Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is often cited as the best, or most beloved, film in the series. As an avid fan of J. K. Rowling's novels though, I find that it has its problems. Before moving forward however, I would like to briefly honor Alan Rickman, who passed away this week, far too soon, at the age of 69. One of the greatest actors of his generation, or any generation for that matter, Rickman's performance as Severus Snape was the best part of the Harry Potter films, brilliant, bitter, incisive, and mysterious, the beating heart of the series. His loss is devastating, but his work stays with us and for that, at least, we owe him a great debt of gratitude.
The third film is a fast-paced adventure that stands on its own better than the other films, primarily because it's the only one in the series that doesn't explicitly deal with a confrontation with Voldemort. Yes, the time travel elements are difficult, but as I've discussed previously, I think they work as well as they possibly can, not least of all given that any fictional story involving time travel is going to fail to measure up to the actual scientific strictures of theories of time travel, purely because the human brain isn't capable of analyzing every possible element of a moment in time and space and therefore can't evaluate the full implications of changes to that moment. I've already discussed the worst ways they screwed up the second and fifth movies; here are the seven biggest missteps in the third film:
7. The CGI dog
Sirius's dog-form in this film is portrayed by some manky CGI. This might seem like a quibble, but it's more than an annoyance. Good CGI enhances the fantasy and immerses the viewer more deeply into the film; bad CGI jolts the viewer out of his suspension of disbelief. And this is bad CGI. Dogs are not mythical creatures, so why not simply use an actual dog? The design in the film looks to me like it's supposed to be a Scottish deerhound, but any large, darkly colored hound would work. Either that, or more time and effort (and yes, more money) on the CGI needed to be expended. Contrary to a common assumption, CGI is ludicrously expensive and extremely time-consuming, so the choice doesn't make sense either on a practical film-making level or on a story-telling level.
6. The CGI werewolf
Unlike a dog, a werewolf is a mythical creature, so I understand the need for CGI here, though a wolf-like dog could have sufficed. What I don't understand is why exactly the design is so weird. The creature has oddly elongated limbs that bend in ways that seem ergonomically impossible and look as flexible and breakable as strands of spaghetti. It resembles a wolf only in so far as it is grey and has large teeth and it resembles a man only in so far as it occasionally rears up on hind legs and galumphs along upright. However, the real failure of the design is that the werewolf isn't particularly scary. Its most salient quality is its puzzling oddity.
5. Hunchbacked Tom
Tom is described in the books as being a very old, toothless man whose head resembles a walnut. In this film, he is played by Jim Tavaré who is neither old nor toothless and decidedly does not resemble a walnut - that's forgivable. But this bizarre, shambling cartoon of a character, hunchback and all, seems to have wandered over from the set of a comically febrile remake of Young Frankenstein. I think this character must be referencing a character from another movie, but I can't figure out what it could be unless it's Frank Zappa's ridiculous cameo in the Faerie Tale Theatre episode, "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers." That's a rather obscure reference. The whole routine falls flat and strikes a discordant note, but what I dislike most about this role is that we're supposed to find him funny because he has a hunchback and thus walks "funny" - that's just a lousy, tired, and frankly mean joke.
4. The makeover of Hogwarts
Hogwarts was almost completely redesigned for this film. Suddenly the castle grounds are on a literal mountain, complete with drawbridges across cliffs and a major tramp between Hogwarts itself and the owlry, sitting on its own little mountain. Hogwarts students should be required to wear hiking boots to get to Hagrid's classes. This started a trend in the series, where the landscape changes according to the immediate exigencies of the plot and the whims of the director, thereby making it much harder for the films to play in sequence without losing a certain degree of verisimilitude. This film also saw the introduction of the senseless pendulum in the entry hall, a bit of production design that looks cool as a static element, but is puzzling given its potential for chopping off the heads of any forgetful person passing under it. There are also an inexplicable number of crows over which the characters constantly trip and stumble, a pestilence from which Hogwarts never again suffers. These changes, which became more ubiquitous as the series went on, are disorienting.
3. "Lumos maxima!"
The opening scene of the film, in which Harry attempts to study under his covers, repeating an apparently useless spell for light, is the most idiotic in the movie. Reason #1: this "lumos maxima" spell is the only one in the entire series that has to be repeated constantly for it to work and if that's the case, why not just use a bloody flashlight (as Harry does in the book)? Reason #2: Harry is forbidden from using magic outside of school and is nearly expelled several times, in the second and fifth books particularly, for doing so. Furthermore, in the very next scene, Harry accidentally blows up Aunt Marge and Uncle Vernon, screaming at him to put her back to rights, reminds us that Harry faces expulsion for what he's done. If it's true - and every other relevant scene confirms this - then Harry should have had a nasty letter from the Ministry expelling him post- his wonky "lumos maxima" spell and probably making a snarky comment about shoddy wandwork.
2. Parvati's bone-chilling, horrifying, unacceptably frightening clown jack-in-the-box
The scene in which Professor Lupin teaches the third years how to battle a boggart is one of the most fun in the book (and in the film, we have the delight of seeing Alan Rickman play Snape in Neville's grandmother's vulture-adorned hat), but the scene is somewhat spoiled in the movie. I'm bothered by the strange choice of having Lupin inexplicably play a big band record, a tonally dissonant choice, but the bigger problem is Parvati's boggart. When she first faces it, it transforms into an obscenely large snake, so big that it doesn't even succeed as scary, just fake-looking, but her solution to render it ridiculous is the most terrifying thing to happen in all eight films. What sort of maniac thinks a twelve-foot-tall clown jack-in-the-box is anything but horrifying? I realize I'm coulrophobic, but this moment, somehow not courtesy of Stephen King, is absolutely awful. I'd face the classroom-size serpent any time over that clown abomination and I question the sanity of anyone who says different.
1. The (racist) shrunken heads
The filmmakers really doubled down on Dre Head, the shrunken head that makes terrible puns on the Knight Bus, heavily featuring him in promotional materials and producing a set of uncomfortably pun-laden interviews with the main cast, with the head as an interviewer. I think this is one of those pet ideas that creators can't bear to kill off because Dre Head is just awful, not in the slightest bit funny, and frankly rather racist. The extreme Jamaican accent and the dreadlocks are just a step too far. The shrunken heads are never mentioned in the books and they aren't in any of the other films; Dre Head and his cohorts were unnecessary, annoying, and, as far as I'm concerned, politically questionable additions to this film.
Readers, what did I miss? Do you disagree? Are there some favorite Alan Rickman moments you'd like to share?