OK, so it had been said that the kids are really beginning to grow up by the third entry in the series, but when Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban opened with Harry doing something under the sheets involving a torch and him desperately hoping not to be discovered by his family, I wondered whether maybe JK Rowling had gone a little too far. Fortunately, it turned out that he was secretly doing homework. Almost certainly the best of the series of books to that point, HP3 (it will save time later on, believe me) is also the most obviously cinematic, having a far more traditional narrative structure and being less of a collection of disparate episodes than its two predecessors. Chris Columbus jumped ship to be replaced, intriguingly, by Alfonso Cuaron, who seems an inspired choice (though won’t be back for the fourth installment). I have to say (and Potter fans the world over will no doubt attempt to put a curse on me), that the only particularly disappointing things about the novels and films is Harry himself: secondary characters seem to be more lovingly drawn and far more interesting, Harry is just a typical “jolly hockey sticks” English public schoolboy type, who we are expected to revere by default. Things are most certainly not helped by Daniel Radcliffe, who portrays him onscreen. It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the fact that, following a worldwide search involving literally tens of thousands of young boys being interviewed for the part, the most coveted role for a pre-teen actor in cinema history should go to… the casting director’s son. Who – by the by – can’t act.
John Williams’s scores for the first two have proved to be as wildly popular as his great work on popcorn movies in the past, though they are not without problems. He seemed to be simply over-egging the pudding in the first one, going all out for maximum bombast. The second was certainly better (and in “Fawkes the Phoenix” has one of Williams’s most beautiful themes), but the third is in a different league entirely. Content to leave the movie to weave its own magic without him needing to accentuate every moment, HP3 is a far subtler and more withdrawn score, and all the finer for it. Of course, a couple of familiar themes return, but they play a far reduced role here. “Hedwig’s Theme” opens, as usual, but then it takes a backseat, appearing only fleetingly, and usually very subtly, in subsequent tracks.
“Aunt Marge’s Waltz” is a delightfully old-fashioned piece, followed by the score’s most unusual component, “The Knight Bus”, which is a little like the Cantina Band music from Star Wars, after doing some serious acid. “Apparition on the Train” demonstrates that this is a far darker film and score, with some reasonably full-on horror music. “Double Trouble” is the delightful song Williams wrote for the trailer, vaguely Danny Elfmanesque, and entirely enjoyable. Then comes arguably the score’s highlights, the all-too-brief “Buckbeak’s Flight” (which is utterly gorgeous and full of the childhood innocence and magic Williams once provided in ET) and liltingly beautiful “A Window to the Past”, which showcases the unexpected presence of mediaeval music specialists the Dufay Collective, and features a lovely rendition of the score’s “main theme” (the melody from the song). “The Whomping Willow and the Snowball Fight” is a great contrast between the first half, which is a powerful and extremely detailed action piece, and the playful second half, another delight.
With those highlights coming thick and fast in the magnificent first eight tracks, it would be tempting to think that the rest of the album could never live up to its opening twenty minutes, and in truth it probably doesn’t, but that is more a reflection on the outstanding opening than any lack of quality thereafter. “Quidditch, Third Year” is far more strident and impressive than previous years’ efforts, featuring a full-on onslaught from the brass section and even a brief burst from the choir which showcases impressively adult, serious writing from the composer and is another highlight. Notable throughout is the degree of intricacy to the orchestration, exceptional even by Williams’s standards (highlighted by a gloriously detailed recording by Shawn Murphy). “The Patronus Light” is an unexpected treasure, a brief but sumptuous choral depiction of beautiful light. “The Werewolf Scene” is, by contrast, extremely dark and threatens to almost reach Close Encounters of the Third Kind levels of intensity, taken even further in “The Dementors Converge” with the addition of the choir. Everything then gets wrapped up in the lengthy end title piece “Mischief Managed!”, a lovely summary of the score’s main thematic content.
HP3 is a wonderful score. It is probably a little more disjointed than its predecessors, but as director Cuaron notes in the album booklet, Williams has somehow managed to pull together all the different styles (traditional classical romanticism, ancient music and even avant garde jazz) very well – which is praise indeed, since Cuaron reportedly would have used a different composer had it been up to him. Frankly, it’s impossible to imagine another composer coming up with a score quite this good for a summer blockbuster and Williams is still ahead of all of his peers at this type of thing.