Third Time’s the Charm

I am, like almost everyone else in the world, planning to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 this weekend.  There’s a tinge of regret that this exceptional series of movies is coming to an end.  It’s similar when I read the last lines of Deathly Hallows and closed the book.  While the end was satisfying, I didn’t want to say goodbye that marvelous wizard world and to the characters I’d come to love.

The movie series is already the most successful in history, surpassing in seven films the total gross of the twenty-two James Bond pictures to date.  This final, eighth movie will likely widen that gap to Grand Canyon proportions.  In preparation for seeing Deathly Hollows Pt 2, this week I’ve watched the previous seven movies.  It struck me that the watershed moment for the series was the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  If it weren’t for Azkaban, I doubt the series would have been as artistically successful as it’s been, quite apart from its financial success.

So often the third movie for a series is the kiss of death.  The first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies were outstanding – the second was even better than the first. Then you have Spiderman 3, which was painful to watch.  Look at the Rogues Gallery of third-time bombs: Godfather III, Aliens 3, Omen III: The Final Conflict, Superman 3, X-Men: The Last Stand (an oddly prophetic name, though “The Final Straw” might be more appropriate.)  The third Karate Kid tried to remake the first movie with a girl in the lead.  I’m sure Hillary Swank is grateful it is pretty much forgotten.  Two series, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix, had inventive, fresh original films, and then each made two sequels at the same time.  All four of those movies were uninspired, confusing messes, though for each the third movie was the worst.  With the original cast Star Trek movies, Search for Spock wasn’t the worse, only because episodes 1 and 5 worked so hard at being horrible.  Still, it was a let down between Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home.

Only one other major series did better with its third movie, and that was James Bond with Goldfinger.  While I’d give Rocky III a passing grade, it meant there was a Rocky IV, V, and VI.  With The Lord of the Rings, it was really a twelve hour film in three installments.  Watch all three back to back, and if it weren’t for the titles you wouldn’t know the three parts were released separately.  (If you do watch them back to back, make sure you have a comfortable chair; I speak from experience!)  I will assume next summer’s Batman movie will break the third-time bomb rule, since Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad film.

The first two Harry Potter movies were helmed by the estimable Chris Columbus.  As you would expect from the director of the first two Home Alone pictures, they were straightforward adaptations with very little nuance.  The legion of Harry Potter fans weren’t disappointed, but by the end of the second film it was getting old.  It was also getting long.  At 161 minutes, Chamber of Secrets was over-bloated.  When Columbus passed on doing the next film, the producers made a startling choice to direct Prisoner of Azkaban.

The Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron had made an international splash with the sexually-frank road picture, Y Tu Mama Tambien.  Nine years earlier, though, he’d made a gorgeous adaptation of The Little Princess.   For Azkaban, he took what had been a children’s series and thrust it into puberty.  It was as if the script was the Marauder’s Map in the story.  Cuaron pledged he was solemnly up to no good, and it opened depths that Columbus had never seen.

Assisted by cinematographer Michael Seresin, Cuaron brought a fresh visual sense to the movie.  In the first scene after the credits, you have a hand-held camera shot as Harry enters the Dursley’s living room.  There wasn’t a single hand-held shot in the previous two films.  Cuaron also added weather to the mix.  After the scene where Aunt Marge’s over-inflated ego ends up over-inflating her body, Harry leaves the Dursley’s house and drags his trunk along dark, rain-dampened streets.  It’s a completely different feel from Columbus’s studio-bound style.  For scene changes, Cuaron used old-style closing aperture fades that added flair to the visuals.   Most importantly, he changed the focus of the films to tell the story from Harry’s point of view.  (Thus in Goblet of Fire, the whole subplot of Hermione agitating in support of the house elves was mercifully jettisoned.)

Cuaron used throwaway pieces to subtly give you a sense of the magical world surrounding you.  As Harry leaves the Dursleys, in the sky you see a speck that’s Aunt Marge and hear her distant cry.  At the Leaky Caldron, a waiter clears a table by making a wine bottle disappear into his cleaning rag.  In this movie, blink and you miss them.  In contrast, in Chamber of Secrets when Harry entered the Weasley’s house, Columbus blatantly focused the camera on the knitting needles knitting by themselves and the scrubber in the sink.  Cuaron also gave Hogwarts a sense of height.  While the first movie set Hogwarts in a mountainous area, you didn’t feel it until Azkaban.  

The roster of fine actors expanded exponentially with this movie.  Appearing for the first time were Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), David Thewlis (Lupin), Timothy Spall (Peter Petigrew), and Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney).  But the casting which had the greatest effect on the whole series was when Cuaron chose Michael Gambon to replace the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore.  Gambon made the role his own, even as he paid homage to Harris by incorporating a slight Irish brogue in his accent.

This was Cuaron’s only Potter movie.  Immediately after it he made the incredible Children of Men.  This movie, though, was pivotal.  Harry Potter would have been a much different series without his touch.

Mischief managed.

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