Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  June 4, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

What is there to be said about Harry Potter that hasn't been said before? The wizard and his universe, created by a then-out-of-work school teacher J.K. Rowling, has gone on to be one of the most successful book franchises in history with massive anticipation for each subsequent book and film release in the series. In fact, the hype surrounding the release of "The Order of the Phoenix" led to massive lineups, record breaking online pre-orders, and a lawsuit against a pressing plant after a copy disappeared and showed up in a field in Britain. I won't pretend to be a Harry expert in that I've never read even a page of the novels or become involved in the hype. In fact, my only experience with the world of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Hogwarts has come through the two feature films directed by Christopher Columbus, the first of which I enjoyed a fair bit and the second which was a disappointment. Now, after taking an extra six months to come to the screen (the first two were November releases), audiences will be taken back to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the film based on the third novel in the series.

It's been a long summer away from Hogwarts for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Forced to live with the Dursleys – his least favorite muggles – and unable to practice magic, he's ready to go back to school and be with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Before he can do so, he breaks the Hogwarts code by performing magic on a visiting relative. Thrust out of the house by the Dursleys, he hops aboard the Knight Bus and is whisked away to the Leaky Cauldron to appear before the minister of magic, who much to his surprise doesn't punish him for breaking the rules. It is here where he is reunited with Ron and Hermione, and after a brief warning from Mr. Weasly, the three are on the train back to Hogwarts for another school year. At the same time we learn that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has become the first prisoner ever to escape from Azkaban prison. Black has a connection to Harry through Lord Voldermort, the man responsible for the death of Harry's parents and the scar on his forehead. On the train, Harry has a run-in with a Dementor (the creatures who guard the prison). Much to Harry's luck, he is rescued by Professor Lupin (David Thewalis) and before long they arrive at the school. Upon Harry's arrival at Hogwarts, things seem much darker than ever before. Professioner Trewlawny (Emma Thompson) sees dark things in the future for Harry, and the Dementors take up residence to protect the students from Sirius Black. Just what connection do the two have and why does Hermione keep disappearing and reappearing in various situations? For Harry, solving and surviving the mysteries of the Dementors and Sirius Black means unravelling the truth about his parents and their deaths.

Based on the third novel in the series by British writer J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban marks a drastically different look and feel for the series of films. Relinquishing the director's chair for that of a producer is Christopher Columbus, who hands over the reigns to Y tu Mama Tambien director Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron's Harry Potter has a darker and more sinister tone to it as stylistically the director has made many changes. Gone are the school uniforms of Hogwarts, replaced with simple street clothes. Also gone is the friendly aspect of Hogwarts, as the school itself is shot in a way that leaves things with a more ominous and dark tone. Things feel claustrophobic as Cuaron loses many of the sweeping grand shots of his predecessor. Overall, everything feels much darker. Not too dark, but dark enough that the film's overly lying theme of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is present in almost every moment of the film. There are truly no lighter moments and the film has sort of a haunting quality to it, as you never know what might happen.

This third chapter of the story also distances itself from the previous two in that like The Two Towers, it has that sort of middle chapter feel to it. The first two films had encounters with Lord Voldermort, where this third film is more character-building and about discovery, as Harry learns the truth about his parents' deaths. There's no big conflict in the film and there's no distinct beginning or end. This isn't a bad thing, as the film can (and does) stand on its own without previous knowledge of the events of the first two chapters being required. It's just that it doesn't really have the big action-packed moments one expects from this sort of motion picture. Steve Klowes, who's been responsible for all three screenplays thus far (and the forth chapter currently shooting under Mike Newell), has taken the longest of the books and made it the shortest screenplay. Running at just under two hours and ten minutes, plus end titles, this is a good 20 to 30 minutes shorter than the earlier films. Having said that, though, the pacing is a bit slow and may lose some of the younger audience members in places. This is not an action-packed film but important to the overall series because of the all of the character development it provides.

It's hard to believe that it's been almost three years since we were first introduced to the primary cast of characters in the series. Over the past three movies, we've watched Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grow up along with their on-screen characters. No place is it more obvious than in this film. Rumors are running rampant on the internet that after the fourth film, one or all of them may be replaced as they outgrow the characters they portray on-screen. In this installment, it becomes evident that this might have to occur. Rupert Grint looks vastly different than he did before, as does Tom Felton, who plays supporting character Draco Malfoy. The same fate occurs to a lesser degree with Radcliffe and Watson.

From an acting perspective, the kids have had time to get their roles down pat and it comes as no surprise that the acting from the children is relatively good. Radcliffe handles the darker and deeper material adequately, but nothing in his performance really leads me to believe that he'll have much of a career after he hands up his magic wand. Grint's comedic timing is sharp as always, and he plays the sort of slow doofus friend well. The real shining star and my favorite actress in the film is Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. Watson shows great spunk and comedic timing, and makes the films that much more enjoyable. I missed her for most of Chamber of Secrets and am glad she played a bigger role here. Having said that, she could have used more scenes in this film as well, but to be fair the title is Harry Potter and not Hermione Granger. Joining the kids in this film for the first time is thespian David Thewalis as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and Thewalis brings a strong acting background to the film. Continuing the Potter tradition of casting strong British talent in the adult roles, we have Emma Thompson in the small role of Sybil Trewlawny, the Divination teacher. Alan Rickman also continues his role as Professor Snape, as does Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, groundskeeper and all around presence on campus. Taking over in the role of Dumbledore is Michael Gambon, who holds his own in the shadows of the late Richard Harris.

In some ways, this was a make-it-or-break-it chapter in the overall saga of Harry Potter, with a new director behind it and the awkwardness of being a seemingly more plot- and character-driven chapter than its predecessors – which were ultimately more filmable. It had both the most to gain and the most to lose. Luckily, with the immensely talented Alfonso Cuaron in the director's chair, the result is a film that appeals both to the faithful readers of the book series and film fans like me who quite simply couldn't care less about the success of the novels. Cuaron, who demonstrated with the Mexican coming-of-age story Y tu Mama Tambien that he could tell a powerful character-driven story, has brought that to this series and transformed it into something quite magical. As someone who's not overly interested in fantasy, he has created a magical world where wizards and magic seem common place and could easily exist. In essence, this is very much a coming-of-age chapter for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and Cuaron handles it with well-accomplished hands. Sadly, he only wanted to make the one film and has relinquished directorial control over for the forth chapter to Mike Newell (the dreadfully bad Mona Lisa Smile). Perhaps he'll show that it was just a bad screenplay and can breathe even more life into this franchise.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a gigantic step in the right direction, as it has everything the previous did and much more, including a compelling story, strong character development, a sense of magic and mystery, and stronger performances from its core group of actors. Even the special effects look better and are not overly flashy as to not take away attention from the core message in the story. As the conflict and tension heightens for young Harry Potter, the films will intensify. This is a much darker film than its predecessors and may on occasion be frightening for younger audiences. Although the first two films were for the most part entertaining and fun (though Chamber of Secrets still remains much weaker than Philosopher's Stone) this is much more elegant and thought-provoking. Alfonso Cuaron has finally captured the mystical and magical world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter that will enthrall the older of Harry's fans. I for one hope the films continue in this manner as opposed to the overly simple kiddie nature of Columbus' chapters. Still, as it stands now, Prisoner of Azkaban is a magical ride. Recommended.

Tags: Harry Potter

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Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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