Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 35.1 (2005) 65-67
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The Prisoner of Azkaban:
A New Direction for Harry Potter
Meet the Knight Bus: a ghostly triple-decked doppelganger to London's famous red buses. The fantastical nature of this vehicle manifests in a touch of whimsy, a crystal chandelier that sways erratically as the vehicle zips and zooms through the streets of London. Those attuned to the previous Harry Potter films will notice a crucial difference between this film and its predecessors—this bus stays on the ground. The two previous members of the franchise also began with magical vehicles: Hagrid's flying motorbike in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and the Weasleys' flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the latter film Ron and Harry's madcap flight to Hogwarts in a Ford Anglia leaves a series of awestruck muggles (people without magical powers) gawking, requiring the Ministry of Magic to restore normalcy by altering the memories of the witnesses. While the latest film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, does feature an unusual flying object—Aunt Marge expands into a giant human balloon when she angers Harry—the magical Knight Bus traverses London unnoticed.
Despite the flamboyance of the bus' maneuvers, muggles are cheerfully oblivious to its presence; their inability to comprehend its existence renders them blind. In the first films, the magical world feels like a secret society where you need to know the tricks and passwords to enter. In the latest film, this world pervades contemporary culture, hiding in the cracks. One moment of the bus trip makes this relationship strikingly clear. Confronted with two double-decker buses bearing down on it, the Knight Bus shrinks to squeeze between its adversaries and continues its journey, altering itself to work around the solid parameters of muggle society. This adaptability illustrates two crucial themes of the film: first, that muggles (including the film's viewers) could recognize the magic that surrounds them if they could open themselves to thinking in new ways; second, that the film speaks to real life rather than offering an alternative fantasy. Director Alfonso Cuarón, who takes over the franchise from Chris Columbus, integrates the magical world with the muggle world in order to drive home the message of the film: things are not always what they seem. In doing so, Cuarón draws from his previous experience directing two beloved British literary classics: A Little Princess and Great Expectations. In both those films he altered the time period of events and shifted the action to a new locale in order to increase the opportunities for contemporary viewers to identify with the film. A Little Princess places the heroine's father in World War I rather than engaging him in the discovery of a diamond mine and moves the heroine from London to New York City. Cuarón's Great Expectations modernizes the story by setting it in contemporary America. Unlike the works by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are products of contemporary culture. However, Cuarón makes greater use of this fact than his predecessor did. His film emphasizes the importance of being open to new possibilities and interpretations of people and events. This represents an important stage in the growth of Harry Potter, as well as the maturation of the franchise.
Some of the most important elements that Cuarón uses to connect magic and reality are the costumes worn by his wizards and witches. Much of the clothing worn by the adults in the film has a traditional and old-fashioned flair. The conductor on the Knight Bus wears a vintage uniform and uses a hand-cranked ticket machine. Robes are not often worn by Cuarón's wizards, but when donned they resemble professional attire from the muggle world, although at times from a distant decade. Professor Lupin covers his tweed suit with a matching...