Saturday, June 12, 2004

Harry potters on 

Went to see the new "Harry Potter" movie on Thursday night, the day of its release in Australia, as becomes of somebody who, according to my wife, looks like Harry Potter in his early thirties (minus the embarrassing scar, which to me looks like a half-finished SS tattoo, anyway).

The movie is, as every critic under the sun has already noted, much darker and grittier than the previous two installments, arguably due to the change-over in the director's chair. Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter movies, made the Hogwarts school of magic an ur-private school somewhere on the northern reaches of England's "green and pleasant land". Alfonso Cuaron's Hogwarts has been shifted, by the looks of it, to somewhere in the Scottish Highlands and turned into a dark and mysterious Castle Frankenstein. Romanticism triumphs over the Enlightenment in "The Prisoner of Azkaban". The new Hogwarts looks and feels not just ancient, but also depilated and run-down, as if all the magic under its roof couldn't quite keep it repaired and clean anymore. Where's the British National Trust where you need it?

Aside from the new, quasi-Tim Burtonesque look of the film (which is actually an improvement as far as interiors are concerned), not much has changed since "The Philosopher's Stone" and "The Chamber of Secrets." Everyone's bigger, true, but the Radcliffe lad still can't act, and Draco Malfoy, now in his angry teens, looks like a trashy upper-class version of Eminem. Meanwhile, the Hermione-Ron love-hate relationship is slowly starting to gravitate towards the love pole. For the "Azkaban"'s gritty surrealism, however, the fans of Cuaron's previous work will be disappointed by the lack of vulgarity and explicit sex scenes. Accidental holding hands is as far as the teen wizards go; not even the first Quidditch base, if Quidditch had bases. Jokes aside, it was an interesting decision to let the director of the Mexican road movie "And [screw] your mom, too" to take the reins of this project. But it paid off.

If you've seen him as King Priam in "Troy", you might agree that the old warhorse Peter O'Toole would have made a better headmaster Dumbledore in replacement for the late Richard Harris. Bearing in mind O'Toole's age, the producers must have thought they took far less risk choosing younger Michael Gambon who, unfortunate car accidents on lightning strike aside, has a chance of taking his Dumbledore right to the end of the series, somewhere between five and ten years from now.

Overall, "Azkaban" is a lot of fun, mostly harmless, unless you believe that the whole Harry Potter franchise is one big advertisement for witchcraft, and is turning our children into occult-dabbling fiends. I prefer to look at it as another good early introduction to the age-old concept of a battle between good and evil, as well as values of friendship, honour and tradition.

Yes, I'm sure you can look at the Potter series as a indictment of the British class system (J K Rowling doesn't just dislike the upper class, but also the suburban middle class); yes, you can see Professor Lupin's werewolfism as an allegory for homosexuality. But the story of young orphaned wizard is otherwise relatively free from politics and heavy preaching - you won't see "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Abu Ghraib" any time soon. And thank God for that.


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