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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaba / Saved!  

Adolescence is a kind of fantasy world. It's a time when emotions swing wildly from pole to pole, when relationships change in the wink of an eye, when teenagers try on personalities as if they were changing costumes. It's a place where young people try to create their own reality, one which seems strange and unusual to any adult. In that sense, high school makes for a perfect setting--an overheated combustion chamber that amplifies the already potent mix of emotions and hormones.

I think that's why the Harry Potter books have been so successful. Though the magical setting is obviously other-worldly, it feels like real life to its younger audience. When Harry is locked in a life-or-death struggle every other day, that resonates with a teenage audience. That every character is either good or evil makes sense too, and that those same characters can suddenly flip to the other extreme fits in with their own relationships with their peers. Add in the four houses of Hogwarts, which perfectly mirror high school cliques, and the continual competition for points, which mimic teenagers' obsession with their own standing, and the world of Potter isn't that different from the perceived reality of a typical adolescent. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first book in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione are actually teenagers. Having turned thirteen, they're now third-years and ready to advance in both stature and wisdom. The primary conflict, which we learn early on in the film, is that a particularly dangerous wizard named Sirius Black has escaped from the previously inescapable prison of Azkaban. Black was responsible for the deaths of Harry's parents, and it's believed that he's now anxious to kill off the progeny as well. In hot pursuit are the Dementors, ghostly beings who, though chasing Sirius, are not the sort of creatures you want to spend time with. I knew the movie adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban was on the right track when I caught the first glimpse of a Dementor. The film's special effects are incredibly powerful, creating exactly the right atmosphere of dread.

Though I haven't been a teenager for a long time, I thoroughly enjoy the Harry Potter books. But ever since I read Prisoner of Azkaban, I've wondered whether it was filmmable. The plot is much more intricate than in the first two books, and those two movie adaptations ran two and a half hours. I'm happy to say new director Alfonso Cuaron and old screenwriter Steve Kloves have largely succeeded. The movie covers most of the important plot points, and Cuaron conjures up some wonderful visual tricks that fit with the tone of the book. Instead of the effects overwhelming the story, they serve it, and the movie becomes a seamless, magical tale.

Saved! is a new, independent film that has been getting some notoriety and high praise. It too is a film focused on the lives of teenagers. And though the movie is set in modern day suburbia, it enters the same fantasy world of adolescence, where characters are pushed to the extremes and conflicts are portrayed in black and white.

The conflict here is over intolerance. Set at a hyper-Christian private school, Saved! focuses on the character of Mary (Jena Malone), who, when she finds out her boyfriend Dean is gay, decides that the best way to save him is to have sex with him. Not only is that spectacularly unsuccessful (Dean is sent off to a re-education camp), but Mary becomes pregnant. At first, she doesn't want anyone to know, but the school's "bad kids" (a token Jew and a wheelchair-bound boy played by Macaulay Culkin) soon figure it out. Though Mary had scorned them in the past, they're happy to take her under their wing now that she's in trouble. And lo and behold, she finds out they're better friends than the holier-than-thou Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) and Veronica (Elizabeth Thai) she used to hang out with. This incenses Hilary Faye to no end, who conveniently ignores her Christian upbringing and does everything she can to make Mary and her friends' lives miserable. Just as with Harry Potter and numerous other teen films, the good and bad have suddenly switched.

The problem with Saved! is that it thinks it's making a realistic film, one that has something to say about contemporary teen culture and specifically evangelical culture. But with everyone but Mary a simple two-dimensional character, it's hard to take any of this seriously. I mean Dean is the most well-adjusted evangelical gay teenager you'll ever see. And Hilary Faye (played with wonderful bitchiness by pop singer Mandy Moore) is intolerance and deceitfulness personified, fitting nicely into Hollywood's stock stereotype of evangelicals as stupid hypocrites. Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film "audacious," but for what I'm not sure. It's just rehashing old cliches. And in the end, the only evangelicals we root for are the ones who largely abandon any pretense of being evangelical. That's a familiar and tired plotline. If those sort of movies were made about other religious groups, people would howl in protest.

At least Harry Potter knows it's telling a fantasy tale, and a good one it is. The kid actors are growing up, and though their crying scenes don't bode well for the more complicated Goblet of Fire, they can all still look like they're scared stiff. Stuffing so much plot into a 145-minute movie requires that almost all character development gets thrown out the window, so the books are still vastly superior to the movie. But for the first time, we have a Harry Potter movie that feels like the book, and that's a wonderful accomplishment. That it's a more honest portrayal of teen life than Saved! is shows just how far teen movies still have to go.   

J. Robert Parks  6/5/2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  



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