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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón

CAST:

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Tom Felton, Robert Hardy, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Pam Ferris, Julie Christie, Timothy Spall, Lee Ingleby

REVIEW:

Out of the three Harry Potter films that had been made at the time, Prisoner of Azkaban had been adapted from the longest book, but ended up with the shortest running time, but that’s not a bad thing. Its predecessors, Sorcerer’s Stone and especially Chamber of Secrets , were too strict about adhering to J.K. Rowling’s books to the letter, fitting in every minute plot detail and scene, no matter how trivial or inconsequential, resulting in the case of Chamber in an overlong film that seemed longer than it actually was and moved sluggishly, sometimes interminably. Fortunately for Prisoner, screenwriter Steve Kloves seemed to learn his lesson with the third installment, recognizing that every nuance and detail from a book cannot always simply be regurgitated onscreen without resulting in a very long and slow movie. Book and film are a different medium and must be treated as such, and Prisoner of Azkaban has been streamlined to move more purposefully and cinematically. The essentials are intact, but the filmmakers do not obsess with retaining every detail. Combine this with Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón taking over the reins from Chris Columbus (who stays on as producer), and the result is a more streamlined, cinematic, and atmospheric motion picture. If Chamber raised doubts about how well the massively popular Harry Potter series might play out in movie form, Prisoner should allay them.

The tagline for Prisoner of Azkaban is ‘something wicked this way comes’, and it’s easy to see why. The all-ages, kid-friendly appeal is intact, but there’s more darkness in the mix as well. Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) third year at Hogwarts sees him reunited with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), as well as making a few new allies like the kindly but enigmatic Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), but danger seems to be creeping in from all directions. Notorious murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the dark wizard prison of Azkaban, and is believed to have it in for Harry Potter. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris) reluctantly opens Hogwarts to the Dementors, sinister wraith-like beings searching for their escaped prisoner Sirius Black, but they’re hardly reassuring, especially when they take an unhealthy interest in Harry. Then there are the usual anti-Harry forces, such as Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), whose scorn for him seems limitless, and bullying Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). It doesn’t comfort Harry that the oddball Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson) is seeing ominous things in crystal balls. Before Harry’s school year is over, he will have to survive encounters with Sirius Black and the Dementors, and uncover the truth behind his parents’ murder.

Prisoner of Azkaban is a dark, stylish fantasy adventure that has both more mood and atmosphere and a little more emotional substance than either Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets. Coming on the heels of Chamber, perhaps the weakest entry in the series, it’s a far step ahead. Azkaban deals with a few more intelligent, mature themes such as touching further on Harry’s loss of his parents as a baby and their possible betrayal by a man they considered a close friend. Lord Voldemort, the overall villain of the series, who appears in some way, shape, or form in every other installment, is entirely absent. Also missing in action is Jason Isaacs’ Lucius Malfoy, although he is mentioned (and rears his ever-sneering head in the next episode). The replacement baddie this time around appears to be Gary Oldman’s escaped murderer Sirius Black, although he doesn’t appear in the flesh until well into the movie (represented amusingly beforehand by a raving Oldman on a ubiquitous wanted poster), and all may not be as it seems. Plot-wise, Azkaban serves more as a middle transitional section than a stand-alone adventure. Little is resolved, and the climax is much lower-key than those in Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets (or for that matter, Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix). There’s no major climactic clash between good and evil, just events advanced a little further, some new revelations, and more seeds sown for the next installments. Even so, Prisoner of Azkaban achieves a noticeably darker tone even without a strong central villain. This must be credited to director Alfonso Cuarón, taking over from lightweight Chris Columbus. Cuarón instantly makes his own distinctive style clear. He’s working with the same world and characters as Columbus, but through a very different lense. Azkaban is a distinctly more mature motion picture, still entertaining for young viewers but with more to offer for adults as well. The familiar elements are still in place- the paintings still talk, the staircases still move, ghosts still roam the halls- but Cuarón makes the atmosphere darker and more claustrophobic, with a sense of something eerie and ominous often lurking at the corners of the screen. Azkaban features some scenes- most notably those featuring the Dementors and a werewolf- that are creepier than anything in the first two movies, and may be too scary for small children. Which is not to say that Azkaban is a grim movie. In fact, it opens in high comedy, with a sequence involving Harry dealing magical revenge on his visiting, loathsome Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) that would make Roald Dahl proud (the Dursleys have always seemed like characters who would have been at home in James and the Giant Peach). Along the way, there are plenty of lightly humorous moments, and Cuarón gives a magical touch to a few scenes, such as when Harry rides a griffin-like creature known as a Hippogriff, and his triumph at creating the Patronus Charm- a magical force field that can defend against Dementors.

Neither Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, or Emma Watson are spectacular thespians, but they’re likable and enthusiastic, and by now the three have become Harry, Ron, and Hermione, which is what’s most important for this series. The trio have an easy, believable camaraderie, and while Radcliffe isn’t always quite up to his most emotional moments (his reaction when he learns of the betrayal of his parents just can’t quite muster up the raw intensity the scene calls for), he has an earnest, appealing presence and makes Harry the kind of infectiously sympathetic character it’s not hard to root for. Grint and Watson are equally good, not appreciably better or worse, as the worrisome Ron and take-charge Hermione. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy is given short shrift. Developed as Harry’s nemesis in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, he’s become more pathetic than nasty. The late Sir Richard Harris is missed. Michael Gambon is an adequate Dumbledore, but has little of Harris’ twinkly-eyed warmth, and sometimes seems to be walking through his part, although he throws in a nice touch of mischievousness toward the end. The other adult Potter regulars are their usual dependable selves, from Maggie Smith’s stern but caring Professor McGonogall to Robbie Coltrane’s bumbling, good-hearted Hagrid, with Alan Rickman continuing to be delightfully nasty as the eternally-sneering, humorless Snape. No actor is better at this kind of character than Rickman. There are also four noteworthy newcomers. With his long stringy hair, ragged clothes, and wild stare, Gary Oldman’s Sirius certainly looks like a dangerous maniac, but appearances may be deceiving. Another nice addition to the cast is David Thewlis, who brings a low-key, tentative kindness to Professor Lupin. His budding friendship with Harry lends the film a little emotional depth that some of its other moments lack. Some of the best things in the movie are the ones between Harry and Lupin. An almost unrecognizable Emma Thompson is a hoot as the scatterbrained Professor of Divination, and finally Timothy Spall is Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail, a sniveling, rat-like man who, like Sirius Black, has a connection to Harry’s past.

Prisoner of Azkaban is not a perfect movie by any means. Scenes such as the subplot involving Buckbeak the Hippogriff and a visit to the town of Hogsmeade, while entertaining enough in their own right, feel like tangents from the plotline and pad out the running length. The pace occasionally drags, although not nearly as much as its predecessor (also, unlike in Chamber, the slower parts at least have relevance to the plot). And there are any number of memorable moments scattered throughout, including Harry’s first encounter with a Dementor, a later face-off against a swarm of the sinister Azkaban guards, an episode with a werewolf, and a tense three-way confrontation at a supposedly haunted house. A series that seemed to founder with an overlong and sluggish second installment has made a solid rebound with the third, for which director Cuarón must be given due credit. Prisoner of Azkaban may not be a perfect movie, but it’s got the magic touch.

***

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