Tuesday, July 14, 2009
After Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets solved some of the issues of the first film while further entrenching many of its other weaknesses, Chris Columbus at last parted ways with the franchise as the producers decided to extend the shooting length for the rest of the films to ensure they weren't rushed. After fantasy maestro Guillermo Del Toro declined the offer to direct, the mantle passed to one of his compatriots, Alfonso Cuaròn.
That must have seemed a bit odd to those old enough to know who Alfonso Cuaròn was: his previous film, y tu mamá también, remains one of the most critically lauded films of the decade, but you'd hardly hand the keys of a fantasy franchise to the director for it. The closest he'd even come to fantasy was A Little Princess, which is based on children's literature but not more about a child who believes in magic than a world in which it truly exists. After the first two movies triumphed at the box office, perhaps the producers felt they could do no wrong and found themselves willing to experiment. Even so, it was a gamble.
One that paid off magnificently, I might add. Steve Kloves, still, unfortunately, the writer, apparently read some critiques of the other two films which singled out his devotion to the narrative and mystery of the books and not the character. A curious fixation, as surely the legions of Potter fans already knew what was going to happen, so the emphasis on mystery made little sense.
That's not to say that there's no mysterious air to the film; far from it, it's the only one of the film series yet to actually make you wonder what you'll see next. We know that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) escapes from the wizard prison Azkaban, and that it somehow makes life for Harry more dangerous, but Cuaròn so streamlines the film (down a healthy 20 minutes from the previous installment) that details are left vague. We never really learn how he escaped, and even the explanation of his crime goes no further than some mumblings of betrayal and of his relationship to Harry. The overwhelming majority of those who have seen or will watch the movie in the future will know all about Sirius, but enough of him is concealed in darkness and Oldman plays him with enough of a manic edge that the character works better than he ever did on the page.
Black's story seems all the more unsettling with Cuaròn's direction. Where the first two films had too much of a glossed-over look, even in the darkness of the Chamber of Secrets, Azkaban borders on the Expressionist in its superb use of shadow and mise-en-scène. Hogwarts now appears more cluttered, more angular, and its sweeping majesty carries a bit of an edge to it. The soul-sucking dementors are not as scary as they perhaps should be, yet the effect of them moving through the scenes are (pardon the pun) chilling. The lone shot of a flower wilting and freezing to herald their advance is more captivating than anything in the first two movies.
Also joining the cast alongside Oldman are Timothy Spall as the sniveling Peter Pettigrew, rat-faced even when he's not turning himself into an animal, and David Thewlis, whose Remus Lupin looks just as dishelved as his Johnny from Naked, only with an air of warmth and soft, encouraging wit. Rounding out the new additions is Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris. Gambon thankfully does not attempt to ape Harris' portrayal and instead moves the character somewhat closer to his original personality: in one great bit, he absent-mindedly taps Ron on his broken leg as Ron winces in agony. Emma Thompson's loopy Trewlaney, however, is simply too over-the-top for her own good, and she fails to elicit more than a chuckle or two.
In place of the cluttered narrative of the first two films, Prisoner of Azkaban takes the time to follow its leads, who have matured along with their characters. Ron seems doomed to never move outside of comic relief, but Grint pulls it off nicely, and his burgeoning romantic scenes with Hermione -- more explicitly stated than in the book -- have a sweet, unforced charm to them. Radcliffe, who's never really gotten the angsty aspect of the character down, does a fine job of it here: when he announces his intention to find and kill Sirius Black, he conveys some dark nuance. But it's Watson, normally the weakest link of the trio, who walks away with the entire movie, even outpacing the adults. Hermione's put up with a lot throughout the series, and that one punch she lands on Malfoy still makes me want to stand and cheer.
Unfortunately, Kloves' noble attempt to inject character moments reveal his weaknesses as a writer. Without the safety net of simple recreation to help him, we see his inability to coax nuance out of the story, and the mystery of the film comes from omissions and Cuaròn's framing. Indeed, the director's rapport with the kids garners their best work yet, and the older actors are made a real part of the story and not simply plot devices for the first time. It also helps the film greatly that John Williams backs off the insufferable loudness of his previous scores, and actually this ranks as one of his finest scores and one of his most wonderfully nuanced.
That soundtrack aids the visual poetry of Cuaròn's direction, and combined with the interesting, if muddled, story makes for a major leap forward in the franchise's quality. The director's deft hand with a bigger scale set the stage for Children of Men, the perfect mix of his intimate detail and this newly found epic sweep, and reflects a clear influence of his friend Guillermo Del Toro. This dark, vaguely Expressionist fairy tale is the first of the Harry Potter films to really grab your excitement, and it's a dam good fantasy film in its own right.