Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are heading back for their third year at the now-famous school of magic and wizardry. But, as the magical train takes them back to Hogwarts it is abruptly stopped and Harry is confronted by a soul sucking Dementor searching for a dangerous escaped wizard in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
I’ve read the first four of the Potter books, liked the newness of the first, was bored by the sameness of the second and developed a grudging acceptance of the third and forth. As to the first two “Potter” movies by director Chris Columbus, I felt pretty much the same. The first did a good job of adapting J.K Rowling’s book to the big screen and it was a well-crafted F/X extravaganza. The kids established themselves pretty well, too. The second installment was more of the same – bigger, better and more bombastic special effects – including yet another Quiddich match. (I had had enough the first time around.)
For “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” now-producer Columbus and company have hired on Mexican helmer Alphonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”) to direct the third installment of the lucrative franchise, as the child wizard-in-training becomes a teenager. The choice, to me, is a major improvement over the previous installments for a number of reasons. First and foremost is how the magical aspects of Hogwarts – the living paintings, ghosts wandering the rooms, candles floating in midair and scary Dementors – are given matter of fact treatment. Cuaron and his obviously talented crew, utilizing Steve Kloves’s solid screenplay (his third “Potter” script) make this magical world, filled with illusion, feel normal. This allows the second thing I found thoroughly enjoyable in part three of the series.
One of the things that have always been consistent in the “Potter” films is the fine job done in casting all the incredible characters that populate this magical universe. Richard Harris gave a fragile strength to his headmaster Dumbledore and his passing could have dealt a blow to “Prisoner” (but does not). Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Robbie Coltraine and others appear in the first and/or the second and reprise their roles again here. But, there is a new who’s who of British actors that attached themselves to this project in a big way.
Of course, the kids do a fine job as Radcliffe, Grint and Watson show real maturity in their perfs and are quite comfortable with their characters. The newcomers joining them in this latest adventure are some of England’s finest actors: Michael Gambon, filling the shoes of Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the sinister title prisoner, Sirius Black; David Thewlis appears as Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, Remus Lupin; Emma Thompson (who steals the show during her brief on-screen time) is Professor Trelawney, in charge of Divination; Timothy Spall is the rat-like pivotal character, Peter Pettigrew in Harry’s on-going quest to unravel the mystery of his parent’s death.
The third thing I really like about “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has nothing to do with story or actors. It has to do with the one effect that knocked my socks off – the Hippogriff. Fans of the book will remember this amazing creature but the F/X team has created something that even the great Ray Harryhausen would be pleased with. Buckbeak (that’s his name) is the magical combination of an eagle and a horse that is the subject of Rubeus Hagrid (Coltraine), the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher. It might be a bit hokey as Harry bonds with Buckbeak then take off astride the flying creature but it sure made me want to have one of my own.
Harry’s story continues as he enters his third year at Hogwarts and learns that Sirius Black, the wizard who is professed to be after young Potter, has escaped his Dementor torturers at the notorious Azkaban Prison for malefactors of magic. Black is heading straight to Hogwarts and Dumbledore is forced to enlist the deadly Dementors to guard the gates of Hogwarts. Meanwhile, Professor Lupin has taken Harry under his wing and teaches the lad, scared to almost paralysis by the evil guardians, how to use his magic to control these unrelenting demons. But things are not what they seem and Harry learns some life affirming lessons as the lines of good and evil are redrawn by the end of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
Director Cuaron shows his skill with actors as he elicits sound, even endearing performances form his fine cast. The new additions make the biggest splash with Thewlis giving dimension to his aptly named Remus Lupin. Gary Oldman, always a treat to see, first appears as the raving moving image in a wanted poster for Sirius Black. He maintains his sinister, menacing air and his transformation of character, by the end, is quite well done. Michael Gambon does not disappoint as the new Dumbledore and adds some wry humor to his character. Emma Thompson is really quite marvelous as the near sighted, theatrical Professor Trelawney, who, when reading Harry’s tea leaves, sees an omen of death, the Grim. Timothy Spall has some fun as the rodent like Pettigrew. Robbie Coltraine continues his portrayal of Hagrid to good effect. Alan Rickman, always a pleasure to watch, continues his nuance performance as the distrustful and arrogant Professor Snape. Maggie Smith, as Professor McGonagall, has little screen time as the aging wizardess.
I was hopeful, going in to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” due to the involvement of Alphonso Cuaron, a director I have respected since I saw his enchanting “A Little Princess” (another film that I highly recommend). He lends a dark edginess to his interpretation of J.K. Rowling’s tale and makes it better. It is the best entry, yet, in the series and I give it a B+.
When a certain thirteen year old wizard returns for his third year at Hogwarts it is under the guard of the terrifying dementors who look for the return of escapee Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, "The Contender") the man who betrayed the Potters to Lord Voldemort and may now be out to kill their son in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón ("Y Tu Mamá También") takes the reins for the third, decidedly darker and more mature edition of the Harry Potter series and delivers a suitably gloomy looking, more serious film. While the lack of colorful amusements make the film's long running time occasionally flirt with tedium, an influx of terrific British actors, the oncoming adulthood of the film's three young stars and the fabulous effect that is the Hippogriff Buckbeak sock this one over into new territory.
After an extended prologue featuring Harry's escape from the Dursley household aboard a magical purple triple-decker bus, Cuarón sets the tone within a rain-drenched train compartment. As water streams down the windowpanes (all beautifully shot by new director of photography Michael Seresin, "The Life of David Gale") the eerie dementors attack Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who is saved by a mysterious occupant who turns out to be none other than Hogwarts's new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis, "Timeline").
Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, "Gosford Park," taking over for the late Richard Harris) addresses the Sirius Black gossip with warnings about how to behave around the dementors. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) tries to needle Harry about fainting in their presence, but he's shown up during Hagrid's (Robbie Coltrane) first class as the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher. Malfoy Senior retaliates by obtaining a death warrant for Buckbeak. Hermione (Emma Watson), whose sudden appearances have been perplexing Ron (Rupert Grint) and Harry, pops Draco one in the kisser. Meanwhile Harry is discovering that many people are not who they seem as Snape (Alan Rickman) lectures on werewolves and the Marauder's map supplied by the Weasley twins shows Peter Pettigrew, the presumably deceased former friend of Harry's parents, walking the halls of Hogwarts.
Cuarón subtly introduces adolescent changes within his stars dynamics. Hermione is less talk and more action, including small physical indications of an attraction to Ron. Ron, in turn, lets his annoyance with his female friend slowly turn into appreciation. Harry is less victimized. If things continue in the direction J.K. Rowling has taken and Cuarón has adapted the series to, it is likely that Radcliffe, Watson and Grint could last through the franchise. The quality of actors drawn to this project continues to amaze as well. In one shot alone, I was astonished to realize I was watching Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Timothy Spall ("The Last Samurai") all lending to the Potter mystique. Rickman continues to be the single most intriguing element of the Potter series. Here the actor makes a great entrance into his classroom, slamming a trio of huge shutters one by one with a point of his wand as he heads to his podium. Emma Thompson ("Love Actually") joins the cast as Divination Professor Sibyll Trelawney and she's a jolt of eccentric hilarity, this film's only true comic relief, although Dawn French (TV's "French and Saunders") has her moments as the Fat Lady of Gryffindor Tower. Gambon gives a slightly different interpretation of Dumbledore from Harris's more benign interpretation, but rightfully so - the stakes are being raised. Cuarón opted to change the head wizard's appearance for this outing as well, giving him a more organic, less magical look. Watch closely for Julie Christie ("Troy") as a pub owner in what amounts to a few seconds of screen time.
Cuarón's production accentuates the wildness of Hogwarts' surroundings. The Whomping Willow is a touchstone for the passing of the seasons and Scotland's Glen Coe is used as a majestic backdrop. The de rigueur Quidditch match is darker as well, held in the driving rain. A scene where Harry flies on Buckbeak's back is stunning, particularly as the fantastical creature skims the water between two peaks. The Hippogriff is amazingly realized, but the dementors, for all their initial eeriness, have a tendency to look like a Halloween edition of Charm Pops thereafter. A time travel element is neatly handled and edited.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" marks a distinct change of tone, but hopefully the next film will blend back in some more of the magical moments.
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