June 17th, 2004
I went to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on Wednesday evening. As someone who'd neither read the novels nor seen the previous films, I felt at times that some of the big scenes fell a little flat because I was clearly lacking knowledge of the history the characters shared. That's the price you pay for coming into a series almost a third of the way through; not so much a lack of facts as a lack of context.
Although I was aware that I was missing a lot, there was still plenty to enjoy. Harry and Hermione were well played – especially Emma Watson's bright, brave Hermione – and the array of senior British character actors on display put in sterling work in the approximately two minutes most of them got to do their turn. (Which is fair enough, since with such a large supporting cast it's necessary to push some into the background for a film or two.) The special effects work was of a uniformly high standard, with even the CGI wolves looking pretty good – much better than, say, Van Helsing's werewolves. I found the confrontation between Sirius Black, Professor Lupin and the three youngsters a bit confusing at first, but that was a consequence of my lack of detailed knowledge of the backstory and of director Alfonso Cuarón's desire to pack a lot of plot into a relatively short running time. By contrast, the extended coda to that scene and its aftermath was very well played, showing earlier events from a different perspective and giving Hermione another chance to shine.
For my money, the film's main failing lay in the rather unsubtle way the script announced Harry's doom, be it Emma Thompson's character recoiling after reading Harry's tea leaves, or Dawn French hiding behind a cow gibbering about Sirius Black, or Emma Thompson's character again later on turning into a mouthpiece for another character. In fairness, this may have worked better for the much younger demographic the novels are aimed at. The other problem I had was with the weakness of some of the supporting roles: Ron Weasley was mostly bewildered comic relief, which seemed a bit of a waste of one of the three leads, and Draco Malfoy and his gang were a bit too pathetic to be a believable obstacle to the three leads. (I understand that Draco's father is a big wheel with considerable influence over Hogwarts, and that Draco's part was bigger in earlier films. Perhaps I just caught him in the wrong film.)
All in all, I can't truthfully rate the film as more than a decent evening's diversion, but I fully accept that someone who had read the novels and seen the earlier films would view this third instalment in a much more favourable light. I'm not planning to rush out and read the books, but that's as much because I already have a fair-sized pile of reading material as anything else. As J K Rowling is telling a seven-part story, I'd expect that the films will get harder to follow for casual viewers. When the fourth film comes round I'll probably give it a miss, unless I happen to have caught up with the novels by then.