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Held Prisoner by Azkaban: In Praise of Movie Masterpiece Number Three

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer


Have you seen this movie?

Harold Bloom, the English language's most hated, feared, and respected literary critic , wrote of the Harry Potter phenomenon, "anything goes" when "public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study."  I'm not really sure what he meant by that, but I think he wanted to say something along the lines of "Harry Potter is popular, but literature it ain't."  And I must confess I felt the same way.  I hadn't read the first three books prior to watching Prisoner of Azkaban, and I haven't read any of them since, either.  I'm not defending Bloom and I'm not against what he said.  He's probably correct, as he often seems to be, when it comes to literature and the like.  But damn it, he needs to see Azkaban.


In the expert hands of Alfonso Cuaron—one of several modern directors who just keep getting better with every film (see Children of Men)—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban took the series up about six notches, from predictable, forgettable popcorn fluff to unmistakable genius.  The characters grew immeasurably between the 2nd and 3rd installments—witness Harry’s initial distress upon learning that Sirius Black “betrayed” his parents, which then changes gradually as the film progresses, until Sirius, in the role Harry’s godfather, becomes a major emotional focal point.  The overall tone and look of the film grew much, much darker—sparking incredible realism—and the plot shifted from a videogame construct—fighting progressively harder bosses—to a literary construct worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s wildest aspirations. 

But besides a fresh new perspective on Rowling's material, Cuaron gives the Hogwarts campus a much-needed makeover. In the first two movies, Columbus arranged Hogwarts with less complexity than the overworld in the original Legend of Zelda game — Hagrid's cabin is randomly dumped outside the walls, with the Quiddich field nearby. The castle itself looks fine, but lacks the hectic, crazy scope that Rowling endows it with. Cuaron expands the Hogwarts grounds considerably, adding a quadrangle where students assemble, study or goof around between classes. A teetering bridge leads from this quadrangle to the rest of the grounds, including Hagrid's cabin, which lies at the bottom of a treacherous set of stone steps. These additions not only make Hogwarts feel like it was assembled piecemeal over a thousand years of hectic activity and loony spellcasting, but it makes it feel like an actual prep school. Rowling draws on a lot of literary and mythical traditions for her novels, including the prep school adventure. John Irving memorably captures the cozy shenanigans of boarding school in his novels, and Cuaron rightly injects that vibe into his movie.

So now, let’s talk about the plot.  More specifically, let’s talk about time travel, the Dementors, Gary Oldman, and The Stag.  There’ve been some great, legendary actors in this series already, with Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman , and hell, John Cleese, all making either appearances or becoming mainstays.  But I would argue that Oldman was the finest and most important addition to the cast of anyone thus far.  We all know his work is both varied and revelatory, but rarely have moviegoers seen him in a sympathetic, leading role quite like that of Sirius Black. 

The dynamics of playing Sirius surely cannot be denied.  Here we have a character required to go from lunatic to father figure in the span of 90 minutes, all the while maintaining his rough, downright scary edges in the process.  One of the greatest things about this character—aside from how well Oldman pulls it off—is that he’s really the first character in the film who coaxes genuine pathos out of Daniel Radcliffe, an actor who until Azkaban merely looked like a cover illustration and seemed relegated to forever play a set piece.  Yet now we have HARRY POTTER, the precocious, teenaged, likeable, and downright amazing boy wizard finally starting to take shape, thanks in no small part to the relationship forged with Sirius.  Meanwhile, the other characters draft behind their chemistry well, with Hermione growing tougher, prouder, and cleverer than before in the face of less tangible baddies, and Ron continuing to benefit as a comic foil while not necessarily growing as a wizard.

Image The overall character growth could not have occurred with a standard End Boss outline at work.  The time travel element acts as both a confusing and murky plot element and also the type of hard-edged magical tool that even the Hogwarts stalwarts can’t quite seem to grasp.  I mean, it’s one thing to have an invisibility cloak, but to vaguely introduce a secret time traveling device—which definitely causes the audience to wonder what the heck Hermione’s up to—and then bring it to the audience’s attention in the latter 1/3 of the film is a great step forward for this franchise.  After all, we learned in The Prestige that a magic act has three steps, most of which were completely ignored by the films prior to Azkaban, and with good reason.  Harry is supposed to be learning magic, not watching it. 

But a little mystery, in this case, goes a long way.  By keeping the audience partially in the dark, Azkaban goes further to confound us than the previous two ever could.  Rather than just send Harry through a series of obstacles with a clear objective in sight, Azkaban finds Harry as confused as we are, if not more so.  Not only that, but the film has two endings that are equally important, leaving us both pleasantly surprised and also scratching our heads.

Which brings us to the Dementors and The Stag.  In the Dementors, Harry faces an enemy that isn’t really evil and has little interest in him other than a few coincidental run-ins.  So, rather than simply opposing the forces of evil, Harry must literally face his greatest fears and anxieties and overcome them.  In short, the Dementors are the exact opposite of the Mirror of Erised, not showing Harry’s “heart’s desire”, but his greatest fears—which turn out be conflicted.  Along with Sirius and the film’s standard wizardly travails, the Dementors help bring Harry’s psyche bubbling to the surface…but then things get downright Freudian on us.

During the first “ending”, when a huge school of Dementors swims in the air above Sirius and Harry, all hope of saving Harry’s godfather seems lost, as he cannot summon the will to disperse the Dementors.  Across the pond, however, a glowing, stag like creature appears and performs the Patronus Charm.  Harry responds shortly thereafter that his father had saved him. 

The Patronus Charm emits a stream of glowing vapor that forms into the shape of an animal and repels Dementors and Lethifolds.  In Harry’s case, his charm took on the shape of The Stag, which has been debated by film fans for a long time now (but is probably explained concisely in the books).  Regardless, I prefer the film version simply because of its ambiguous ending.  What does The Stag represent?  Harry thought it was his father, at first, then realized later it was himself.  Does The Stag simply embody Harry’s hidden strength, something we’ve witnessed time and time again as he battles increasingly insurmountable odds?  I like to think that Cuaron—after already offering the audience an ending with a series of bizarre but fascinating twists—decided that not explaining a few of the more esoteric details of Azkaban would simply further the effect of the film’s mystery.

So after most of the film wraps up neatly, and Harry returns to his role of student wizard, Cuaron brings back a favorite little piece of magic, having Harry utter, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good,” and then incorporating the map’s curious effects into the end credits.  Azkaban fades to black, but based on the changes wrought upon Harry, our favorite boy wizard will never be the same.