around Harry’s school so as best to apprehend the escaped Black; that they spend a fair amount of time mucking around with Harry, stealing all his good feelings and so on unto death do they part from him, indicates that the problem of prison stewardship is not merely an American one. All wispy black robes and airy insinuation, their appearances preceded by ice and their departures marked by a notable loss of soul, the Dementors are put to good bad work by Cuaron; and even if an overdose of Tolkien has prepared audiences for black-robed bad guys with nothing on underneath, the sheer number of Dementors, and the way in which Cuaron mobilizes them for attack — in one scene, they cycle down from the sky toward their prey like a cyclone — is way creepy, kid. Way creepy.

My only beef with the whole enterprise is its relative brevity. At almost two and a half hours, it feels too short, something I haven’t thought about the previous two installments. The fast pace Cuaron sets works and at the same time doesn’t. Nothing of much consequence appears to happen in the movie, but it happens (or doesn’t happen, I guess) so quickly that it’s difficult to regret the time spent shifting gears between Chamber of Secrets and the upcoming, deeply eventful Goblet of Fire; unfortunately, Cuaron’s forward velocity makes the relationship between Harry and Lupin feel rushed and incomplete, and Oldman’s brief screen time doesn’t allow him to expand Black’s character much beyond a giggling nut. I can live with those gripes though; the trick is to remain forward thinking. If Azkaban is any sign of Harry Potter’s growth as an enjoyable, rewarding movie franchise, then his impending growth spurt will really be something to marvel at.

Birmingham Weekly

After 10 years, Birmingham Weekly has emerged as a strong and significant voice in local journalism — a respected major player in a crowded field of conservative, JOA-bound dailies and other alternative papers. With an emphasis on diverse local coverage,...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 130 41st Street South, Suite 103, Birmingham, AL 35222
  • Phone: (205) 991-4440