The children, they grow so fast. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the tale in which J. K. Rowling's young orphan wizard becomes a teenager, and the first thing that strikes you about the new movie is how much more mature its protagonists have become, at least on the outside; the boys' faces are leaner, longer, a bit more rugged, definitely free of baby fat, while it seems Hermione Granger (played by Emma Watson), the one girl of any import, is about to blossom into an adolescent beauty.
This physical maturity is matched by a darker thematic and artistic sensibility. Unlike the first two films, which were directed in a typically clunky, treacly fashion by Chris Columbus, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the work of Alfonso Cuarón, a Mexican whose eclectic portfolio covers everything from the cute-as-a-button kids' flick A Little Princess to the sexually provocative Y Tu Mama Tambien. Cuarón brings darker colors and bolder, more imaginative visuals to this entry in the series, and for once, it can be said that a Harry Potter film has been made with something resembling a genuine artistic vision.
And just in the nick of time, too. The Prisoner of Azkaban is perhaps the most emotionally complex of the Harry Potter stories to date; it is here that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) first encounters the Dementors, fearsome creatures which can suck the joy out of anyone who crosses their path, and it is here that he wrestles with his darkest, most murderous impulses. As the story begins, Harry is staying with his mean, muggle (i.e. non-magical) relatives, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), and they are visited by the even meaner Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris), whose insulting remarks about Harry's parents prompt him to retaliate by making her puff up and float away like a balloon. Knowing that his unauthorized use of magic during the holidays ought to get him expelled from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry runs away from home and is picked up by a magical double-decker bus that drops him off in the wizarding district. There, he is brought to the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), who surprisingly does not punish Harry but, instead, gives him a place to stay until school begins.
It turns out the authorities are concerned for everyone's safety—but especially Harry's—because a criminal named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who was sentenced to the maximum-security prison Azkaban 12 years ago for betraying Harry's parents to the Dark Lord Voldemort, has escaped and is thought to be heading for Hogwarts. The Dementors, who ordinarily guard Azkaban, now patrol the school grounds in seach of Sirius—and while Harry expresses a vengeful desire to kill Sirius himself, he is, if anything, even more terrified of the Dementors. Enter Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who teaches Harry how to face his fears and resist the Dementors. Lupin, it turns out, is another former classmate of Harry's father, and in their moments together, Harry begins to form his first meaningful friendship with a grown-up. (The burly giant Hagrid may technically be an adult, but in many ways he's still a kid at heart.)
The Harry Potter novels have caused a great deal of concern for Christian parents and others who wonder if these books might get children interested in the occult, and of all the stories Rowling has written to date, The Prisoner of Azkaban may supply the strongest evidence for both sides of that debate. Many Christians—and I am one of them—defend the books on the basis that the "magic" contained within them serves the exact same purpose as the improbably high-tech devices that allow sci-fi characters to fly through space, shape-shift, teleport from one spot to another, and so on; as Charles Colson has put it, the magic in these books is "mechanical," not "occultic." Within Rowling's sub-creation (to borrow a term from J.R.R. Tolkien), Harry Potter is not a regular child who dabbles in supernatural powers forbidden to him by God, but rather, he is a child born with an unusual set of natural abilities, and like the mutants who study under Professor Xavier in the X-Men movies, he attends a special school to learn how to master his skills and use them wisely. And nothing has convinced me of the link between Harry Potter's "magic" and the high-tech wizardry of science fiction more than this story's introduction of time travel—yes, time travel. Somehow I doubt that's the sort of thing Wiccans practice in real life, and I suspect most children are smart enough to recognize that that sort of thing is pure make-believe.
But Rowling introduces another concept in The Prisoner of Azkaban that might not be so easy to explain away. In this story, Harry and his friends attend a course in divination taught by the loopy Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson); exercises include gazing into crystal balls, reading palms, and studying tea leaves. For the most part, Trelawney and her lessons are held up to ridicule—Hermione, the most intellectual of Harry's friends, dismisses divination as a "woolly discipline." But the mere existence of this class at Hogwarts, combined with the fact that one of Trelawney's prophecies is uttered under eerie circumstances and does come true, may be enough to convince some Christians that the Harry Potter stories are up to no good. Spoilers prohibit me from saying more about this, but suffice to say that Christian interpretations of the Trelawney scenes range from those who think they provide the clearest evidence of demonic activity in Rowling's world, despite the fact that Rowling has never made demons a part of her sub-creation (see Richard Abanes's Harry Potter and the Bible), to those who think they expose the folly of superstitious beliefs (see Connie Neal's The Gospel According to Harry Potter).
The deeper problem with these books is their questionable, and highly subjective, morality. The Prisoner of Azkaban does contain at least one noteworthy object lesson in the difference between humility and arrogance, when Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the newly appointed professor in charge of magical beasts, introduces his students to a hippogriff (a creature that is half-horse, half-eagle) and tells them they must respect its "pride" if they want to go for a ride on its back; Harry approaches the hippogriff humbly, his neck bowed, and is rewarded with a fantastic flight over the school grounds, while Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), the school bully, swaggers right up to the creature and is promptly attacked. But Harry's virtues are lacking in other areas. He exhibits a flagrant disregard for the rules, even when they have been put there for his own safety, and nearly always seems to get away with it; it is also particularly disturbing to see the "heroes" of this story, including Harry himself, so eager to kill the man who betrayed Harry's parents. Harry manages to exchange his anger for mercy at the last possible moment, but his change of heart seems more like a passing whim than the result of a deeper transformation in the way he thinks and feels.
That change may yet come. The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third in a projected seven-part series, and it is too early to say where this character's arc will take him in the end. What we can say at this point is that Cuarón has produced the most terrifying and darkly humorous movie adaptation of Rowling's stories to date—his use of the Whomping Willow to convey the passing of the seasons is especially amusing—and he has given it a visual flair that was sorely missing in the previous installments. The Dementors are especially creepy—not quite as frightening as the Nazgul at their worst in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, but more consistently scary than Jackson's creations, which occasionally seemed like the actors in costumes that they were. Most remarkably, despite the fact that he was adapting the longest of the first three books, Cuarón has turned out the shortest and most briskly paced film of the lot. If anything, the film may be too brisk—it leaves out a fair bit of material, particularly regarding Harry's father and his friends, that could have clarified the connections between certain characters and objects. But overall, this film is perhaps the most entertaining opportunity that children and adults have had yet to practice their gifts of discernment in all things Potter.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What do you think of the "magic" in these stories? How is it similar to, or different from, the sort of "magic" that some people try to practice in the real world? How is it similar to, or different from, technology? Why do you think people like to imagine doing impossible things? What sorts of powers do you wish you had?
- Are Harry Potter and his friends receiving the sort of moral instruction they need to guide them as they apply their lessons in "magic"? What sort of classes would you like to see Harry and his friends take, which (so far) have not been seen at Hogwarts?
- If you could go back in time, would you? To when? What would you do? What implications do time travel and prophecies like Trelawney's have for free will? Does knowing the future limit Harry's choices, or expand them?
- Does the movie criticize or support superstitious beliefs? Is it possible to mock an activity and encourage it at the same time? Does the movie itself do this?
- Who do you think would make the best father figure for Harry? Why? Professor Lupin tells Harry that his father, James Potter, broke a lot of rules, too. What kind of father do you think James would have been to Harry? Do you think anyone ever disciplines Harry properly or effectively? Who does Harry respect in this story? Why does he respect them?
A ready-to-download, Bible-based discussion guide is available for this movie at ChristianBibleStudies.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film is rated PG for "frightening moments, creature violence and mild language." The Harry Potter stories have been the focus of debate because they are about children who are born with "magical" powers—some of which, such as the ability to ride broomsticks, are clearly just make-believe, though others, such as the ability to predict the future, may resemble forms of divination that the Bible forbids in real life. The threat of violence also looms large over these stories—Harry's parents were killed when he was one year old, and both he and a couple of adults express a desire to get revenge against the person who betrayed his parents. In addition, the Dementors are very creepy creatures that try to suck out the souls of a couple characters. The characters also occasionally use words like "bloody" and "damn."
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/08/04
One title comes with a guarantee that it will stir up what has become an annual debate among Christians and film critics. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the successful franchise based on J.K. Rowling's bestselling series, will come to the screen. This episode comes from Alfonso Cuarón, director of A Little Princess and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Thus, it promises to be a darker, more grown-up Potter story. If the pattern holds, many critics will find meaning in the film's fairy tale metaphors, while others will insist that the film is a tool of the devil meant to lure children into dabbling with the occult.from Film Forum, 06/10/04
Another year, another Harry Potter movie.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban fulfilled all box office hopes, raking in $92.6 million in its first three days. (That's the second-best three-day-opening ever, behind Spider-man's $114 million.) More surprising was its critical reception. While devoted fans of J.K. Rowling's best-selling series of novels are upset by screenwriter Steve Kloves' abridgement of the storyline, most mainstream film critics are celebrating this third film in the series as the best so far.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, noticeably more mature) and his friends are young teenagers now, and they're dealing with more serious matters. Harry is more confident in his talents, and bolder. He's quicker to use magic to humiliate his family, quicker to break the school rules to investigate shadowy matters, and quicker to confront his enemies. There are the first glimmers of romance between his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), as well as clear signs of "girl-power" audacity in Hermione's willingness to stand up to the school bullies.
When this episode's threat against Harry arises, this time in the form of escaped prisoner Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Harry and his friends find themselves entangled in a complicated web of cover-ups and conspiracies. They receive hints, hindrances, and help from familiar faces like Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon replacing Richard Harris), and the new teacher on campus—Professor Lupin (the brilliant David Thewlis). The film gathers to an involving and complicated climax involving an enchanting winged creature called a Hippogriff, a ferocious werewolf, creepy flying phantoms called Dementors, and a magic trick that shows up conveniently just in time to give our heroes the advantage they need.
While I wholeheartedly agree with those critics praising director Alfonso Cuarón for the way he improves upon the work of Chris Columbus, who directed the first two films, I did not find Azkaban to be a better story than The Sorcerer's Stone or The Chamber of Secrets. In fact, it is a deeply troubling episode. While the cast is phenomenal, the exploits of the heroes are increasingly arrogant and anti-authoritarian. Further, the conclusion involves too many arbitrary twists and a magic trick that's a complete cop-out—one that has been worn out through over-use in action-adventure movies and Star Trek episodes.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
This time around, Christian film critics seem to be less concerned about the issue of witchcraft in the film. There seems to be more willingness to accept that magic in these stories is being employed the way it has been in fairy tales for centuries—as a system of symbolism that represents personal talents and gifts, and that also represents the role of technology in our own world. When real-world "dark arts" make an appearance in the plot, they are treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner that serves to make them seem dismissible, hokey, and merely make-believe. It all should make for a good family time at the movies, so long as viewers discuss what they have seen and ensure that everyone understands the difference between fantasy and reality.
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) writes, "This is the third—and arguably the best—adaptation of [the] novels about the boy wizard. Cuarón brings a more cinematic sensibility to the tale just as Steve Kloves' screenplay is less concerned with a literal translation of Rowling's novel. The resulting visuals are impressive, sometimes glorious—and occasionally frightening." Pare adds that it is "too intense for young children unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy."
"I liked the first two installments of the series," says Michael Medved (Eye On Entertainment), "but I love this movie, which, for all its amazing creatures and dazzling special effects, looks somehow more realistic with a more fully realized vision of the world of Hogwarts."
Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Cuarón brings darker colors and bolder, more imaginative visuals to this entry in the series, and for once, it can be said that a Harry Potter film has been made with something resembling a genuine artistic vision. Azkaban is perhaps the most emotionally complex of the Harry Potter stories to date." He notes, "It leaves out a fair bit of material … that could have clarified the connections between certain characters and objects."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is impressed with what's there, but troubled by the film's omissions. "Where its predecessors felt a bit padded and overlong, this one feels incomplete and overly edited. Important elements included in the films no longer totally make sense, or have the necessary significance, in the absence of what the film doesn't tell us or show us. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that viewers who haven't read the book may feel somewhat lost at times. At the same time, fans of the book, even those who aren't rabid purists, may be upset or disappointed by the loose ends and neglected explanations."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "Though I haven't been a teenager for a long time, I thoroughly enjoy the Harry Potter books. But ever since I read Prisoner of Azkaban, I've wondered whether it was filmable. I'm happy to say … [Cuarón and Kloves] have largely succeeded. The movie covers most of the important plot points, and Cuarón conjures up some wonderful visual tricks that fit with the tone of the book. Instead of the effects overwhelming the story, they serve it, and the movie becomes a seamless, magical tale."
Jenn Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says it's "a plethora of fun and fantasy for adults and children alike … 136 minutes worth of sheer treat. Cuarón took an existing abundance of amazing talent and used it to equally amazing ends in creating this whimsical yet somehow down-to-earth film." Wright highlights the film's emphases on themes of mercy and sacrifice.
Michael Ray (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The universal themes, the sharp directing, and a twisting plot combine to make Prisoner the most mature Potter film yet. It's a joy to watch these characters grow into their place in movie history. Adolescence can be an awkward stage, but in this case, the film handles it with ease."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) compares Cuarón's approach to literary adaptation to Peter Jackson's work with the Lord of the Rings films. He concludes that it's "the sharpest Harry Potter film yet. In addition to the contributions from the new cast and crew members, the film also boasts the series' most stunning special effects yet, not to mention a fine score from composer John Williams, whose previous Harry Potter work has been a bit lacking."
But Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) takes a different view altogether. "There are signs that the film is off track right from the start. Harry is more petulant and less of a likable character. The tone and atmosphere is significantly darker and the humor, what little there is, seems forced and out of character." He adds that Michael Gambon's Dumbledore "is a mere shadow of the character we met in the first two films."
Steven Isaac with Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "More prominent here than in Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets is Harry's defiance and his rule-breaking." They're especially concerned about the willingness of the "good wizards" to employ evil phantoms to protect their school. They conclude, "It's cool. It's fun. It's entertaining. Harry faces down his fear. Love is shown in selflessness and self-sacrifice. Despite intense feelings of anger and a mad desire for revenge, Harry is more interested in discovering the truth about what happened to his parents than easy retribution against the man he believes betrayed them. But when you're battling darkness with darkness, even the winners end up wondering where all the light went."
There are, however, some critics who still argue that the magic in J.K. Rowling's stories is meant to be taken seriously and literally—that Rowling is recommending witchcraft as the route of true salvation. (I still wonder why these critics do not make similar protests about Mary Poppins, the King Arthur stories, and the Disney movies in which magic is used similarly.)
Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, "We, as God fearing, loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and all, have been running fitfully in front of J.K. Rowling, and whatever she may have to dish out next, protecting our children. With just cause, we are appalled by her relentless and eerily accurate depictions of witchcraft, spells and dark arts. She is declaring to our youngsters that this is merely harmless fantasy, when in stark reality witchcraft is a sin and no one will go blameless before the Lord who practices it. It is only just and right that we have the righteous urge to shield our children from practicing such acts and are worried they will become involved in things that God strictly forbids."
She also warns viewers about a werewolf transformation scene. "I was scared to watch it myself, and I can sit through 'scary' with the best of 'em."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says Rowling "is an excellent writer with an amazingly creative imagination, and her films reflect this. But her occult worldview, which is of great concern to Christians, teaches that humans are the ones who judge good and evil—and that we can and should use supernatural power to influence both." She concludes by writing that Rowling is "perhaps assisted by the very forces she unveils in her novels."
I'm curious: Have any Film Forum readers changed in their opinions about the Harry Potter stories since the controversy first arose? Do you find your children being lured toward the dark arts because of the boy wizard? Do you have other concerns about the stories? Or do you find the stories to be wholly worthwhile? Let me know.from Film Forum, 06/17/04
This week, more Christian press critics stood up to praise director Alfonzo Cuarón's work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Alan Thomas (Movies Matter) writes, "Cuarón lets the franchise grow up with the characters. He has changed the voice of the series for the better. Not only does that make this the best of the Potter films, but the magical world itself is liberated and more vivid. By not having everything explained to us, Cuarón places this story in a newly mysterious place"
Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says it's "much superior to its two predecessors in the Potter film franchise. Azkaban deals with large issues. We see that the wizard world has problems with politics and injustice. Ambiguity arises out of the interpersonal relationships between wizards and the bureaucracy. Cuarón taps into puberty's emotions and feeling powerless in the face of those with power. He thus develops a fine film about, essentially, being a middle-school kid in a world that doesn't understand."
He adds the opinion of another critic: "My son, who is a Harry Potter fan, did not like the movie because of its differences from the book."
Andrew Coffin (World) says it's "easily the most stylishly designed and directed of the three," but that the Potter franchise will continue troubling parents due to its "magical elements" and "the flimsiness of the film's moral structure." He adds, "Azkaban frequently relies more on the conventions of horror films than what one would expect for a PG-rated children's fantasy."from Film Forum, 07/08/04
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is still proving popular at the multiplex, and this week, a new review from Peter T. Chattaway of Christianity Today Movies has been posted at Canadian Christianity. Defending the series against critics of its magical metaphors, Chattaway turns in a positive review. "Many Christians—and I am one of them—defend the books on the basis that the 'magic' within them serves the exact same purpose as the technology in science fiction. And nothing has convinced me of the link between these books and science fiction more than the fact that this story introduces time travel to the wizards' bag of tricks. Somehow I think most children are smart enough to recognize that this is pure make-believe."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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