In the third HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKBAN, the titular young wizard must watch out for an escaped prisoner and avoid the spooky guards sent to recapture him, rescue a gryphon sentenced to death, and deal with a professor who turns out to be a werewolf. In other words, it’s much the same formula as before; and yet, thanks to director Alfonso Cuaron, this third film in the series is better than the previous two combined. In fact, this is the first POTTER film that can stand on its own as a piece of worthwhile cinema, regardless of the popularity of the source material. The previous POTTER films suffered from that Masterpiece Theatre-type malaise, in which filming the book is considered enough to justify the project — without providing any real imaginative life on its own, in cinematic terms.
The cloying, precious, sentimentality that embalmed HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHERS’S’ STONE and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS has been replaced by a more mature tone, in keeping with the visible aging of actor Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry now as more of a tortured adolescent instead of a privileged little boy. The storyline is smoother, unburdened with annoying distractions (like Dobby from CHAMBER OF SECRETS), and the visual scheme is much improved, with fewer obviously cartoony CGI effects.
More important, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is, the first POTTER film to generate some genuine emotions. The film jettisons the insipid psuedo-Disney sentimentality that embalmed the first two attempts at adapting J.K Rowling’s books into films. Harry gets to show some believable and justified anger, and there is a greater sense of dealing with difficult situations that may have unpleasant consequences.
Cuaron knows how to milk a scene to maximum effect, without letting the whole movie turn into an empty effects showcase, and much of it is genuinely suspenseful and even creepy. He also adds some sly touches that help spice up the blank Potter universe. It is particularly amusing, in the middle of this supposedly innocent family film, to see subtle sexual innuendo paraded right beneath the audience’s collective nose. For instance, the film begins with a scene of Harry in his bed at night, hiding beneath his sheets, and playing with his wand. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure that one out. (Hint: this is a case where a cigar is not a cigar.)
There is even a fairly obvious homosexual subtext. Two male characters, including Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), are insulted by begin compared to an “old married couple.” Lupin, as his name suggests, turns out to be a werewolf; in other words, he has an embarrassing secret in his private life involving disreputable activities at night, which he hides by day while maintaining his respectable demeanor as a teacher. The film’s conclusion sees Lupin leaving his post because his secret has come out, and he knows that parents don’t want their children taught be (heavy dramatic pause) “…someone like me.” Tellingly, he doesn’t say “by a werewolf.” The script leaves it up to us to fill in the blank, making it easier to interpret the character as a closeted gay man.
None of this is meant to imply the Cuaron is out to undermine the Potter franchise; the director is simply inserting some badly needed zing to the material. The result is a film that is more believable; while still being completely fantastic and imaginative, it doesn’t float away like an inconsequential trifle. Not a perfect film by any means, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is nonetheless good enough to balance out the cinematic mistakes of its predecessors.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, from the novel by J.K. Rowling. Cast: Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane.