Saturday, June 9, 2007

From the Archives: A rare, unpublished "Summer Flashback" review of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here

In the summer of 2007, I ran a special feature column where – due to the large number of sequels released that year – I revisited the original films from many ongoing franchises.

This article was written for the series, but never published.  So this article is quite the rarity – in the past five years, I’m the only person to have read it, and am only sharing it with the world for the first time now! 

Continue reading after the jump to access Summer Movie Flashback review of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”
Summer Movie Flashback Unpublished Article

What is magic? 

J.K. Rowling pretty much nailed it in her books.  They just feel magical in every way, which is what makes them so fun.  How Rowling did this was to take dozens of ordinary magical clichés and turn them into everyday life things that we can relate to.  The wizard world has its own ministry, cars fly, brooms are for transport and fun, and potions are for more then evil plans.  That is the world of Harry Potter.  In her books, Rowling did the near impossible: make the unbelievable believable.  Everything wizards do is just a significantly enhanced way of how we do it, and its what makes the books so good.

In the first two films, Christopher Columbus did an excellent job bringing the wizarding world to life.  But he made it more typical magic.  Bright colors, lots of interesting whirring objects, people casting spells everywhere, etc.  It was a much simplified version of Rowling’s magic, and while the films were excellent, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban shows what a perfect Potter movie is.

Alfonso Cuarón directed this installment, and he is the reason this movie is so good.  He has a deep understanding of Rowling’s world, and abandons all bright colors, whirring objects, and the overall cotton candy flavor of the first two films in favor of a very down to earth, realistic telling of magic, much like Rowling’s vision.  What Cuarón does is show us exactly what the books would look like if they were real stories.  The adaptation isn’t 100 percent accurate, but the feel and tone is absolutely perfect. 

Cuarón likes having multiple things going on in every shot, and that enhances the magical feel of this movie.  There is never a frame in this movie where only one thing is happening, be it a moving photograph in the background, a running animal, a moving tree, or some other magical being.  He also imagines everyday things and ideas and turns them magical.  Take the Leaky Cauldron.  Rowling never states what kind of magical things are going on in there, but since it’s a magical world, we just assume its full of magic.  Cuarón shows us what this would be.  The chairs stack themselves on the table, the housekeeping lady is followed by a broom and dustpan, and people stir their tea by moving their finger in a circular direction over the cup.

Hogwarts, too, is somewhat re-imagined.  It feels more like a school this time, despite showing fewer classes then the previous two films.  Why?  Because all the magic feels so down to earth.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Potter’s third year at Hogwarts centers primarily around an escaped convict named Sirius Black who killed 13 people with a single curse, and is out to get Harry.  But there’s more to this man then meets to eye, and he holds the key to secrets about Harry’s past.  At the same time, Harry meets an old friend of his parents, Remus Lupin, and grows a deep friendship with him. 

This movie is all about the past; the traumas and the happiness, and Harry discovering who he really is by discovering more about his parents.  The book, of course, is all about this too, but the film centers the story and gives Harry more character development then in all the other films combined.  POA explores all the areas it should in the perfect quantities, unlike previous films.  There’s action, humor, drama, and emotion. 

Cuarón just understands the books on a level no other director does.  So much so, in fact, he unknowingly put in visual clues to things from the last two books.  Rowling allegedly got goosebumps when she saw these clues, and told a shocked Cuarón that they really were clues. 

The acting is top notch from all participants.  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson had all grown as actors at this point, and under Cuarón’s direction give their best performances in all of the four films.  But the standout performance here is David Thewlis as Remus Lupin.  Lupin was one of my favorite characters from the book series, and of all the characters in the all the films, Lupin is executed the best.  Thewlis’s performance is flawless, and he elevates the film to another level altogether.       

Gary Oldman is also spot-on as Sirius Black, and although he doesn’t get much screen time, you can’t wait to see him again.  Of course, the next film doesn’t feature him, but within POA, he’s a great addition to the cast. 

Finally, Michael Gambon replaces Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, and he is better then expected.  He catches the ball and runs with it, and while, in the end, Harris gave a better performance, Gambon does a more than acceptable job replacing him.  It will be interesting to see him in movies 5 and 6, when he will become a more primary cast member. 

As always, John Williams turns in a dynamic and virtually flawless score.  It just feels magical, and is actually quite different then his other two scores for the series.  It matches Cuarón’s vision, and enhances the “real world” magic that the film tries to get across.  Honestly, I can’t believe this score didn’t win the Oscar.  It’s simply excellent. 

Basically, this film is just exemplary in every way.  My only real complaint comes at the end of the film, when Sirius and Lupin explain the big plot tiwst—they say it a bit too fast, and people who haven’t read the books might be scratching their heads trying to figure it out.  The film also lacks a strong ending—Harry flying off on his firebolt is a little too cheesy for me, but the rest of the film makes up for it. 

The adaptation is very strong, but some might find it to feel a bit episodic.  POA was the first Potter book not to feature a main, spelled out at the beginning plot thread, and thus, is a much harder book to adapt then even Goblet of Fire.  But the screenwriter pulls it off, and with Cuarón’s outstanding vision and directing, POA becomes the best film of the series.

It’s really a shame Cuarón did only this film.  He would have been a more then perfect choice for Goblet of Fire, but I suppose if he had done that, we wouldn’t have seen his 2006 future drama, Children of Men.  It’s a fair trade. 

Warner Bros. has yet to decide on a director for the sixth and seventh films (rumor is they’ll be helmed by a single director like the first two films were) and Cuarón would love to return.  I sincerely hope he does, because the murky and plotless “Half-Blood Prince” needs a director like that to make it into a workable film. 

POA still stands as my favorite Potter film, tied with Chamber of Secrets, but that’s more because I like the plot better in that film then because it’s as good a movie.  Order of the Phoenix, the book, is a lot like POA the book, and I hope that transfers into this summer’s Order of the Phoenix movie.                

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