In my previous Harry Potter review, I talked about the challenges the… MoreIn my previous Harry Potter review, I talked about the challenges the film franchise faced when the books began to grow in size. The continuing success of the series, both on the page and on the screen, put pressure on the directors, producers and writers to include as much of the source material as possible to keep the fans happy. While none of the directors after Chris Columbus have been quite so literal-minded in this regard as he was, the desire for fidelity is still present in different ways.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the beginning of what could be called the long, slow consolidation of the franchise. The first of ultimately four efforts to be helmed by David Yates, it approaches the material with neither the need nor the willingness to prove itself, seemingly confident that fans will know enough about the basics at this point that more new stuff can be crammed in. But while the film has a lot of promising or interesting aspects, it is in the final analysis more episodic and less satisfying than its two predecessors, and may be the weakest film in the series since Chamber of Secrets.
It's very easy to lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the director. Yates was and is primarily a TV director, having made his name on acclaimed series like State of Play and TV films like The Girl in the Cafe. His only previous theatrical offering, The Tichborne Claimant, was notable for its cast but not for its plot or execution. It would be very simple to assume that Yates simply has an episodic mindset, and is, through his training and sensibility, less capable of long-form, cinematic storytelling than Mike Newell or Alfonso Cuarón.
Whatever truth may be in these statements, however, they are not by any means the whole truth. An equally bigger problem lies in the fact that the series doesn't feel the need to justify each instalment on its own terms anymore. Up until Goblet of Fire, the future of the series felt up in the air just enough to keep everyone on their toes: Newell's film and Prisoner of Azkaban went the extra mile to prove that they were necessary additions to the canos. By the time Order of the Phoenix came to be made, the Harry Potter fandom had developed to such an extent that there was no longer any need for such healthy self-doubt. While the films don't treat the viewers' intelligence with outright contempt, there is still an underlying unwillingness to bring new people on board, even at such a late stage.
There are a lot of things about Order of the Phoenix which are appealing, and any one of them could have the capstone for a film in its own right. There is the tyrannical rule of Delores Umbridge, who descends onto Hogwarts like a terrifying cross between Margaret Thatcher, Mary Whitehouse and Michael Gove. There is the Order of the title, with more details coming forward about Sirius Black and the Malfoys. And there is the overriding conspiracy of denial surrounding Voldemort's return, following the events of the last film.
Order of the Phoenix is significant within the series for being the only film not to be scripted by Steve Kloves. Michael Goldenberg, who wrote Contact and the live-action version of Peter Pan, was brought in to replace Kloves after the latter claimed to be physically and mentally exhausted. Kloves' scripts may never have been perfect, falling into several predictable rhythms, but it's probable that he could have marshalled these different and divergent threads into something more coherently satisfying.
For most of its running time, Order of the Phoenix concerns itself with the first plotline, focussing on Umbridge taking over Hogwarts and inflicting her pink plague upon the students. Imelda Staunton does a really great job getting across all Umbridge's quirks, showing all that latent rage and frustration burning away under the forced smile of quiet, English passive aggression. Her characterisation of Umbridge as a spineless, narrow-minded, pencil-pushing moral crusader is a breath of fresh air compared to the other teachers of Defence Against the Dark Arts, who have by and large been pale, skulking and slippery types, whose physicalisation so often shows their hand too early.
Just as Goblet of Fire did a good job of creating tension through infighting between Harry and his friends, so this film manages to unsettle our feelings of safety by removing all aspects of Hogwarts we have learnt to take for granted. In the previous films, there was always a sense that no matter how bad things got, two things were certain: Dumbledore would be around to help, and Harry wouldsave the day. In Order of the Phoenix both are called into question early on, leaving us uncertain and ever mindful of the gathering evil of Voldemort.
By referring back to the denial of Voldemort by those in authority, Yates introduces a theme of the corruption of the wizarding authority, upon which he expands in the later films. Much like the Time Lords in classic Doctor Who, the Ministry of Magic started out as a seemingly benign and benevolent organisation, but is increasingly portrayed as hubristic, all-controlling and, in the Ministry's case, driven as much by fear as Voldemort ultimately is. Umbridge's reign is the first hint we get of the Nineteen Eighty-Four-inflected view of the wizarding world, removing another crumb of comfort from the audience for our own good.
Further effort is also made to weaken Harry as a reliable protagonist, in this case by his battles with Snape as the latter tries to train his mind against the Dark Lord's influence. Daniel Radcliffe's performance in these scenes demonstrates how far he has matured over the course of the series: he may be playing an easily-angered adolescent, but it's a controlled performance and he responds to Alan Rickman quite superbly. Rickman, naturally, gives as good as he gets, but his best is reserved for his brief, taciturn exchanges with Umbridge.
All of this sounds promising - but there's a problem. Because the book is so big, Yates is never able to develop any of these strands to an entirely satisfying degree, and as a result the whole thing begins to feel inconsequential. Even with all the cuts that he and Goldenberg made before filming had even started, the film still feels like a half-told collection of bits which can't entirely stand on their own. Supporting characters feel increasingly like stations we pass through on a long train journey, and by this point the feeling is not one of intrigue at where we are, but growing frustration at how long it is taking us to get us to our destination.
It may seem churlish to keep comparing Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, but here as elsewhere it is a meaningful comparison. Much of the (unwarranted) criticism of The Two Towers focussed on the idea that the film couldn't be taken on its own, with critics (wrongly) claiming that it didn't have a meaningful beginning and end. Order of the Phoenix suffers from the same problem; if you had never seen the first four films, too little of it would make sense for you to enjoy it as a stand-alone. And because so little effort is made to let the casual viewer in, the majority of what happens just washes over you in an unmemorable way.
There are other big problems with Order of the Phoenix outside of its structural integrity. There are internal issues too, relating to the storytelling, the pacing and the integration of the action. Despite being the shortest film in the series, at 138 minutes, the film still feels drawn out in places, with Yates taking a long time to cover aspects which could just as adequately be explained in half the time. The Order itself feels underdeveloped as a concept, with Yates giving more time to more visually memorable but relatively frivolous concepts, such as the Room of Requirement - which is, for the record, both unoriginal (the TARDIS) and lazy to the point of utter desperation.
The big issue with both the drama and the set-pieces is one of emphasis. While he has some credentials in drama, Yates does not do set-pieces very well, the result being that all the fights which should feel weighty instead feel distracted and unfocussed. The final battle between the Order and the Death-Eaters feels empty and perfunctory, with Yates' camera chasing after the action rather than shaping it. The result is that Sirius Black's death carries no meaning at all, which is a huge shame given Gary Oldman's hard work to make him compelling in Prisoner of Azkaban. The same goes for Voldemort's duel with Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic: we get a three-minute parade of unremarkable special effects, and then it's back to normal as if nothing ever happened.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a middling instalment in the franchise which contains potential but lacks focus in its execution. Its interesting ideas and the moments in which it does come together ultimately redeem it, as least as a passing diversion, but it is the least essential Harry Potter film since Chamber of Secrets. In the end, it's a mild disappointment, being not being bad enough to put you off, but leaving you with some serious concerns going forward.
It has become increasingly common for different instalments of a film… MoreIt has become increasingly common for different instalments of a film franchise to be helmed by different directors. Even in a series as long-running as James Bond, it was quite common for directors like Guy Hamilton and John Glen to helm several consecutive stories. With the brand now seemingly more important than any form of directorial stamp, it is more usual for different hands to come in and do things their way, albeit within clearly set parameters.
All of which brings us to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the halfway point of the Harry Potter series. With Alfonso Cuarón electing not to direct a second film, and moving on to Children of Men, the job was given to Mike Newell, best known for the Oscar-nominated comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. But whatever misgivings one may have about his back catalogue, the appointment paid off, with Goblet of Fire matching its predecessor in many respects and possibly even improving in others.
Newell's versatility as a director is evident throughout Goblet of Fire, in that he is required to pull off many different kinds of scenes and handle several key emotional developments in the characters. Goblet of Fire was the point at which the Harry Potter books began to grow in size, which in turn meant that the filmmakers had to cram a lot more into the adaptations. Newell deliberately chose to "put aside" all elements of the novel which were not directly linked to Harry's journey, and the result is that the film remains a generally focussed effort, despite being the second-longest at 157 minutes.
In my review of the previous instalment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I commented that the film did a good job of setting up conflict between the three main characters, challenging Harry's image of a "goody two-shoes" and deepening the characters as a result. Newell's effort builds on this in spades, with all three characters now firmly in the throes of adolescence and Harry struggling with his reputation as his visions grow stronger and more terrifying.
One of the most refreshing and entertaining aspects of Goblet of Fire is seeing our three main characters go through periods of intensely hating each other. This may sound like schadenfreude, coming from a man who's always preferred Tolkien to Rowling, but conflict is essential to good drama, and the series was still playing catch-up after the emotional stodge of the first two films. Our three heroes are at a point where their identities are being called in question by forces beyond their control, whether their own hormones or the Dark Lord. Under such circumstances, in-fighting is not only expected, it should be welcomed.
It's for this reason that the ball scene is one of the best in the entire film. For all the thrilling spectacle of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, scenes like this are the emotional heart of the film. There is a degree of empathy that we share with the characters before any of the arguments occur: we remember how dorky and nervous we seemed at our high school dances. But once we see Hermione erupt at her embarassment, or Ron scowl at her in resentment, it all comes alive. By making us question these friendships so comprehensively, it makes the more malevolent moments more weighty, giving us more to fear and less on which to depend.
Much of Goblet of Fire is concerned with identity and about characters having to pretend to be something they're not. Harry spends the entire film in a state of reluctance: while he doesn't go all mopey about it, he clearly doesn't want to be involved in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. On the other side, we have Barty Crouch Jr. (played well by David Tennant), who uses polyjuice potion to impersonate a teacher and gain Harry's confidence. Both characters are under pressure to live up to their identities, with Harry even struggling to fight Voldemort in their climactic battle in the graveyard. The only real distinction between them is choice: Crouch chooses to be driven by malice, while Harry's destiny is already sealed.
When the book was released, Rowling gave many interviews in which she cited the story's main theme as one of bigotry. She said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that it was "probably the thing I detest most. All forms of intolerance, the whole idea of 'that which is different from me is necessary evil'." It would be fair to assume that the main vehicle for this theme would be Voldemort, whose contempt for muggles is conveyed in the graveyard. But the film also focusses on bigotry as an advanced form of favouritism, something evident in Draco Malfoy's behaviour and to a certain extent in the tournament.
This brings us on fittingly to the return of Voldemort, specifically his return to a physical body and the performance of Ralph Fiennes. Bringing Voldemort back was bound to happen sooner or later, and Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves work hard to justify this, gradually building up the darker aspects of the plot until it becomes tragically inevitable. After this instalment the series struggled to keep Voldemort interesting, with the final conflict between him and Harry being steadily delayed for increasingly contrived reasons. But within the confines of this film, it works - at least up to a point.
Fiennes' performance has often been a sticking point with fans, with people being split over whether he was truly intimidating or unintentionally hilarious. It's certainly true that Fiennes walks the line between horror and comedy, and not always with confidence: while it's not exactly Victor Quartermaine from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it's a much more larger-than-life villain than Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. Ultimately Fiennes does what the film needs to do, giving Voldemort a believable presence and showing the threat he poses to Harry. It's not a complete success, but it fulfils the requirements of the role.
Others within the adult cast fare far better in delivering convicing portrayals. David Tennant may be associated with heroic roles after his tenure on Doctor Who, but his performance as Barty Crouch, Jr. has an appealingly skin-crawling quality. He manages to maintain an almost manic state without ever coming across as a ham, allowing his outbursts to become properly threatening. The late Roger Lloyd Pack is also good as his father, a bureaucrat who seems wracked with guilt and nerves for what he did to his son and the peril which Harry is in. And Brendon Gleeson is perfectly cast as Mad Eye Moody, bringing his unusual physicality to the fore in the classroom scenes and giving us a lot to laugh at when he's angry.
The other big asset of Goblet of Fire is its visuals. Roger Pratt returns as cinematographer, having previously lent his talents to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. No longer shackled by Chris Columbus, he does a much better job here, continuing the work of Cuarón and Michael Seresin of bringing out the dark blues and blacks for an intimidating atmosphere. Pratt is a fantasy veteran, having worked with Terry Gilliam on Brazil, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys; he knows a thing or two about creating a sense of magic or horror, making the maze scenes feel like they've escaped from The Shining.
There are a couple of faults with Goblet of Fire which prevent it from completely surpassing its predecessor. Despite Newell's best efforts and intentions to keep the action focussed on Harry, the plot still feels occassionally meandering, as if more effort were being expended on something than was necessary. Whole sections of the book have been left out, and others changed so that different characters could get screen time, and it may be that elements of the books simply don't work on film. But it's still a baggy offering, even if it's an enjoyable one.
The other flaw, as with many of the Potter films, is predictability. I complained in my Prisoner of Azkaban review about the Defence Against the Dark Arts convention, which has gone from being a mild irritation to an example of lazy writing. Equally Harry's inclusion in the wizard tournament may turn out to be narratively integral, but the circumstances in which he becomes involved are an enormous contrivance. It feels like the plot is making every effort to keep Harry at the centre of the action even when it doesn't make sense, to the point of setting up rules only to break them. The smart, or at least different thing to do, would be to have him completely marginalised, letting Voldemort approach him more directly rather than luring him in through coincidences.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a confident addition to the franchise which builds on the successes of its predecessor to create an emotionally satisfying experience. It still suffers from the ongoing flaws of bagginess and predictability, facets which would become more problematic during David Yates' tenure. But if you can look beyond that, you are looking at a film which rivals Prisoner of Azkaban as the high point to which the other films aspire.
Back in November 2013, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! citing my… MoreBack in November 2013, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! citing my ten favourite William Shakespeare adaptations. In justifying the inclusion of this film, I said that the conventions of Shakespeare's comedies "so often don't stand up on film", and that "to do justice to a Shakespeare comedy takes someone with great patience and boundless energy."
Eighteen months and one re-viewing later, my opinion of Much Ado About Nothing has scarsely changed. Kenneth Branagh's second directorial effort is a wonderful, joyous film, a bright, breezy and immensely accessible adaptation which sees him enjoying himself immensely both behind and in front of the camera. Having assembled a truly stellar cast, he gives us a witty and exuberant take on the story which blows away all the cobwebs, making it consummate viewing for both purists and newcomers.
Branagh's biggest success, as both an actor and a director, has been his ability to take the most complex aspects of language and emotion and make them intriguingly accessible. Great Shakespearean actors of the past, like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud or Paul Schofield, were often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as insular elitists: they sought to preserve their centuries-old craft from modern tendences to misinterpret or embellish timeless art. Branagh, on the other hand, reveres Shakespeare while remaining self-deprecating, sometimes going so far as actively laughing at himself.
Had Branagh been the stuffy sort, he would have been content to sit behind the camera and channel his so-called megalomania into berating his actors, resulting in the most tediously well-behaved adaptation you could imagine. Instead, he casts himself as Benedick, a role which is founded on a lack of self-awareness, and whose actions prompt ridicule from both the other characters and the audience via dramatic irony. Rather than become self-conscious, Branagh finds great joy in playing the oaf, and in getting under the surface to show the genuine feelings, disguised by bluster, which underpin even the most foolish thoughts.
The biggest departure between this film and Branagh's equally brilliant take on Henry V is the visuals. With Henry V, Branagh very consciously wanted a more gritty and earthy look, showing the toil and pain that the characters go through and moving the text away from Olivier's Allied propaganda version from the 1940s. Because we're in more comedic territory, you wouldn't expect him simply to repeat himself, but he instead goes out of his way to lighten things up: the abundance of whites, golds and paler blues is in stark contrast to the mud of Agincourt and the deeper blues and reds of Henry's royal crest.
Branagh also employs a policy of long, fluid takes, something which he would take to its natural conclusion in Hamlet three years later. The key word here is 'fluid', since the movement of the camera contributes a great deal to the energy of a given scene. If the camera were static, locked-off in a specific place with characters wandering in and out, it would have instantly felt like a recorded stage play - what Alfred Hitchcock used to call "photographs of people talking". By having his camera follow and circle the actors, particularly during the renditions of 'Hey Nonny Nonny', Branagh keeps us in the midst of the action and puts us in the restless mindset of the characters.
Like many modern farces, Much Ado About Nothing derives most of its comedy from confusion, in this case from rumours being spread about the two couples at the centre of the action. It's a story which is rooted in dramatic irony, in which the audience's enjoyment comes from seeing the characters getting the wrong end of the stick, trying and failing to work things out and creating more havoc as they go. While a first-person Much Ado would make for an intriguing experiment, it's likely that being so close to the action would rob the audience of much of the story's enjoyment.
At the centre of Much Ado About Nothing is the theme of deceptive appearances. The vast majority of the characters are completely different on the surface to how they actually feel: of the protagonists, only Claudio and Hero - to borrow a phrase from Macbeth - have no serpents under their innocent flowers. Don Pedro's plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together begins as more of a practical joke than anything with more noble intentions. But as the events unfold, these two characters grow to respect and admire each other in spite of whatever differences they had, or believed they had.
Shakespeare is making a comment here on the way that the different genders behave around each other in matters of courtship. He starts from a position where both characters are forthright, almost to extremes - Benedick with his cocky, chauvinistic boasting and Beatrice with her acid wit and low opinion of men. Both characters gradually open up and reveal their insecurities, which come to a head when Beatrice begs Benedick to kill Claudio. They do not entirely lose their nature in the process, but both become more comfortable with each other and their friends as a result of letting their true feelings be expressed without fear of reproach.
There has been some speculation about the relationship enjoyed by Benedick and Beatrice before the events of the play. The decision to interpret one way or the other seems to fall on Beatrice's line: "You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old." Joss Whedon's recent version took this line and extrapolated the latter part, implying that Benedick and Beatrice had once been lovers. Branagh's interpretation is perhaps more faithful and traditional, using it to indicate that this is not the first time Beatrice would have beaten him in a battle of words.
Branagh's desire to keep the tempo up helps to energise the long soliloquys that both these characters enjoy. In a slower-paced outing, long periods of self-reflection such as these could drag the plot down and rob Shakespeare of his eloquence: part of his appeal is the way his characters conjure up great metaphors at speed, conveying depth without just sitting around, thinking long and hard about what to say. Branagh's monologue about being "horribly in love" is a splendid example; by treating it a stream of consciousness rather than anything more mannered, more of the character's soul and contradictions are revealed.
Even if you don't analyse the emotional turmoils of the central characters, Much Ado About Nothing still holds together as a farce. The title derives from 'noting', meaning overhearing gossip, which in Elizabethan England was pronounced the same as 'nothing'. Branagh captures just how easily people are swayed by what others think of them, turning authority into sources of ridicule for our amusement. But the graver misunderstandings still carry weight, keeping a moral centre to the film in amongst all the frivolity.
The ace in the hole with Branagh's Shakespeare films has always been the casting - not just the roster of impressive names, but his knack for surprising casting decisions which pay off enormously. His own performance as Benedick is brilliant, but it would be mostly in vain if he had not cast his then-wife Emma Thompson opposite him. Thompson strikes a perfect balance with Beatrice, retaining her playful, sunny aspects while keeping her as smart and as sharp as any of the men. The roots of her later resolve in Saving Mr Banks are all here in plain sight, waiting to be appreciated.
Branagh's choices for the supporting cast are equally inspired. Richard Briers is an excellent choice for Leonarto, his warm delivery working to his advantage in one of the more seasoned and wry roles of the play. Denzel Washington is a perfect choice for Don Pedro, making it all the more inexplicable that he has not done more Shakespeare, or more comedy. Casting Keanu Reeves as Don John was a massive gamble, even before he earned a reputation for being wooden, but his cold, clinical portrayal slots into proceedings very nicely. But no choice is more inspired than Michael Keaton as Dogberry. Having already demonstrated his comic potential in Beetlejuice, Keaton plays every line to its fullest and inhabits the part, creating what is probably its definitive portrayal.
Much Ado About Nothing is a majestic slice of cinematic joy which solidifies Branagh's reputation is a Shakespearean par excellence. While it is slightly too long and a trifle silly in places, its few off-kilter moments are more than counteracted by the beautiful visuals, inspired casting and the sheer level of enjoyment which is generated. In short, it explains the appeal of Shakespeare's sense of humour without resorting to any lectures, leaving us with buzzing brains and big smiles on our faces.
One of the most perplexing and irritating aspects of Hollywood is the… MoreOne of the most perplexing and irritating aspects of Hollywood is the way it continues to churn out samey, mediocre fare based purely on the financial success of previous instalments. Having endured the first two Harry Potter films, and seen them gross more than $800m each, we might have expected the series to plod on ad nauseum, with every year or so bringing us another disappointing and inconsequential adventure for the little wizard.
Fortunately for all concerned, this didn't happen. With Chris Columbus leaving the director's chair to spend more time with his family, the time was ripe for a fresh pair of eyes to come in and give the franchise the kick up the arse that it needed. With The Lord of the Rings trilogy now completed, garnering rave reviews and 11 Oscars, this would be the film that would need to justify going on. While Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban never quite comes close to Peter Jackson's brilliance, it is far superior to anything that came before in the series and set the bar very high for all that came after.
Alfonso Cuarón may now be a name toasted among film fans, following his gripping work on Children of Men and the groundbreaking visuals in Gravity. But he was by no means a shoe-in to direct. Guillermo del Toro said that he wasn't interested because it was too "bright and happy and full of light", while Marc Forster turned it down because of his work with child actors on Finding Neverland. In the end it came down to a three-way choice between Cuarón, Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, and Kenneth Branagh, who had appeared as Gilderoy Lockhart in the previous instalment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
The box office failure of Love's Labour's Lost probably deprived us of the heady excitement that would have been a Branagh-helmed Potter film. But there can be no doubt that Cuarón was a great choice, for one simple reason: he understands how fantasy storytelling works, particularly how any fantasy film must be underpinned by a sense of wonderment. Columbus' pathological desire to faithfully replicate the books on screen had robbed J. K. Rowling's souce material of all its sense of wonder and amazement. Cuarón restores the balance, giving us a darker plot with more developed characters and never losing sight of the magic in amongst the spells.
Put simply, all the details of the world of Harry Potter, and the story in which he finds himself, are more fully and strikingly realised in Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuarón gets a lot of the big stuff right early on, whether it's the light-hearted comedy of the Knight Bus or the chilling design of the Dementors. But he also puts in a lot of effort to make all the little details fit, particularly during the scenes at The Leaky Cauldron. Whether it's the self-stirring coffee, the angular corridors, the carnivorous books or the silently screaming wanted posters, you always feel that what you seeing is magic, rather than constantly being told that something is magic.
This magical feeling is reinforced by the film's colour palette. In my review of The Philosopher's Stone, I likened its visual style to sanitised adaptations of Charles Dickens which are common in America; as a general rule, I argued, British adaptations of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and the like are more content to leave all the edges on. This film is shot by Michael Seresin, Alan Parker's cinematographer-of-choice who would later team up with Cuarón again on Gravity. Cuarón clearly understands the darker, more distinctly British routes of the series and the genres upon which it draws, and allows Seresin to work his murky magic with piercing blues and encircling blacks, making it look like a horor film for children.
From a narrative point of view, Prisoner of Azkaban benefits greatly from the direct absence of Voldemort. On the one hand, the fact that he doesn't appear physically or personally in the story spares the film from becoming too repetitive or formulaic: it isn't simply retreading old ground and prolonging the inevitable. This is the trap into which the later Potter films often fell: we always knew that things would end with a showdown between Harry and Voldemort, and the more the films went on without it happening, the more irritating the tease became.
On the other hand, the Dark Lord's influence remains a background threat, allowing Cuarón to build a more intimidating atmosphere. In the first two films, Harry was constantly on the lookout for the man himself: we always knew who the bad guy was, even if we didn't know what form he would take. With Voldemort having to prey on Harry indirectly, he is forced to choose his friends more carefully, and learns over the course of the film just how deceptive appearances can be.
By putting Harry on more insecure footing, the film manages to epitomise his adolescent confusion about the world, and the conflict he faces in fulfilling a role which he didn't choose. The first two films often painted Harry as a goody-two-shoes who had perfect parents, but here we get the first hints of things being a little more nuanced than that. When Harry watches the Dementors kill him and Sirius, expecting his dad to come in and cast the patronus charm, he begins to realise that he cannot rest on their reputation if he is to grow as a wizard. While the next film in the series goes into this in more detail, threatening to tear apart the three central friendships, Prisoner of Azkaban does a good job of setting this up.
This brings us on naturally to the time travel element of the story. Anyone familiar with Back to the Future Part II, Twelve Monkeys or Timecrimes will instantly recognise the territory we are in, with the characters constantly trying to avoid running into themselves, and events being repeated from different perspectives. Coming as it does towards the end of the film, our natural instinct is to conclude that it's surplus to requirement, one twist too many. But if we allow it to play out and watch as all the pieces fit together, we discover that it ties into the central themes of trust, and reputation quite nicely. Besides, if we can accept the existence of horcruxes, sorting hats and hippogriffs, time travel isn't much of a stretch.
Despite all its darkness and intimidation, Prisoner of Azkaban also manages to be pretty funny. The scene where Potter beats up Malfoy and his thugs near the Shrieking Shack is a classic piece of British slapstick, with Tom Felton showing excellent timing through his many pratfalls. The interplay between Snape and Sirius is like a double-act in itself, with Sirius' manic energy coming up against Snape's stonewalling seriousness. Throw in the first scene with the boggart and most of the opening section, and you have a film which achieves a fine balance of light and shade.
With the young cast continuing to improve and grow into their roles, Prisoner of Azkaban also has a couple of aces up its sleeve in the adult cast. David Thewlis was an ideal choice for Lupin: he revels in his lanky physicality and whistful delivery, in stark contrast to his more tight-laced performance in Gangster No. 1. Gary Oldman's performance is equally remarkable, being much more operatic in scale but still retaining a gentle humanity. Oldman resists the urge to simply ham it up and play mad, imbuing Sirius with a tormented quality which makes him compelling.
In spite of all its successes, there are still a couple of problems with Prisoner of Azkaban. Despite the best efforts of Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves, elements of the plot are still repetitive or predictable. After three films, it's fair to presume that whoever holds the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts is going to be a villain in some form, and it is equally certain that Dumbledore will pop up at key moments to misdirect, drop hints or mischievously intervene. These tropes aren't enough to derail the action at any given point, but they are pinches of salt to be taken whenever anyone describes this film as ground-breaking.
Additionally, the film still feels longer than it should. This was the shortest of the three films at the time, at 142 minutes, and it remained the shortest until Order of the Phoenix three years later. But while the pacing is better than Columbus' offerings, it still feels like there is an awful lot of plot being squeezed in when the sensible thing would be to cut more stuff out. Cuarón keeps the fans at arms' length, deciding what he wants to shoot and leave in, but another couple of swift edits to get it down to two hours wouldn't have hurt.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a massive improvement on the first two films, justifying the continuation of the series and helping to explain its appeal to those out of the loop. While it's still too long and well-worn in places, it largely makes up for this with strong performances, interesting themes, much better pacing and a visual style that combines horror and fantasy to leave us really impressed. Whether it's the best Harry Potter film remains a matter of debate, but there is no debate that the later films owe their existence to its success.
Film critics often get it in the neck for overanalysing or expecting… MoreFilm critics often get it in the neck for overanalysing or expecting too much from films which, for some people, are only designed to entertain. While expecting nothing other than fun from the movies will prevent one from properly exploring all that the medium has to offer, it is also true that reviewers have to keep their feet on the ground. Every so often we have to defend a film mainly because we enjoyed ourselves - and, ironically, the simplest pleasures are often the hardest to explain.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is a good example of this phenomenon. On the surface there is nothing especially remarkable about it, either in the quality of the animation we have come to expect from Aardman, or in the conventional nature of its story. If one was in a bad mood, it would not take too long to dismantle the film, with withering comments about it not being first-rate Aardman. But the fact is that, after seeing this film, you're very unlikely to be in a bad mood.
The Pirates! (as it will hereafter be called) marks an interesting turning point in Aardman's history, at least from a technical viewpoint. Along with their previous digimation, Arthur Christmas, it marks the beginning of a partnership with Sony Pictures Animation, who three years earlier produced the hilariously surreal Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is significant due to the combination of traditional stop-motion and CG effects which were needed to bring the film to life.
When Aardman was creating Flushed Away, working in partnership with Dreamworks, a decision was taken early on to do the entire film in digimation, on account of how difficult water is to film and the damage it can do to plasticene. But for all its moments of charm, Flushed Away felt like Dreamworks had run roughshod over Aardman's creativity, reducing true genius into something a lot more ordinary.
Being set primarily at sea, The Pirates! involves a large amount of visual effects to create the water and the skyline around the stop-motion figures. But while Aardman and Dreamworks were constantly at loggerheads, on this occasion the effects blend beautifully, with the hand-crafted characters taking centre stage even in the most elaborate set-pieces. Aardman's strength has always been in stop-motion, and here they are allowed to work to their strengths.
As always with Aardman, the devil is in the detail. Their films are made by people who love cinema, pouring in references to films from their formative years to enrich the finished product. You won't spot all the sight gags, quirks and puns the first time round, but more importantly the story and characters are enjoyable enough to make you want to revisit them. The hearty laughs that do stick in one's mind, whether it's the fish-in-a-hat gag or the ship leaving red markers on the map, are almost like teasers in themselves, part of a gift that just keeps on giving.
The film has great set-pieces which rival anything in either Chicken Run (Peter Lord's previous film) or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The rooftop chase, in which Charles Darwin attempts to steal the last living dodo, builds like an old-fashioned 1980s action sequence, using the full spread of the house to maximum effect. The sequence of the bath careering down the stairs pursued by a tumbling head is like an extended version of the boulder chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there is a nice, brief nod to Jurassic Park as the bath leaps majestically through an enormous skeleton.
While Curse of the Were-Rabbit was rooted in horror movies, paying homage to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Hammer movies and An American Werewolf in London, The Pirates! is grounded in the old-fashioned adventure of Errol Flynn and Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers. The action sequences feel like they have been choreographed to allow for the fewest number of edits, with Lord and his animators understanding that audiences are often more impressed by the scale of a battle than the pace as which it appears to unfold.
The release of The Pirates! internationally has not been without mishap. Aardman received a complaint from Lepra Health in Action, requesting that a scene of a leper's arm falling off be removed for misrepresenting victims of leprosy. More worryingly, in America the title was changed to The Pirates! Band of Misfits!. While film titles are commonly changed, this is symptomatic of marketers having low opinions of a film's potential audience. It is ludicrous to believe that the world 'scientist' would put Americans off seeing the film. It certainly doesn't change the relatively heroic role accorded to Charles Darwin.
The characters in The Pirates! continue the Aardman tradition created by Nick Park of the inept but extremely confident protagonist. The Pirate Captain is fully aware of the motley nature of his crew, observing in one of the film's best sight gags that some of his crew are just "fish that I've dressed up in a hat." But he is as confident in his ability to plunder as Wallace is in his inventions. Martin Freeman's first mate acts as the Gromit-like foil, trying to do the right thing while harbouring a sense of long-suffering duty towards his oldest friend.
The biggest criticism of The Pirates! has been its storyline. Because it combines two of Gideon Dafoe's children's books, there is a lot of plot to get through in 90-odd minutes. And because the film is not a direct pastiche like Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it doesn't have quite as rigid a structure as one might like. But some critics would go further and claim that its emotional arc is too predictable, with our heroes jumping through narrative hoops without offering anything new.
There's an old adage that the difference between a convention and a cliché is the emotional response that surrounds it: if we are enjoying ourselves, it's a convention, and if not, it's a cliché. The fact is, even if The Pirates! is in familiar waters, it is funnier and more lovingly crafted than any of the similar stories which clog up our multiplexes in the summer season. We should not take Aardman's craftsmanship for granted, and must be willing to promote this genuine passion for craft almost in spite of its familiar elements.
The film also passes the acid test of any comedy, never letting up in its ability to make you laugh. The running gags surrounding the Pirate Captain's boarding parties are very well thought-out, as are the crew's disguises and the numerous map scenes. The more whimsical jokes, involving baby clothes, baboon's kidneys and ham night, are all first-rate Aardman, and Lord's comic timing is on a par with Park's in judging where and when to play out every single gag.
The cast of The Pirates! is also of a high standard. Hugh Grant, in his first animated role, handles the Pirate Captain with such aplomb that afterwards you won't be able to imagine him without that beard. Imelda Staunton is terrific as Queen Victoria, with a performance that makes her character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix look tame by comparison. David Tennant and Martin Freeman provide great support in their respective roles, with the former's geeky excitability offsetting the latter's world-weariness. And as for Brian Blessed's cameo... suffice to say, no-one else could have played that part.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is a really great family film which will hold up to repeat viewing every bit as well as Aardman's previous offerings. Peter Lord directs superbly, handling a talented cast with near-perfect measure and blending the stop-motion and CGI very well. While it's not quite perfect, it bodes very well for the future of Aardman, with or without Wallace and Gromit.