Okay. This is a rough one. Because, on the one hand, Alfonso Cuarón created perhaps the most artful Potter film. One that expanded the universe on screen with a depth of character that no one really managed after him. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
On the other hand, this movie makes exactly 0% sense.
So, originally, Chris Columbus was set to direct all the Potter films. Story goes, after the second film he realized that he would probably miss out on watching his kids grow up if he was always so busy. He ducked out, and a slew of awesome names were thrown into the ring to replace him. Alfonso Cuarón was a shocker when he was announced because some needlessly concerned people were all “Have you see Y Tu Mamá También? There are sexual teenagers in that! And experimentation!” Meanwhile J.K. Rowling was all, “I think he’s a great choice!” And the rest of the world was either “I don’t care” or “He also directed The Little Princess, which was good and had kids and no sex in it, you guys really need to calm down.”
Things were already off to an interesting start.
Cuarón was not a fan of the limited sound stages where so much of the first two films were shot. He wanted more locations, so he found an area in Scotland where he could build a large portion of the Hogwarts grounds. This resulted in reorientation of various landmarks and a few moments of set re-appropriation. Some of this came off awkwardly: the place where Remus trains Harry to produce a Patronus is a redressed Dumbledore’s office. Some of this was perfect: moving Hagrid’s hut to a more remote location made sure the school grounds didn’t feel claustrophobic. In the previous films, the Forbidden Forest seemed to be located about 20 yards from the castle doors.
The thing that Cuarón excelled at above all was worldbuilding. We had a very tight lens on the wizarding world in the first two movies, and outside of Diagon Alley, nothing really looked or felt lived in the way it should. Cuarón did away with that. He showed us what The Leaky Cauldron looked like as it was closing down for the night. He told the young actors to wear their Hogwarts uniforms however they pleased, rather than up to inspection standards. He filled the wizarding world with vibrancy and plenty of influences outside of the British traditions Rowling built it on.
Side note: While I don’t necessarily take issue with the trio in their street clothes (the idea that wizards always dress in robes and don’t know what trousers are is amusing, but not even slightly practical on Rowling’s part), I dearly, desperately wish that they’d gone true to era, and put them in 90s street duds. I know it’s not really important, but it would have made my life.
Cuarón also made something of an effort to show Hogwarts as a more diverse community; there were more students of color in this film (all two of them) than in the previous ones. But sometimes that desire to showcase diversity was tackled… so very wrongly. Like, you know, having a shrunken head with a Jamaican accent in the front of the Knight Bus that exists solely to make funny comments and razz the driver. Showing how different areas of the world use magic would have been a welcome addition, an aspect that the books themselves could have done so much more with. Having wizards who herald from not-the-UK hanging about is absolutely something we should see. But a shrunken head using an island accent for laughs? Can we not do this?
With that in mind, I would like to make a list of Okay vs. Not Okay additions that Alfonso Cuarón (and sometimes Steve Kloves) made to the Potterverse—
- Moving Hagrid’s hut.
- Showing the boy’s in Harry’s dorm, up after hours, hanging out and having fun with novelty candy. (Most “real” moment in all the films? Maybe.)
- All the asides that students give in the dialogue.
- The Fat Lady trying to impress the kids with glass-breaking pipes. I want paintings at the school to interfere with daily activities more often.
- Showing what happens when a ghost runs through a student all nonchalant. Poor Dean. (We saw this earlier in the first film, but nothing was made of it, which was a mistake.)
- SPINE CANDLES.
- The Whomping Willow killing wayward birdies because that’s what Whomping Willows do.
- Not having time travel occur with a location jump.
- All the artistic direction. All of it. Well, most of it.
- Changes in the school uniforms. (Better scarves are better.)
- The school choir! Singing Macbeth! Was Shakespeare a wizard?
- Showing the kids all done up for the Quidditch match, with their face paint and their banners.
- All the dialogue between Remus, Sirius, and Snape in the Shrieking Shack. Married couple. Chemistry set. (Muggle insult! Buuuuuuurn.)
- All the dialogue that Dumbledore ad-libs to get Fudge to look away from Buckbeak while Harry and Hermione free him. One of the old headmasters had strawberries planted over there! No, there, see them? Riiiiiiight there.
- Buckbeak eating ferrets. I distinctly remember the majority of the theater hollering with laughter at that point—you could immediately see who read the books and who didn’t.
- Unnamed black student whose entire purpose is to say dire, scary things when the plot requires it. (I am not saying that he shouldn’t be here. I’m saying he should have better lines. And a name. And a character.)
- Tom from the Leaky Cauldron being distilled down to an Igor-esque stereotype.
- Harry shoving over a choir of people in Hogsmeade, so he can get to a rock in the woods where he can deal with his boypain.
- The werewolf design—THE HELL IS THAT MALFORMED FURRY ALIEN THEY SHOW US?
- Sirius’s prison tattoos. I know it seemed like a cool idea, but it really doesn’t make sense.
- Snape being awake and trying to protect the kids from the werewolf. I get it, he shouldn’t let them die, but the move is so paternal, and makes Snape look like he cares on a much more emotional level than he really does.
- Harry seeing Sirius in the crystal ball before the prediction from Trelawney because… why?
- Hermione freaking out about how her hair looks from the back because REALLY?
It’s known that when Cuarón was hired, he’d not read a single Potter book. (Neither had Michael Gambon, for that matter.) Which, you know, that’s fine really. Except we get little dumb things that shouldn’t happen. Like Dean Thomas immediately knowing that there’s a boggart in the wardrobe in DADA class when we know Dean is Muggle-born and wouldn’t know about them. Like Flitwick’s look changing entirely because there was no part for the character in the script, so Cuarón decided to dress him differently and make him the “choir director.” (Why can’t Flitwick just be the choir director? Goblet of Fire director Mike Newell preferred the character’s look as the choir director, so he decided exactly that.)
Screenwriter Steve Kloves continued his mission in this film to make Ron a camp, useless sidekick, while morphing Hermione into the stock definition of “Strong Female Character” in this film. She’s smart, but she’s also cool! She’s braver than literally everyone! No, slapping Draco isn’t good enough—this time she’ll punch him! (The punch actually wasn’t in the script—apparently Watson just decided to do it.) The added flirting between Ron and Hermione was pretty adorable and set the stage well for their continued development throughout the films. But watching Ron sob his way through half the movie is grating. There were other little additions Kloves asked Rowling about in the script as well—such as Lupin’s fond memories of Lily.
David Thewis is… well, Thewis is a great actor. He’s just not really how I see Remus Lupin, and that seems to be a pretty common sentiment among the fandom. On the other hand, I really appreciated the decision to depict lycanthropy as a debilitating disease on film, rather than just a monthly grievance. We can see how Lupin’s condition affects his day to day life on screen, how it is more like a chronic illness than a once-a-month inconvenience. Gary Oldman makes a pretty excellent Sirius Black, and his manic delivery when he first appears on screen is delicious. He’s also cuddly as all get-out with Harry, which is nice given how little time they actually have to talk in the book. Book Five came out while they were filming this one, which meant that Oldman found out Sirius was going to die then. Apparently, he wore a black armband to work.
Of course, we lost Richard Harris and gained Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. And it makes me sad that Gambon is often only remembered for his “DID PUT NAME GOBLET FIRE” shouty-ness because I adore his hippie-grandpa take on the character, and his read of “I would like a cup of tea, or, a large brandy” is one of my favorite line readings in the history of movies. He’s just a bit more sparkly. He’s indiscernible, but not by being inaccessible. Mostly I’m just a fan of his comic timing, I suppose. And speaking of comic timing, Emma Thompson is just the greatest and manages to make Trelawney a bit lovable despite how admittedly goofy the character is. (Although I recently found out that Tilda Swinton was contacted for the role, and now my brain cannot stop considering that possibility.)
I have to mention the score because it’s the final Potter film that John Williams composed for and he just nails it to the wall. Everything is gorgeous. Every idea is inspired, from Marge’s inflation being an accidental waltz to the drums that herald Harry and Buckbeak’s first flight. It’s just a great soundtrack all the way around.
That’s so much to say, and I haven’t really even gotten to the core of my beef here—that the film is utterly nonsensical. And no one seemed to care. Like, the movie starts with Harry practicing magic under cover of night at the Dursleys, lighting up the room with his wand. And then the Aunt Marge Incident happens, and Harry’s confused over not being expelled from Hogwarts because “underage wizards aren’t allowed to do magic outside of school” and you’re like THEN WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU JUST DOING, HARRY, WAS IT SLEIGHT OF HAND, I WOULD JUST LOVE TO KNOW.
And it keeps going on like this. Snape stops Harry in the halls at night and tries to read the Marauder’s Map. Lupin comes to Harry’s rescue, then pulls the kid back to his office, and is all “I’m astounded that you didn’t turn this MAP in,” and Harry is totally unperturbed instead of asking the first logical question that should have popped into his head, like, “How do you know it’s a map, sir?” Then he ends up in the Shrieking Shack with his dad’s old buddies, and they’re like, Peter and Sirius are Animagi BUT YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW WHY, THAT’S JUST BORING OLD PEOPLE STUFF, HARRY.
So, they all emerge on the grounds to take Peter in, and Remus turns into an I-don’t-know-what-this-is-but-it’s-not-a-werewolf, then Sirius is all “Remus! Did you take your potion tonight?” And everyone in the audience who hasn’t read the book is like WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT, WHAT POTION, DID I MISS AN IMPORTANT THING WHEN I GOT UP TO PEE? and everyone in the audience who has read the book is like SIRIUS WOULDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE POTION, IT WAS INVENTED AFTER HE WENT TO AZKABAN, ALSO, WHY AREN’T WE TALKING ABOUT WHY HE’S AN ANIMAGUS. And then Sirius goes to Remus and grabs hold of him, and starts shouting out about how his heart is where he truly lives, he’s not a monster, and all the Sirius/Remus shippers in the audience go “awwwwwwww!”
So that’s something, I guess.
But it gets better! After helpfully not explaining anything (including why Snape really hates both Sirius and Remus), Harry time travels with Hermione and realizes that he’s the one who has to conjure the Patronus to save himself and Sirius from the Dementors. And he does and it’s a stag! Isn’t that awesome? Wait, no, it’s not because the relevance of the stag is never touched on or pointed to or even awkwardly explained in terrible exposition. And everyone in the audience who hasn’t read the book is all, SO PRETTY! and everyone who has read the book is trying so hard not to shake every uninformed audience member by the shoulders and cry about how Harry just saw his dad and they don’t even get it.
Sirius has to leave, but before that he tells Harry that the ones who love us never leave us, and you can always find them in your heart, which is a great sentiment, but the whole point of that sentiment was to talk about Harry’s dad, and a significant portion of the audience doesn’t have any idea that Harry’s dad was even a part of this movie, let alone the fact that Sirius is talking about him. (Which he kind of isn’t anyway because Sirius doesn’t know anything about Harry’s Patronus either. These were supposed to be Dumbledore’s lines.) By the way, we also never find out who the hell Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs are, or the fact that the dudes Harry powwowed with all night made that fancy map he’s going to use for the next four years. Whatever. Sirius gets away. Great.
So the whole “explaining the mystery” part? The part that makes Prisoner of Azkaban such a spectacular installment in the Potter series? Is just scrapped. I understand that having your actors just stand around explaining things is low on action, but I would have traded most of the action scenes in this film (especially the Whomping Willow one, it is utterly ridiculous) for one solid scene of Real Talk that properly sets up this host of new characters. Yes, the candy in Honeydukes looks delectable, but there was a very special story here that never made it to screen.
But it’s all fine because it ends with Harry getting to ride on his new Firebolt, right? You know, that super swanky broom that we NEVER heard about in the film? Yeah, it’ll be fine, because Harry is going to end this movie on an awesome broom, having a ball as the FRAME FREEZES ON HIS SMEARED, SMUDGY FACE AND THAT’S IT, WE HOPE YOU LIKED THE MOVIE.
I… am just gonna pretend that never happened.