The third film about Harry Potter needed some new blood. The previous films were very successful, and the fans seemed pleased, but everyone else were not quite as impressed. A change was necessary. Director Alfonso Cuarón would provide that change.
And so the highly successful franchise moves ahead in a new direction, showing no signs of stopping. It's time for the darkness to descent upon Hogwarts, and it's time for our intrepid young heroes to take a stand.
IT'S THE ONE WHERE...
The murderer Sirius Black has escaped from prison, and he's coming after Harry, who must also defend himself against the gruesome Dementors that have taken position around the school. Harry learns more about the death of his parents, meanwhile Hermione plays around with time travel.
There's a super-fast bus. A werewolf. A transforming rat. And something called a hipper- hip- hippogryf- griff'er.
Something wicked this way comes. It's been hinted at for two whole movies, but there's no beating around the bush anymore. The third adventure of Harry Potter is dark, both visually and thematically. Even the opening shot, with the Warner Bros. logo is shrouded in darkness. And it's so freakin' cool.
For the first time we have a clear simple story, with a clear simple goal: Sirius Black is loose. He must be stopped. That's it. Okay, there are a lot of subplots, and even some time travel, but no matter how confused we get along the way, the central premise is clearly defined and that's a great relief.
There's no doubt the Harry Potter producers knew what they were doing here. They made a conscious decision to find a new director who could really add something to the franchise. They knew which way the story was heading, not just in this film, but in the upcoming entries as well, and they knew they had to get away from the "safe" environment established by Chris Columbus in the first two films. They needed someone special to handle that.
The choice of director Alfonso Cuarón was inspired. He already had a good track-record of working with kids, after all he did A Little Princess (1995), and one of my own personal favorites: Great Expectations (1998), which both feature very convincing performances from its young cast members. Besides tackling the darkness, Cuarón also adds a sorely needed fix of the bizarre to the proceedings, with a few erratic touches of crazy here and there.
Cuarón's mise-en-scène - how he stages his scenes, his choices in camera angles, music and other elements - makes the film seem fresh. Take for example the very simple scene where Ron's father reveals crucial information to Harry, while everybody is reunited in the background. This is a perfectly ordinary scene, and usually you would shoot this with a number of different angles, covering both the foreground action and the background. Cuarón doesn't do this. He shoots the entire scene in one single uninterrupted shot. This builds up tension (that's what a lack of cutting can do), and it shows the audience that Cuarón has confidence in us - he knows he doesn't have to point his camera directly at everything, in order for us to get it. Finally the shot also sets up the point that we have to keep one eye on the background, an idea that'll come into play later in the film. Most people will probably never notice this, it all happens in a very subtle way, but make no mistake, this is a very clever sleight of hand.
I'm also going to give Cuarón credit for keeping the scenes with Harry and his foster family on a realistic level, more or less. It's quite telling that even though these scenes actually feature a lady being inflated to epic proportions and BLOWING out of the window, they are still more downplayed than usual! And on a point of personal satisfaction, Harry finally slams the door and leaves that intolerable family! Thank God! I hope he never returns!
Everything in this film seems to operate on a new level. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the cinematography. This film is simply GORGEOUS. Cinematographer Michael Seresin is no stranger to working with darkness, he previously photographed Angel Heart (1987). He has created a sinister, stark look for the film, where everything significant seems to take place during dark and stormy nights. There's even a quidditch match in the rain storm!
Cuarón and Seresin also use the various locations around the school to much greater effect. We really get an appreciation for the beautiful surroundings, it's not like we haven't seen them before, they've just never looked prettier. Finally, I don't know if these two gentlemen are to blame for this, but how brilliant is it to show the passing of the seasons, by using the same image of The Whomping Willow (that's the big living tree)? Simple and poetic.
Before we get to the real stars of this film, let's cover the REAL stars of the film! The Dementors. I sometimes find it hard to be scared by computer-generated characters (well, Tom Hanks looked scary in The Polar Express (2004), but that's not what I mean). However, I must admit that the Dementors work really well. When that bony hand slowly opened the door to Harry's train compartment, I had to reach for my stuffed penguin. I know there are four novels after this, and yet I still fear for Harry's life! The odd thing is that even though we see the Dementors several times, and even once in full daylight, they remain scary! I'll chalk this one up to great direction.
The soul-sucking Dementors may have stolen my attention every time they're on, but the real treat in this film is that for the first time the bond of friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione takes center stage. We get to spend more time alone with the three wizards and I feel like - to a much larger degree than before - this is their story. The film has some great moments between the characters. I love the way they share a three-way hug after a particular sad event, I love the way Hermione steps in front of Harry, without a moments hesitation, when his life is threatened. In the midst of all this crazy magic, we need something like this, to remind us that there are real lives on the line here. The trio seems to be closer than before, and it suits the story very well. It's that kind of bond that's been missing from the other films.
Once again we have a few new players among the grown-ups. Of course Gary Oldman is the standout.
For some reason Oldman seems like a high maintenance actor, and I didn't think he would embrace a mainstream film such as this, but here we are. He may just have done it for the paycheck, but the producers certainly got what they paid for. He's only really present in a handful of scenes, but he makes quite an impression! Just the image of him screaming towards us on the wanted poster is enough, but when he's suddenly revealed to be in the same room as our heroes, I almost dropped my coffee!
Another formidable addition to the cast is David Thewlis. He plays the new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin. I've loved him since I saw him in Naked (1993), where he delivered a fearlessly beautiful performance. He's got a lot less to work with here, but that doesn't really stop him. He's just good.
No film could rightfully expect to have both Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Alan Rickman in the cast, but this one even gets to have them together in the same room. Great stuff.
As for Emma Thompson, who stars as Sybil Trelawney, Professor of Divination, she seems like a rather unnecessary addition, though. She'll be needed in a later movie, if I recall correctly, but all her scenes here are pointless, and a bit hard to get through.
After the death of Richard Harris - bless him - the role of Professor Dumbledore has been taken over by Michael Gambon, and given a makeover. His version of the charismatic schoolmaster feels less like a caricature, and more like an actual person. More on him, as we move through the franchise.
Before we finish up I want to waste a few words on our old foe, Draco Malfoy. Luckily he's simply reduced to an annoyance, who pushes people around, and he's easily defeated with a punch to the face. I won't waste anymore time on him. He's not worth it.
This is more like it! The third Harry Potter film sheds most of the idiocy left over from the first two films. It looks beautiful, there's great drama, some great new characters, and a real sense that we have now moved out of the kiddie pool.
The big showdown here - Harry locked in a life and death struggle with the Dementors - is truly a powerful scene. Within the confines of the Harry Potter universe, this is probably as good as it gets.
With a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, the movie is also comfortable to watch. I'm tempted to recommend complete newcomers to simply start here, but of course that's not really possible, since you need the background information the two first movies provide. Oh well, guess there's nothing to do, but take it like a man. It's time to move on to the fourth film in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005).
This one has Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort! Bloody brilliant!
Feature running time: 142 minutes
Number of pages in novel: 317
Hermione Hotness Factor: 5/10
The Weasley Twins Creepiness Factor: 4/10
Voldemort-o-meter level: Zero. He's barely mentioned.
The showdown between Oldman, Thewlis and our three young wizards in the old dark house.