Retrospective: Harry Potter – Part 2

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

It has become widely agreed upon that with its third film, the Harry Potter franchise took a serious leap forward in its cinematic approach, and the resulting Prisoner of Azkaban would become something of a template for the rest of the films: staying true to the spirit of the narrative and characters, but not afraid to go off on its own occasional tangents. Where the first two films occasionally slaved over staying true to the source, Prisoner of Azkaban truly respects the material while carving out a completely unique voice for itself. Following Chris Columbus’ important expositional films in the Harry Potter saga, Warner Brothers decided to take a risk in choosing the second director of their successful franchise, Alfonso Cuaron. Prior to Potter, Cuaron had worked within Hollywood for a time in the 1990’s before returning to his native country of Mexico to direct Y Tu Mama Tambien, a sexy road movie about two teenagers in late adolescence who go on a road trip with an older woman. Since that film explored the ending of adolescence, it made sense for Cuaron to make a film about the beginnings of it, thus turning to Harry Potter.

Simply from a point of aesthetics and atmosphere, there is an immediate change in Prisoner of Azkaban. Where the first two films opted for traditional, classic coverage of most scenes, Cuaron instead covers several scenes in extended long takes. In this sense, the camera movement can accentuate the tension in the scene, as opposed to editorial means. Take, for instance, an early scene where Harry is confronted by Mr. Weasley about the impending danger of escaped convict Sirius Black, who is reportedly out to kill Harry. The entire conversation between the two is played out in a single, extended take as they walk back and forth and pause for dramatic emphasis. Similarly, the camera doesn’t maintain the same framing on them. At times, it allows for the subjects to stay in the background of the shot, while focusing on a “Wanted” poster of Black in the foreground. Then, as the point of the conversation comes to its conclusion, the camera moves in from a medium shot to a close-up of Harry as he says, “Why would I go looking for someone who wants to kill me?”

Here are two screencaps illustrating this.

This is how Cuaron’s camera moves in many of the scenes, emphasizing the marriage of subject and background, and the results are downright captivating. Hogsmeade, for instance, feels like an actual town and not just a fabrication of imagination. Prisoner of Azkaban is the first film of the series to provide us with a sense of realism to go with the magic, and this isn’t attributable to the occasional handheld framing. When they’re not in messy wardrobe for class, the students walk around in typical casual clothing instead of their formal sweaters and pants from the previous films. Another particular standout for the film is actually John Williams’ score. What is most impressive here is how much the pieces deviate from the themes of the first two films and typical sound of Williams’ orchestral scores in other films. Be it the powerful use of percussion at the flight of the Hippogriff, or a lone flute expressing Harry’s deep loneliness, Prisoner of Azkaban has an aural atmosphere all its own. Since the film has a clearer sense of impeding terror, the color palette is also drained of saturation, most noticeably in the Great Hall when it becomes clear that Black may have found a way into Hogwarts. Look at the differences here between the first and third films, respectively.

Although Cuaron sets his film in a far more realistic environment, he nevertheless manages to make this Potter the most truly magical of them all. There is a genuine sense of newfound wonder in many of the film’s standout scenes such Harry’s first flight on the hippogriff or his first successful casting of the Patronus charm. Equally, the sense of terror has never been more palpable, be it the terrifically menacing shot of the Dementor entering the train compartment, or Lupin’s transformation into a werewolf worthy of a great B-movie. Two major new performances also bolster the film’s sense of realism: David Thewlis as Remus Lupin and Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. In the story, both men become father figures to Harry, and both performances here capture the affection and strength that both men put on the boy. Lastly, of all the films adapted from the books, none of them come as close to capturing the true sense of page-turning excitement of Rowling’s prose as the final hour of Prisoner of Azkaban. It is truly a shame that Cuaron did not continue to do a couple more of the films, for in his hands, the imagery on screen becomes as powerful as the words on the page.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Considering all of its success as a franchise, I find it a little surprising that not until the fourth film did Harry Potter find a British director. With Mike Newell, the films incorporated an important ingredient that wasn’t necessarily missing, but was nonetheless a welcome one: a true British sensibility. With Goblet of Fire, Newell truly captured genuine boarding school life and all of the trials and tribulations a teenager endures. However, a triumph in realization of atmosphere and tone is somewhat sacrificed for narrative heft in the fourth film. Granted, I made the claim that an adaptation of a book to the screen needs only to maintain the overall narrative and tone, which Goblet of Fire certainly reproduces faithfully, but in this case it may have cut out too much of the narrative to provide the film with a smoother flow. Instead, the film seems to only hit the important marks and story beats it has to in order to fulfill its two and a half hour running time. It is completely understandable that adapting a 700+ page novel is no easy task, but with a book that had as much narrative density as Goblet of Fire, I would have easily enjoyed watching a film that was fifteen or twenty minutes longer.

That said, there is still enough in Goblet of Fire that deserves to be mentioned for its merits. The three central tasks, first and foremost, are terrifically executed on multiple levels. Especially stunning here is Stuart Craig’s production design, in which all three tasks are reproduced from the books with painstaking realism, for which the films are beginning to edge more towards. The editorial efficiency of all of the tasks is also well done. Where many action based films rely on sensory overload, Goblet of Fire works well to maintain spacial relationships while simultaneously building credible tension throughout its major scenes. With the camera, Newell sometimes finds himself mimicking Cuaron’s style at times, which isn’t quite a bad thing, but makes Goblet of Fire stand out less from a visual perspective. The important subplot of the Yule Ball is also nicely integrated that not only allows the performances of the leads work with their comic chops, but also to hint at the subtext of some of the deeper meanings behind the lines.

From the legions of British acting talent, Goblet of Fire added yet two more credible resources to its pool. The first of these is the underrated Brendan Gleeson as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. Gruff, no-nonsense, and with a twisted sense of humor, Gleeson hits all of the right marks with Moody, whose presence always benefits any scene he’s in. The other supremely important addition is that of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, and his casting is perhaps among the best in the series. Where some might find absolute evil challenging to personify, Fiennes embodies it with chilling relish, yet finds a few quirks within Voldemort that make him slightly more intriguing than just the ultimate bad guy. Another outstanding aspect of Goblet of Fire is the work in make-up and visual effects work, which bring J.K. Rowling’s vision of evil to devastating reality.

Moving further along in the darker and more epic areas of the Harry Potter saga, the adaptations of Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire take what was good about the expository chapters, and expand upon them, be it through finding stronger performances in their leads, as well as expanding the possibilities of telling Rowling’s story as visually as possible.

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~ by romancinema on November 23, 2011.

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