Harry Potter Retrospective Part 2: Alfonso Cuarón

Today, in Part 2 of our Harry Potter retrospective, we take a look at The Prisoner of Azkaban, the single film in the series directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Azkaban was only Cuarón’s second English-language film, and perhaps one of the oddest ways to follow up a film like Y tu mamá también ever. In any case, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the most critically lauded film in the series, despite it having the lowest box office receipts.

Cuarón is credited with bringing the darker tone of the books to the screen, but I will say that he also had the benefit of directing the first film with truly dark subject matter. However, people often overlook the film’s comedic overtones, as well as the struggle of the actors’ blooming adolescence, both in the film and in reality.

One of the stark contrasts between Columbus and Cuarón is their direction of the young actors. As Jill mentioned to me when writing her post from yesterday, Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban remains a popular installment for many with it’s highly stylistic approach in representing the maturation of the actors, and the storyline of the Potter series. However, this film also reinforces just how skilled Columbus was in directing the kids, and cutting scenes not a moment too soon. Cuarón’s style certainly gave new life to the series, but the man does not know how to cut a scene with young actors.

What we’re referring to is Cuarón’s penchant for letting scenes run for a long time, and this is especially telling in scenes between the young leads, where short bursts of acting are easier to achieve for those without years of experience. I certainly applaud Cuarón for challenging the actors though, and treating them like the adult actors they are fast becoming. Another sticking point in the performances is the quick transition of Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black from crazed escapee to calm parental figure in the course of five minutes. I like showing Black a little off from his time in prison and his being on the run, but the change in character is too quick.

Cuarón’s visual style is the most flamboyant of the entire series, and he really gives Hogwarts an even more distinct character than the previous installments, which continues the trend of having the school be its own character in the series. The film introduces Hogsmeade, the local wizarding village, although perhaps too briefly to make much of an impact. It also gives us a quick look at London, and the Knight Bus sequences, which (in this film and later ones) are some of my favorite in the series. I also enjoy the short clips of the Weeping Willow marking the passing of the school year.

The series continues to ascend the heights of British acting, most notably Michael Gambon stepping into the role of Dumbledore. Gambon, most famous for having a curve on the Top Gear test track, was cast by Chris Columbus after the tragic passing of Richard Harris. At first I was skeptical of Gambon, but I’ve really taken a liking to his performances. Gary Oldman shines as Sirius Black, and I couldn’t imagine many other people playing the role so well. Sirius is one of my favorite characters in the book series, and it is always heartwarming to see a beloved character come to life with such care.

David Thewlis brings the lovable tramp Remus Lupin to life, and Timothy Spall does a great job as the mousy Pettigrew. But my favorite addition to the cast is Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, the seemingly inept Divination teacher. Thompson seems to rejoice in the role, and is an unsung hero in the series.

The Prisoner of Azkaban also marks the first time where the length of the book necessitated major cuts, and Cuarón chose those cuts based around what would allow for the most character development between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. In fact, according to Rowling, Cuarón correctly predicted the relationship developing between Ron and Hermione, something that would be more pronounced in the film series than the books. While I feel this was a wise move on Cuarón’s part, it still pains me to see so much left out, as my favorite parts of the books are the characters in class, passing in the halls, eating together, etc.

The other major sacrifice was exploring the full extent of the relationship between Harry’s father, Black, Lupin, Snape, and Peter Pettigrew. As a fan, one of the things I loved discovering in the books was the backstory of the previous generation, as family trees play an important role in the Potter world. It’s a shame that the films have to abandon a lot of this material in the pursuit of a manageable film length, but it was probably a wise choice.

My only other complaint about the film is that the time travel gimmick (which I love, because it’s time travel!), combined with the Firebolt scene, give the film a slight anti-climactic ending. Not only do we never glimpse the end of the year festivities in the Great Hall, but the film does not contain a central villain to defeat at the end of the film, leaving things feeling flat at the end. Again, this is a minor nitpick as Prisoner of Azkaban remains one of my favorites in the series.

When considered in the scope of the entire series, this is rightly lauded as one of the strongest films, although the other 6 (so far, of course!) never fall far from this installment.

Tune in tomorrow as we tackle Mike Newell and the Goblet of Fire!

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