Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Here is a Harry Potter film where the filmmaker isn’t trying to fulfill a check-listed quota.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Photo: Warner Bros.

Unlike Chris Columbus’s banal Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, the anxiously paced and happily embellished Prisoner of Azkaban is not only a film with big ideas but also one that trades in conflict of the internal variety. Throughout, director Alfonso Cuarón is obsessed with Harry Potter’s evolvement into a young adult and this vicious, almost disturbing spectacle of abuse affords us a side of the wizard that is none too nice.

Living again with his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Marge for the summer, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is subjected to their cruel and unrelenting torture before inflating his aunt into a balloon and watching as she drifts away into the London air. And after breathlessly making his way through London and back to Hogwarts, Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a man who allegedly led Lord Voldemort to the boy’s parents, has escaped from prison and is now looking for him. Over the course of the film, Harry seems to grapple with his inevitable meeting with Sirius, but instead discovers that his true enemy is himself.

Whether it’s winning the affections of a strange flying bird or learning to tell good apart from evil (a disturbing sequence between a wolf and a werewolf posits a fascinating struggle between nurture and nature), Cuarón’s characters are very much on the brink of psychosexual enlightenment. (For Ron Weasley, the developing Hermione’s mysterious comings and goings are a constant source of wonder.) Harry and his friends are constantly climbing and running places, and Cuarón’s subversive, often expressionistic compositions are surprisingly suggestive, giving way to a meta showdown between the present and the future that challenges Harry’s notions of self-worth and allows him to fully conquer his fears.

Lines like “You’re supposed to stroke it” and “I’m sorry to hear about your broomstick” are delivered with tongues planted firmly in cheek. When Harry learns to conquer the illusion of the sinister Dementors that guard Hogwarts, the room is lined with an array of phallic candles. These images aren’t accidents, but rather Cuarón’s way of summoning the queasy terrain of the wizard’s adolescence. (Harry really does look like he’s stroking his magic wand in the film’s opening sequence.) Here is a Harry Potter film that isn’t trying to fulfill a check-listed quota, but will fans of Chris Columbus’s installments be prepared for a final showdown that isn’t between Harry and a big scary animal but a boy and the perils of time? Let’s hope so.

Score: 
 Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, David Bradley, Julie Christie, Miriam Margolyes, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Robert Hardy, Julie Walters  Director: Alfonso Cuarón  Screenwriter: Steven Kloves  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 142 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2004  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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