Chris Columbus was out and Alfonso Cuarón was in. So began the rejuvenation of the Harry Potter film franchise. Of course, only two films had been made, and for the most part they weren’t bad, but there’s no denying the series needed a kick in the pants to get itself out of a generally inartful funk. Hiring a new director, and one with such directorial flare and independent instincts, did the trick. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban completely redefined what could be expected stylistically from the series. It’s too bad the film itself is a problematic mess of tone, plot and creative confusion.
I cannot deny the directorial abilities of Alfonso Cuarón. Y tu mama tambien is a wonderful film and Children of Men is one of the best of the decade. Cauron also had experience working with children in his underrated adaptation of A Little Princess. Yet, and stick with me here, Cuarón was both exactly the right person to shake up the franchise and exactly the wrong person to be matched to the series. Cuarón brought to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a whole new sensibility of dark mood and tone. The film is an intensely visual film, and it breathes a world of foreboding and creeping darkness. This is a style that would be emulated and ultimately refined by the fifth film, but here Cuarón refreshingly doesn’t hold back. There are myriad beautiful shots and tons of stylish touches that make for a universe that is at once more realistic and more cinematically engaging.
The problem rests with the dissonance between Cuarón’s directorial flourishes and Steve Kloves’ screenplay, which is still stuck in the style of the previous two films. Strangely, this is the first script to begin to fundamentally alter the plot of the book, but it is not done well. First of all, the script compresses the entire school year into the space of about an hour. This leaves no room for really deep progression of plot and character and much of it falls incredibly flat. Then it goes on to devote the entire second hour of the film to the Shrieking Shack, Dementor attack, time travel and rescue of of Sirius Black. This structure is a double-edged sword. In Cuarón’s hands the pace of Prisoner of Azkaban is relentlessly quick, which is a welcome change from the plodding Chamber of Secrets. But that pace comes at the price of deep character investment, and, for example, makes the later interactions between Harry and Sirius feel forced.
Still, the second hour of Prisoner of Azkaban, held on its own, is pretty damn fantastic. Cuarón perfectly runs through events with a great sense of geography and time, which is immensely important when the events are relived in the time turning sequence. His handling of the Shrieking Shack scene is brilliant. In the book, this scene lasted three chapters, and it really was a lot of talking. Potentially anti-cinematic stuff. Cuarón puts the scene in the hands of his actors to flesh out, and what a great decision considering the acting talent he had on hand. David Thewlis, as Lupin, and Gary Oldman, as Sirius Black, pull off an instant feeling of chemistry, fully selling the idea that these characters were best friends a very long time ago. Throw in the always brilliant Alan Rickman, playing Professor Snape with an added tinge of jealousy and seething anger. The dynamic between the three of them is acting at its finest.
The time travel as shown through Cuarón’s lens is equally thrilling. He manages a real sense of wonder at the possibilities of time travel and actually pushes the paradoxical nature of the book’s time loops involved to the forefront, more clearly foreshadowing the twist that Harry cast the Patronus that saved his other self. Cuarón also uses the grounds of Hogwarts to great effect, and it all comes down to this climax, which takes place entirely in the close vicinity of the school, but not quite inside it.
So, there it is, the second half of the film is great—though I do have another bone to pick that I’ll get to later. It’s the first half where serious flaws of the film are found. And the problems start almost right from the get-go with the blowing up of Aunt Marge. The scene is pretty direct from the book, but where the book treated it in a darkly comic fashion and chose not to dwell on it in favour of focusing on the anger brewing inside Harry, the movie makes it into a big comic set-piece. That would be fine, but the comedy just doesn’t work. Aunt Marge filling up like a balloon and floating away is a funny sight, but it goes on too long and it distracts from the serious emotional drama at play.
And then there are the weirder comedic touches, clearly from the mind of Alfonso Cuarón, like the Jamaican shrunken head on the Knight Bus or the curly-haired cleaning lady who gets yelled at by some monster at the inn at the Leaky Cauldron. This off-kilter comedy would work, but it is too overtly bizarre to fit into the world already established and it completely flies in the face of the bubbly, Dahl-ian comedy. There are also the absolutely weird elements, like the choir at Hogwarts starting off the school year by singing “Something Wicked This Way Come”. Not only is it weird to see a choir singing, but the words that they are singing make no sense whatsoever for a start-of-year song. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s the worst thing about Cuarón’s attempts at comedy. They never fit naturally into the world of Harry Potter; the comedy always calling attention to itself makes the first hour of the film feel tonally disjointed.
Where Cuarón truly fails in this respect is that he doesn’t adapt the script to his style or his style to the script. What we have is a screenplay that continues the form of the first two movies while Cuarón attempts to add his own style, which plays as totally at odds with everything that’s going on. He never works to make the style feel like it stems from the specific story points or characters. The result is that the more standard Hogwarts antics of the first hour rarely work to full effect. Everything looks really damn good, but the dark tone of the visuals rarely coalesces with the actual situations in the film.
It’s somewhat difficult to figure out whether to blame this problem on Kloves’ script or on Cuarón’s direction. Kloves really makes some serious missteps with the film. That hour/hour structure makes for fast pace, but poor characterization. He also completely drops the more detailed stories about Harry’s father, including the fact that his father helped make the Marauder’s Map. I’m not someone who needs the movie to stick close to the book, but by leaving out the revelations about James Potter’s school days, Kloves drops the ball on the emotional connection Harry develops to the memory of his father. It just becomes a cool time travel story with not too much depth. And ultimately I have to place the responsibility for these failings on Cuarón’s shoulders. He may have had a problematic script to deal with, but he should have seen the issues and worked to make them less pronounced.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has some of the very best direction of the series, and the climax is brilliantly handled, but the film is still incredibly flawed. The marriage of director and script never quite fits and the film is in some areas great and in others a disjointed mess of poor comedy and botched emotional drama. It doesn’t help that I found Daniel Radcliffe actually got a bit worse as an actor when trying to push his emotional range. Luckily he has amazing actors like David Thewlis and Gary Oldman there to support him. Overall, I think massive shift in directorial style for this film is what the series needed so as not to become stale. But while I’d say this film is on the whole better than Chamber of Secrets, it doesn’t quite work overall, and its failings are somehow more aggravating in light of the things that do work. Cuarón may have brought some amazing direction and style to a series that sorely needed it, but his efforts didn’t make for a great film.