Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Up Until The Time Travel Comes In, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban Had Me!

The Good: Generally decent acting, Good general plot, DVD bonus features
The Bad: HUGE plot hole, Light on character development, Mediocre/pointless effects
The Basics: In another disappointing cinematic effort, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban has one huge plot hole which ruins the franchise for serious viewers.

For those who follow my many reviews, it might seem by this point that I am not a fan of the Harry Potter cinematic adventures. After all, I pretty much loathed Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone (click here for that review!) and I remained underwhelmed with Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (click here for that review!), so it would make perfect sense to ask the question "Why is W.L. continuing to watch these movies?!" The answer is ridiculously simple; my wife is a huge fan and as she becomes more and more excited about the impending release of the film Harry Potter And The Deathly Hollows, Part 1 she wants me to be prepared by rewatching the six films that preceded it.

It might seem, then, that I came into Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban biased, but the truth is, from the beginning, this cinematic installment of the Harry Potter Saga engaged me more than either of its predecessors. Unfortunately, it annoyed me early on with a pointless bus-ride, which seems to be director Alfonso Curon's attempt to wow audiences right off the bat (he failed terribly with me) and very late in the film, there comes a critical flaw that utterly guts the film and - I'm told by my wife - the series. In fact, there is no way for me to discuss my fundamental problem with Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban without talking about something that happens in the last act, so those who want surprises need to quit now. The problem, I am told, is that the question I raised immediately when the plot turned sets off a string of events which motivate the subsequent four episodes, but it is so shockingly obvious in the problem it creates in the movie(s) that when I mentioned it, my partner simply frowned, said, "You should seriously rewrite the Harry Potter books" and walked away disgusted.

After a somewhat disastrous encounter with a snooty aunt wherein Harry Potter uses magic outside Hogwart's in strict violation of the laws, Harry Potter runs away from the Dursley's house. He is picked up by a magic bus and taken to the centers of magic where he is surprised to learn he is not being punished for violating the rules involving magic use. Instead, the Minister Of Magic reveals that one of Harry's parents' old friends, a convicted murderer, Sirius Black, has escaped from the magical prison, Azkaban. Harry's friends, teachers and headmaster Dumbledore are afraid for Harry's sake and en route to Hogwart's, Harry encounters a Dementor, one of the guards of Azkaban, which is hunting Sirius.

As his third year at Hogwart's begins, Harry and the other students feel boxed in by the Dementors, which take up position around Hogwart's to find Sirius Black on the assumption that he will come there to try to kill Harry. Harry encounters a magical pet of Hagrid's which then attacks Draco, earning it a death sentence. As Harry's new Defense Against The Black Arts teacher, another friend of his parents', Professor Lupin attempts to protect and guide Harry, the search for Sirius heats up. But secrets abound, even among Harry's friends, as Harry encounters Dementors, werewolves, a crazed killer and time travel!

After the initial special effects chase that has no bearing on the rest of the film and is disappointing for its lack of tension or excitement, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is very cool and quite engaging. The Dementors are wicked and each time they appear, there is a wonderful sense of mystery and tension that surrounds them. Moreover, the limited character development found in the film - like Harry actually confronting his fears in Professor Lupin's class - is decent. Harry's desire for a real family is explored as he hears about his parents from Lupin.

But beyond that, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a frustrating collection of rehashed ideas and character stagnation. As a perfect example, neither Hermione nor Ron develop in any meaningful ways. Ron is still ridiculous comic relief and Hermione is still a great witch and the only real change in this film is that Hermione has a new magical toy to play with. The film trots out Harry's invisibility cloak as soon as the plot calls for some stealth and viewers are left feeling like they have seen much of the film before.

To be fair, the new magical artifact, the Marauder's Map is actually pretty cool. This device is a map which shows the current location of everyone within the walls of Hogwart's and it reveals to Harry the presence of a character who was thought long dead. When the map is confiscated by Snape and Lupin, Harry reveals its secret to Lupin and this sets off a chain of events which shake the foundation of Harry Potter's world. The problem is, it also sets off a chain of events whose resolution is so poorly executed only a child is likely to believe in the events or not be disappointed by them. And herein my review is unable to progress without revealing the fundamental problem brought out in the key scene in the movie.

The film comes to its head when Lupin is revealed to be a werewolf in a scene where there is a showdown between the main characters, Lupin and the villains of the film. Lupin turning into a werewolf occurs because Lupin has not been given his potion for the day - events earlier in the day distracted him - and the presence of the full moon forces the change upon him. This allows the principle villain of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban to get away and leaves Harry seriously wounded and many of his hopes and dreams crushed. The villain escapes, though, because Lupin turns at an inopportune moment. All of this is fine.

The problem, though, is in the resolution. Hermione, seen appearing in places suddenly without her mode of transport being made obvious throughout the film, reveals late in the movie that she has a pendant that allows her to move back in time at controlled intervals. As a result, she is able to take Harry back earlier in the disastrous day to try to save at least two lives. Here is where I ruined the film and the rest of the series for my partner. The moment this happened, I shrugged and said, "Oh, so they go back in time, give Lupin his potion and save the day. Meh." At this, my partner stopped the DVD, looked at me in shock and said, "That would have been so much better!" Unfortunately, this witless use of time travel, which is clever for how Hermione deals with it and general continuity, is nowhere near as smart as all that. Instead, writers J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves become obsessed with making what happened the first time around work out as opposed to illustrating any ability to change the future.

The reason this is utterly terrible is simple: 1. Harry and Hermione go back in time a few hours with the intent to change events and 2. They have plenty of time to get Lupin the potion he needs. Harry and Hermione wait in the forest for hours to stay out of sight after saving the magical animal they want to save. In that time, either or both of them could have easily gotten the potion they need for Lupin from Snape and/or simply reminded Lupin to go take the potion. This would have completely prevented the big showdown which leaves the villain on the run at the end of the movie.

The result is that engaged viewers will sit at the end of this movie and ask "What was the point?!" What is the point of going back in time if not to try to stop the big confrontation and all of the harm that comes from it? For sure, two lives are saved, but more could have been spared if the villain was simply apprehended as he was supposed to be. But this also begs the question that plagues other films that attempt temporal adjustments, like Heroes and Star Trek: First Contact: if the heroes or villains fail in their attempt to change the results of their actions the first time, why do they not simply go back and try something different? Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is rather stupidly resolved without any of the main characters illustrating any care for the fact that the villain of the film is now on the run!

Moreover, Sirius Black claims he was framed for the death of Harry Potter's parents, an action he was convicted for and sentenced to prison. He endured twelve years in a magical prison and is shown in all of the "Wanted" posters screaming and crazed. Are we truly to believe that with access to a magical device like the one Hermione has, he would not grab it, a decent magical judge, and drag them both back in time to exonerate himself?! Come on! I don't know about you, but if I spent over a decade in Hell, knowing I was innocent and the tools needed to prove it were right in front of me, I'd take them and the people necessary to clear my name back with me!

These ideas, however, seem quite beyond all of the characters, writers and director of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban and the result is a remarkably unfulfilling cinematic experience that is bound to disappoint adults.

That said, the acting in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is decent. While Rupert Grint is forced to continue doing his same old schtick (which he pretty well mastered in the first film), Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe are given great chances to add serious depth to their performances and they rise to those occasions. Watson gets her eyelines right for virtual characters and has an intelligence to her performance that sells the reality of moments like her character seeing a time-travelling version of herself without revealing it to her friends. Similarly, Radcliffe has moments where he is able to be softer and deeply human, especially in scenes opposite David Thewlis's Lupin and Gary Oldman's Sirius Black. Radcliffe is able to explore Harry simply being a needy teenager who wants his parents and it works perfectly for him.

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban fleshes out the performances by great performances by Thewlis and Oldman. This is the cinematic episode where Michael Gambon takes over as Dumbledore and he makes a decent outing, though his performance has Dumbledore being more vocally assertive than his predecessor.

On DVD, there are a slew of DVD bonus features, spread over two discs. There is no commentary track, but there are preview trailers for the three Harry Potter films that existed when this was released. There are virtual tours of the new classrooms, interviews with Rowling and the full cast. There is a preview for the video game for the film and special effects featurettes.

None of this makes the source material any better and the result is ultimately another disappointing Harry Potter film, though this one is better than its predecessors.

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Clash Of The Titans


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page for an organized list updated daily!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. I've been reading your reviews for the past couple of weeks and I do enjoy them. I think you make some excellent points about the Harry Potter movies in particular that showcase their shortcomings as book-movie adaptations.

    But I would be remiss if I didn't point out the problem with this movie review in particular. If Harry and Hermione were to travel back in time and give Lupin his potion, it would change the timeline in such a way so that Harry and Hermione would never need to go back in time in the first place, thus creating a predestination paradox. The events have to play out the same way they did the first time, or else the universe would be in danger of collapsing (or something). This is also the same reason why Sirius cannot simply grab the time turner and go back to exonerate himself. This is the same lesson we learn in most time travel films (H.G. Wells Time Machine, Terminator, etc...)

    The movie actually does an excellent job of showing that the time traveling section of the story is not added in at the last minute, but had actually already occurred by the time that Dumbledore suggests it should happen... this actually makes the story even more brilliant.

  2. Hi! Thanks for the comment. I appreciate different views. But here's the problem with your argument: the time travel already occurred, so there's no reason it couldn't keep occurring. In other words, it happened the way it happened in the movie, but it does not preclude the possibility that Harry and Hermione could use the time turner AGAIN and make sure Lupin gets his potion and Pettigrew doesn't get away. As well, the existence of the time turner becomes more and more problematic the more the casualties mount. Here is a device that can stop each and every death. Moreover, as the Horcruxes are recovered, the existence of the time turner makes less and less sense. After all, the integrity of the timeline is being placed against countless deaths. Instead, once each horcrux is identified, Harry and his friends ought to be able to go back and stop each one from being created. Or ... better yet, kill Tom Riddle before he creates his first horcrux. Temporal paradox be damned; if you're not prepared to mess with the timeline, don't add a temporable variable into the narrative! Thanks!

    -W.L. Swarts

  3. For the last time . . . because it is the most commented on aspect . . . I completely understand predestination paradoxes in time travel. The problem with time travel in Harry Potter is not that the characters do not do more of it, but rather that:
    1. It weakens the plight of Sirius Black that he does not try to use the Time Turner to exonerate himself,
    and 2. It weakens all of the "good" characters who - not one! - suggest using the Time Turner to go back and stop Voldemort and all of the problems he causes in the past.

    Or, even better, stop Peter Pettigrew by getting poor Lupin his potion. The problem with the time travel in this movie is that none of the characters think of doing what I thought right away would have saved all the problems that come later.