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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2002)

3 June 2004 by Baldy No Comment


2004, dir. Alfonso CuarĂ³n
142 min. Rated PG.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson.

Review by Baldy

Tonight, I got to go the Atlanta premiere of HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. My old college roommate’s wife managed to snag a couple of passes from some contest on MTV. You see, she’s one of those folks who wholly submerged herself in the Cult of Frodo for the last several years. Some of you may have seen her at Dragon*Con not too long ago, fighting for her life in an elevator against some rather large critters from Where The Wild Things Are. Anyway, Frodo of the Nine Fingers is gone and that energy has been transferred into dreams of corrupting the young Daniel Radcliffe. Wouldn’t you know it? She wound up having something come up for tonight, so Chris and I went to check it out.

I have to warn you of something at this point. I picked up my first Potter novel a month ago. Within seven days, I’d read all of them. I geeked out in a big way. This isn’t written for those who haven’t read the books. It’s just pretty much for those of us who have read them and want to know about the movie.

A little background for you on the attendees. My thanks go out to the maybe 19 year-old Chinese girl who felt compelled to come over and rub my bald noggin while Chris was getting a gyro. My temporary case of what doctors call “acute lackanookie” both settled down and got worse. Not sure how that happened. I also noticed a phenomenon that seems to be specific to Potter fans (to be known from this point as Potheads). Girls up through age 17 show up in halter tops, short shorts and fantastic physiques. They’re hot. They’re frisky. They revel in being geeks, at least in this area of life. On their 18th birthdays, though, they put on 163 pounds and dye their hair black. I don’t have a problem with that. The problem is that they show up wearing THE SAME CLOTHING THAT THEY HAD ON WHEN THEY WERE HOT. It was like watching Cardinal Bernard Law and Heidi Klum waltzing topless: I want to look, I don’t want to look, I want to look, etc.

Finally, we got seated. I went out for food (or so it’s labeled), came back, and found that Chris had done well for himself. Our immediate neighbors were all about 17, female, dressed in matching school robes, pumps and shorts. They were waving wands about, acting excited, bouncing nicely, and Chris was happy.

At this point, Chris mentioned to me something that kind of set the tone for the evening. He just mentioned that he’d like to see Chef from South Park come in dressed as a Dementor, grab some girls and offer to give them his “soul kiss.”

When the lights went down, the crowd went wild. I mentioned to Chris that it would be hilarious if it were not them getting ready for the movie, but a power failure. So I’m sadistic. Sue me. The doors at the back of the auditorium closed, and only a few of us seemed to hear the gas.

Preview: POLAR EXPRESS. Fuhgeddaboudit. What do you do when you’re not sure you can shoot a movie well? Cast real movie stars, but animate it and figure out what it will look like AFTERwards.

As the movie opens, those of us not fully brought into the Cult of the Potheads notice something peculiar. Harry’s in bed on Privet Drive with a light on, under the sheets. We realize that he’s secretly practicing magic. He’s a 13 YEAR OLD KID! Will someone please get this kid a Hustler, or something? He’s just not normal.

Oh, yeah, I need to get this out of the way. Harry’s a year older. The man who was supposed to have betrayed his parents has escaped from Azkaban (the wizard prison) and is presumably coming for Harry. While building up to this, Harry still has to go to school, do well, put up with Professor Snape and the Slytherins, win at Quidditch, get over his awkwardness at being The Boy Who Lived, come to grips with these new feelings that he’s getting, try to understand the changes his body is going through, etc. Same shit we all had to deal with. That’s the movie. Gary Oldman is great as Sirius Black, the escapee. David Thewlis is great as Professor Lupin. I’d like to say more, but we all know that both of these gents are more than able to hold their own.

Some of you may be looking forward to Harry blowing up his aunt for disparaging his father’s memory. You should. She blows up like Weird Al in the “Fat” video, but much more seamlessly. The surrounding action makes it much more interesting than it was depicted in the book. When Harry storms out of the house, we’re treated to a lovely image of his aunt’s silhouette (properly balloonish) crossing the moon. Word to the wise: don’t make an analogy in which Harry’s deceased mum is referred to as “the bitch.” It is nice to note that Harry is properly acting like a teen now, throwing temper tantrums, kicking stuff and running away. Glad to know he has a pair.

The Knights Bus was interesting, though not as much as I’d hoped. A triple-decker bus careening through the streets of London without hitting anything is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, though, the best part of this sequence is the speaking, shrunken Rastafarian head that serves as a dashboard ornament.

The Monster Book of Monsters was very well done, causing me to think “You shall never get the Necronomicon!” Sorry. Just a thing.

Once we catch up with Ron and Hermione, we notice that the kids are growing up. Ron’s a baritone. Hermione hasn’t changed too much, but if she ever sprouts breasts, two-thirds of the guys and half of the women in the theater will need to be checked for heart arrhythmia. I don’t think they can take it. Malfoy’s voice has dropped also, but they made up for that by making him into a real pussy. Perhaps in anticipation of revelations made in the next book, Hagrid is made to seem even larger. The new guy playing Dumbledore did pretty well. He didn’t draw too much attention to himself and mainly served as plot filler. Neville gets a little more face time, and I’m glad to see that the actor seems up to the character development he’s going to have to go through. Emma Thompson as Trelawney (Divination teacher) did well, but didn’t do one thing that her character really needed: She didn’t predict Harry’s gruesome death once, much less daily. Shame.

The sets were much more involved and much more attention was paid to detail than in the previous films. It’s a welcome change, and something that I hadn’t realized that the first two films were lacking. This film shows us much more of the grounds of Hogwarts, as well as of the buildings themselves. What had been largely portrayed as an imposing dark shadow in the other films is fleshed out. We’re treated to the real beauty of the landscape and the architecture. It sounds silly, but it does good things for the movie. The makers borrowed a bunch of portraits from a museum in London and had a good time giving the inhabitants of the pics their own personalities. We finally get to see the Fat Lady being herself, and even get a couple of sneak peeks at Sir Cadogan (being very brave, I’m sure).

More attention was also paid to the special effects, though not always in the ways that you would expect. In the previous film, the budget apparently ran out just before they created Fawkes the phoenix. In this installment, so many effects are seamlessly worked into the background that they do a lot to create the right kind of feel. After seeing it, you’re not left with the feeling that every effect was followed by some geek in a studio proclaiming that everyone’s going to LOVE his little half-second addition to the film. The tricky creature of this film was Buckbeak the hippogriff (horse for the back half, giant eagle for the front). There was none of the awkwardness about this bit of animation that you saw in the previous films. I was genuinely impressed with the job they did on Buckbeak and would recommend the film to anyone who likes to see well-done animation.

There was a little comedic relief that I don’t remember from the book. As a preview to the Headless Hunt (later movie, I think), a ghost abruptly rides through a study area ahead of another, headless rider, taunting “Got your heaaaaddddd. . . . . .”

The Dementors were all that I’d hoped they would be. In appearance, they’re the bastard children of the unholy union between the Nazgul and the Ghost of Christmas Future from SCROOGED. And there are lots of them. And they fly. The effect that they have on their victims was well done, and seeing them orbiting overhead was downright creepy.

Got your Gryffindor scarf? You’re behind the times. The umbrellas and Pothead ponchos (Go, number 7!) are going to be the Thing now.

We see Dog versus Werewolf, a feeding frenzy of Dementors, and those Dementors being scattered by a pretty nifty special effect. Harry’s knocked out and wakes up in the hospital, but the movie ain’t over yet. There’s so much still unresolved. Ron’s leg is broken, Harry’s just woken up and given Dumbledore some surprising news and THEN THE FILM MELTS. Poof. The whole screen bubbled up, flared and then quit on us. You can only imagine what happened after that. It’s like someone at Dragon*Con being heard to recommend that Matthew Perry play Wolverine in the next X-moneymaker. The whole crowd goes absolutely apeshit, screaming at the screen and the ushers and God and the other geeks around them. . . . . I got some dirty looks for breaking out into loud, cackling laughter at this point. Chris then waggled his finger at the screen and said, “Celluloid repairam?”

They got it going again after 25 minutes and we got to see the ending. All things considered, this is a much better film than were the previous two. The interaction between the characters is just as good. There were some problems, as you would expect. No Firebolt until the end. The romantic subplot between Crookshanks and Scabbers is almost nonexistent. Stuff like that. The background is much more defined, though in a way that doesn’t pull your attention from what’s going on. The story is more compelling. More attention is paid to the smaller characters, it’s better shot and generally feels like far less of a movie for little kids. I readily admit to being a geek in several areas of life, but I can honestly recommend this movie to about anyone who enjoys a good popcorn flick.

Two last notes: Alan Rickman suffers the worst humiliation of his entire cinematic career, and the score stands at Whomping Willow 2, bluebirds 0.

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