Alfonso Cuarón and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The following is an appreciation of my personal favorite film by Alfonso Cuarón, which I fear has been somewhat critically neglected. But for more on the man’s impressive career as a whole, see Nelson Carvajal’s video “Alfonso Cuarón's Cinematic Canvas.”

People sometimes ask me whether I think “the kids today” are all right. That always seems to me a strange question and perhaps a rhetorical one where the speaker is really suggesting that there’s something wrong with anyone younger than us. The logic, inasmuch as I follow it, is that thirty-somethings had the privilege of growing up with movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and Time Bandits, and those movies fucked us up, and made us the clever intelligent beautiful sophisticates we are today. Well, I’m not so sure it works like that, and for every subversive film by Gilliam and Henson, there were many more popular flicks like The Karate Kid, Teen Wolf, and Short Circuit. But, sure, I always respond, “the kids today” should be totally fine, because they had Pokémon—surely one of the strangest cartoons I’ve ever witnessed—and what’s more, they had Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I disliked the first two Potter films, though I also wasn’t fond of the first two books. But with Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling started hitting her stride, complicating Harry’s bright happy world with more intricate plotting and morally ambiguous characters, the prime example of which was the titular prisoner himself, Sirius Black. And can you imagine what Chris Columbus would have done with that character? But Columbus bowed out of the franchise, allowing Cuarón to inherit it—and totally redesign it.

Casting Gary Oldman as Black was a bit of genius—this is the guy who previously played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Guildenstern (I mean Rosencrantz), Mason Verger, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, and that deranged cop determined to kill the pubescent Natalie Portman and her kindly middle-aged French hit man boyfriend. (Although come to think about it, had Stansfield succeeded, might we have been spared the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy?) Oldman’s mere presence—recall those initial glimpses of the man, howling in rage in those animated wanted posters—made Black feel genuinely dangerous, and made the Potterverse feel suddenly dangerous. Adding David Thewlis to the mix, as the reluctant, melancholy werewolf Remus Lupin (he’s rather Hulk-like), pushed that fictional world even further into some dark corner of the crooked Diagon Alley. Think about it: Azkaban’s the movie where Harry Potter’s stable of mentors swelled to include not just Oldman, but Johnny from Naked (and were we meant to sense in Thewlis’s presence a hint of the Verlaine / Rimbaud relationship in Total Eclipse?).

More importantly, with Azkaban, the Potter films went from something with the look and feel of an after-school special to the look and feel of cinema. If you’re shaky on the details, just compare any scene in Columbus’s version with any from Cuarón’s—for instance, these two classroom bits:

Note, in that Azkaban scene, the wide variety of techniques on display—long gliding takes and dramatic insert shots—as well as the inventive staging. (I particularly like the moment when Harry steps up to the boggart, and the camera affixes itself momentarily to the bobbing jack-in-the-box.) Azkaban was also the movie where Hogwarts—until now a stable, horizontal, and above all else comfortable boarding school—went all cockeyed, becoming in Cuarón’s hands someplace sprawling and ancient, a place with enormous swinging clock pendulums that could kill an unwary kid, and perched precariously amidst crags and ravines. Here’s what Cuaron did: when Columbus left the project, the producers initially turned to Guillermo del Toro. But del Toro declined, having found Columbus’s first two installments “so bright and happy and full of light.” But a few years later, he expressed interest in helming a later installment:

“After seeing the last few films, however, the director famed for a shadowy imagination and morally ambiguous characters has begun to reconsider. ‘They seem to be getting eerie and darker ... If they come back to me, I'll think about it.’”

Thank Cuarón for that eeriness, that darkness (though to be fair, the books do get more complex with that installment).

He departed after Azkaban, but he left his mark on the franchise: successors Mike Newell and David Yates kept the basics of his approach, even if their direction never matched Cuarón’s. With the exception of Bruno Delbonnel, who provided the cinematography for Half-Blood Prince, no one else ever came across as having as much fun with Rowling’s sprawling world as Cuarón.

For my own part, I saw The Prisoner of Azkaban three times in the theater. And whenever anyone asked me what I thought of it, I said, “It’s great. It’s this generation’s Time Bandits.”

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

A.D Jameson is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), in which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on '80s pop culture, and the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He's taught classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and StoryStudio Chicago. He's also the nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal Requited. He recently started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he contributes to the group blogs Big Other and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.