During my cable outage, I caught the long-awaited Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban last weekend, and as hoped, Alfonso Cuaron’s version of Hogwarts far outshines the staid and two-dimensional previous outings by Chris Columbus. Unlike Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban contains tons of small witty flourishes (the bus conductor, housekeeping, and the bald assistant, to name just a few in the first twenty minutes) that finally bring both magic and realism to Harry’s world. For once, Hogwarts seems like an actual boarding school where kids live, work, play, and goof around eating animal-noise chocolates, rather than just the largest blue-screen-equipped castle in the British Isles. And, unlike the first two, this movie feels cinematic – the camera swoops, cranes, and dollys like a camera should. Heck, even Quidditch was exciting this time.
But, despite the directorial skill on display here, Prisoner eventually runs aground on the inherent unfilmability of the source material. Rowling’s books are joys to read partly because they’re so episodic and incident-driven. But what works wonders in writing seems long and needlessly expository on film. For example, the scene where Wormtail is unmasked in the Shrieking Shack, great on the page, didn’t resonate at all here, even in spite of the prodigious talents of Spall, Thewlis, Oldman, Rickman, and the kids. (Although I’ll go ahead and say it – Gary Oldman seemed like a good idea as Sirius Black, but he’s miscast. He played it entirely too crazy at first, and never really warmed to Harry thereafter.) As a book the denouement of Prisoner was intriguing, but as a film, it feels like twenty-five minutes of a Back to the Future 2 retread. And, since certain crucial details from the book are missing (such as the origins of the Marauder’s Map), the movie paradoxically feels both too long and too abbreviated.
Not to end on so dour a note, there’s a lot to like here. Michael Gambon’s wry Dumbledore is a considerable improvement over the late Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane finally looks appropriately huge as Hagrid, the Dementors are both creepy and un-Nazgulish, and all the adults acquit themselves well, particularly Emma Thompson as Trelawney. Plus, the kids have grown into the roles and, while they still can’t emote very well, they can churn out exposition like the best of ’em. Who knows? Perhaps I’m becoming muggle-hearted, but I spent much of the last ninety minutes of Cuaron’s otherwise splendid Prisoner of Azkaban counting off the remaining plot points that had to be explained. Still, given that Goblet of Fire is twice as long and is being headed by Mike Newell, who’s never made a movie that’s impressed me very much, this may just be the closest we get to capturing the spirit and magic of Harry Potter on film. Until then, I’ll be waiting for Book VI.