Sunday, July 18, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2004 at the New England Aquarium's Simons IMAX Theater (The IMAX Experience)

The appeal of the Harry Potter franchise eludes me. Oh, I see why kids like it - what ten-year-old doesn't love the idea of there being a whole hidden world where he or she is a chosen savior, and that their capricious parents are keeping secret until the child escapes from them? As an adult, though, I find the whole premise creepy. Consider the opening sequence where Harry, in a fit of anger, inflates a nasty in-law like a helium baloon, says she got what she deserved as she floats off into the distance, and then is whisked off to safety... where he's told that everyone has had their memories adjusted. In most movies, that's what the bad guys do.

That's not to say that these movies are compeltely without appeal - they feature great casts and pretty good production values. It's just a shame that they center on Harry Potter. Because, you see, young Mister Potter is boring. This is probably intentional; it's easier for the average child to identify with an average-seeming boy with a vague "great potential" than with the series's actual gifted character.

The first two-thirds of the movie are something of a pretty drag, made prettier by the IMAX presentation. We're given a bunch of exposition - some of which turns out to be misdirection, of course - which alternates with "cool" magic stuff. There's also the usual "goodness, you are so much like your parents, Harry, and that makes us all misty" (or, in the case of Alan Rickman's Snape, "annoyed"). Really, I'm starting to wish that Rowling had written her books about them, if they're so wonderful. More frustration comes from the now-traditional "oh, 'he-who-shall-not-be-named' is very scary, honestly he is!" (the best way to establish a villain is to show him doing bad things, rather than talk about how scary he is). Just as bothersome for me is the underuse of favorite UK actors - Maggie Smith and Julie Christie are barely in the movie, Alan Rickman is almost on autopilot, and Emma Thompson deserves a larger part. I also certainly hope Timothy Spall has more to do in #4.

Fortunately, the last act is pretty darn nifty. I imagine Rowling and Kloves have/had a tricky time explaining why Harry and Harmione don't use the plot device featured in that last act to get out of every scrape they're in during the remaining four stories, but just looking at this movie, it makes for one of the smoothest and most enjoyable predestination paradoxes put on film. Granted, you basically have to compeltely give up on the idea of Harry Potter as the main character (his main function in the movie is to be knocked unconscious) and accept that the movie should rightly be named Harmione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I'd rather see Emma Watson in the lead anyway.

Indeed, that last act is almost good enough for me to bump the movie up to three full stars - I came out feeling pretty good. If I were writing this in the hour after I'd left the Aquarium, it probably would get a higher grade. But now I've had a little time to think, and the reality of how much of the movie just makes no sense settles in. Why are these adults so casually dismissive of a kid being in grave danger? Why is one character talked up as being a big ally of Voldemort (and depicted as a raving lunatic) until the end? I mean, there's misdirection and there's creating a false backstory so extreme and resting on shaky foundations that even the pre-teen target audience of these stories should be able to shred it. The last third is so tight that the first two thirds being so sloppy is difficult to figure. I wonder if Steve Kloves is starting to feel the pressure of getting these done one after another

(Note: I did see the IMAX version, which seemed to run a bit shorter than the 2:21 listed on the IMDB. I haven't heard anything about cuts for IMAX, so I don't know if some of these weaknesses are addressed in the 35mm edition.)

But it is a really good last act, and the IMAX print certainly looks beautiful. It's not a bad way to spend $12.95 and a couple hours.

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