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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Soulless saga

The latest Harry Potter screen adventure is certainly different from the earlier two editions. I would guess that an essential reason for this could be a different director. While "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets" were helmed by Chris Columbus, the one that has just been released in India , "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (June 2004) has been directed by Alfonso Cuaron.

Now, does Cuaron's name sound a bell ? It does. His most recent work, "Y Tu Mama Tambien", was an explicit Mexican teenage sex comedy. When he replaced Columbus (who still remains a producer for "...Azkaban"), there were fears that he might inject a dose of sex into his work. And not without a basis.

The last Potter film showed in one of its final scenes Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe) hugging Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a broad hint that they were growing up, and that magic and wizardry could not possibly be the only things on their minds.

However, Cuaron -- who also wielded the megaphone for a superb adaptation of "The Little Princess" in 1995 and for "Great  Expectations" in 1998 -- does not carry the hug any further in  "....Azkaban" There is, of course, an embrace here as well, but  between Hermione and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). All those who may have imagined that love would blossom between Harry and  Hermione would find this distraction disappointing.

Cuaron attempts to steer his movie away from not only a  predictable line, but also the first two editions: "Harry Potter  and the Prisoner of Azkaban" looks much more sinister with an  uncomfortable degree of grey and black. The forbidding Hogwarts  School of Witchcraft and Wizardry often appears quite scary as it  stands on a dark night with guards called Dementors placed in the foreground to protect Harry and the other inmates. But these  eerie, formless creatures do not differentiate between friend and  foe, and almost suck the boy wizard's soul out of his body !

Understandably, Australia has given "...Azkaban a 15-plus  rating".

One never understands why Cuaron and even Columbus have made  their films so frightening. Does this not defeat the purpose of  these celluloid versions of J.K. Rowling's books. She is supposed  to write seven, and her fourth is now on the floors, being helmed  by Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral").

Yet another disturbing aspect of the movies -- and also the  books to an extent -- is the manner in which a viewer and a  reader is pushed softly, but firmly into a world of illusion  where science and logic have little meaning. In an era where efforts are being made to break barriers of superstition, and  guide civilisation off illogical paths, Potter and his pals  present a set of conflicting ideas. All they need is a wand and  magic mantras to cross one obstacle after another. Or, just about.

Cuaron's work -- though not a word-by-word adaptation of  Rowling's book -- narrates the story of an escaped convict out to  kill 13-year-old Harry. Professor Lupin, a new Defence Against  the Dark Arts Instructor (played excellently by David Thewlis; I  remember his great performance in Mike Leigh's "Naked"), helps  Potter, but it is left to the little boy, Hermione and Ron to  finally unravel the mystery of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the  prisoner of Azkaban.

Rowling's admirers will find fault with the fact that Cuaron has  scrapped everything that he felt was not central to the theme or  did not keep the plot flying. Major plot and character points are  either glossed over or raced through at breakneck speed, leaving  no room for subtlety or absorption. The picture's agenda is to  present the essentials to the audience quickly -- in two hours and about 15 minutes -- and then move on.

Yet, the screenplay at times stretches on and on: Potter's  initial bus ride is boring after a point.

Boredom can set in in other ways too. Though the plot itself is  different in each of the three movies, some of the sequences and  events look similar in all. Producers will have to work really  hard at novelty if they hope to sustain interest in the four  remaining screen editions.

Perhaps, what may work is a greater investment in emotional  quotient. There is very little bonding among the three friends,  and in his eagerness to make a spectacle out of every scene,  Cuaron pays an out-of-proportion attention to special effects.

Somehow, they do not enhance the story: they merely serve as  entertaining rides between technical wizardry and human element.

Brilliant actors such as Timothy Spall and Emma Thompson have  not been tapped adequately only because Cuaron lets technique  eclipse human drama.

There are exceptions, though : the scenes where Harry is with  Professor Lupin make a great impact, and underline the beauty of  bonding, so imperative to good cinema. It is no coincidence that  Radcliffe does his best work when he is with Thewlis. These  scenes are unquestionably wonderful, and they provide a degree of  depth and resonance that the remainder of "... Azkaban" does  not come close to exploring.

Performances are uniformly good, though I have always felt that  Watson was a shade or two better than Radcliffe. She has a  certain arresting quality that he lacks. Grint has undoubtedly  matured as an actor, and he provides a strong link between Harry  and Hermione, so essential to the narrative. As head wizard Albus  Dumbledore, veteran Michael Gambon replaces Richard Harris  (who tragically passed away after the second film). In  representing Dumbledore, Gambon is adequate enough in physique  and visage, but in voice and demeanor, he lacks the warmth and  tenderness that Harris so beautifully brought to the role.

In the final analysis, while "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of  Azkaban" has its moments of thrill (the boy's ride on a creature  which is half-animal and half bird is stimulating), it has a tendency to appear soulless.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated June 11 2004)

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