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"A refreshing change of pace. Sophisticated and distinctive."
"Enthusiastically the most compelling of all of the Harry Potter films."
"An adventurous, explorative, inquisitive time when it's impishly fun to be a wizard."
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  

Cast

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Sirius Black: Gary Oldman
Professor Lupin: David Thewlis
Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Professor Snape: Alan Rickman
Review June 2004

"Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble." It's the famous incantation from the witches of Macbeth, no doubt a delicious metaphor for the mischievous events brewing in J.K. Rowling's third installment of the Harry Potter series. For in this edition, the alleged murderer of Harry's parents, Sirius Black, has escaped from prison in Azkaban, and is now hunting for the adolescent wizard himself. Like every chapter of the series, an entire school year unfolds at Hogwarts, the kids solve a mystery, and Harry uncovers precious details about his past. Yet, while much remains the same, this Harry Potter film uniquely matures with the help of a new director, a cast that is noticeably older, and a storyline that is much darker in tone. It's a refreshing change of pace. And it helps make "Azkaban" a sophisticated and distinctive delight.

The story picks up the night before Harry's thirteenth birthday with a visit from Aunt Marge, an obnoxious woman with a foul disposition. While dining at the Dursley's, she insults Harry's parents so much that he has her transformed into a balloon. During the commotion, Harry defiantly packs his bags and makes his way to the nearest bus stop. Transported at whiplash speed by the Knight Bus, Harry arrives at his destination (Diagonal Alley) only to be reunited with his friends, Ron and Hermione. But before heading back to Hogwarts, Harry is pulled aside by Ron's father and told some disturbing news: the notorious Sirius Black has escaped from prison and intends to kill him.

The next day, on board the Hogwarts Express, the gang is visited by a group of ghastly Dementors from Azkaban. The Dementors are in search of Sirius Black, but nevertheless are intrigued by Harry. During a soulful exchange, Harry faints, while the Dementors are repelled by the new defense against the dark instructor, Professor Lupin. Lupin also takes a particular interest in Harry, but in a good way. He helps him uncover some of the mysteries about his past while also helping him confront his fears with a Patronus charm. After a second fainting spell during a Quiddich match, it is learned that Sirius Black has made it to Hogwarts and more of the soul sucking Dementors of Azkaban have been employed by Hogwarts for protection.

With the Dementors flying about, Sirius Black on the prowl, and Draco Malfoy up to no good, life at Hogwarts couldn't be any more dangerous. But for Harry, Hermione, and Ron, it's all in a day's work. They must find the man trying to kill Harry, avoid confrontations with the Dementors, rescue several innocent creatures, and put together many missing pieces from Harry's orphaned past. And to do so, they just might have to be in more places than one.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is enthusiastically the most compelling of all of the Harry Potter films. No longer stuck in character initialization, background details, and worldly footnotes, the film represents the first real attempt at moving forward, breaking the mold, and maturing as a franchise. Because this time, the focus is less on the development of the Harry Potter universe and more on the development of Harry Potter, the character. Gone are the childlike manifestations of whimsy and innocence that filled the first two years at Hogwarts - owl post letters, flying cars, and sorting hats. In their place are escaped convicts, wring wraith Dementors, werewolves, executioners, and voodoo induced bus rides.

Stylistically, the film is a welcome departure from director Christopher Columbus' wholesome and colorful interpretations of Harry's early years. Here, the palette is much darker, thanks in large part to the cinematography of Michael Seresin and the costume design of Jany Temime. Seresin's point of reference comes from his grim perspective on "Angela's Ashes." A similar look and feel can be seen reverberating throughout "Azkaban" with charcoal filters to subtract light, blue hues to create a dreamy hippogriff ride for Harry, and interactive camera work to allow a Whomping Willow to toss snow onto the lens. Even the costumes are altered to remove color and sophistication, replacing the bright bells and whistles of old with outfits that are earthy and less inviting. Toss in a foreboding score by John Williams and the stage is set for a suspenseful adventure.

When it comes to filmmaking, the phrase "less is more" is meaningful, particularly when you are adapting a 435 page novel. Under the helm of director Alfonso Cuaron, known for such diverse works as "A Little Princess" and the racy "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Prisoner of Azkaban" succeeds because it stays focused on the big picture - adolescence. For unlike the previous two films, which were strict adaptations comprised of scenes both relevant and irrelevant to the plot, "Azkaban" contains only those instrumental scenes necessary to conclude the story. For instance, Cuaron limits the exposure of the befuddled Divination instructor Professor Trelawney, he shortens the hurricane-drenched games of Quiddich from two to one, he cuts out the holidays, and he eliminates the historical meanderings of Marauder's Map. Though many avid fans will be disappointed (they won't even appear on the DVD), these omissions and adjustments make the film tighter and more brisk.

Like any great artist, Cuaron has a knack for detail but occasionally lags in the storytelling department. In "The Prisoner of Azkaban," Hogwarts has been renovated with more depth and a resemblance to a medieval college with a brand new bell tower, Harry's interaction with Buckbeak is fluid without the rigidity of CGI, and the Whomping Willow shakes off snow and envelops unsuspecting birds in a lively and whimsical fashion. However, while Cuaron is methodical in setting up his scenes with smooth fade to blacks and simplistic time travel, he lets a wonderful performance by Gary Oldman as Sirius Black get overshadowed by a lesser, throw away character like Peter Pettigrew. And in such an instance, we feel misinformed at the so-called moment of truth.

Although Harry Potter and the gang are growing up fast, they're not growing up as fast as the actors who play them. Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have noticeably matured and part of the allure of this film and future films will be the observance of that growth. It is my hope that Warner Brothers can retain their services throughout the remaining films regardless of their age because they have continually improved as actors. This is especially noticeable in a Cuaron film, which requires longer takes, sustained focus, and adaptability. Rounding out the cast with stellar quality are Gary Oldman, who plays the charismatic Sirius Black, Emma Thompson as the loopy Professor Trelawney, Michael Gambon aptly filling the void of Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and David Thewlis, giving a stand out performance as the affable, but tormented Professor Lupin.

"Something wicked this way comes," chants the Hogwart's choir in a number that foreshadows a darker, more precarious future for Harry and his friends. But much of that wickedness is wrapped up in adolescence, a time when hormones and mood swings erupt, insecurities and vulnerabilities are exposed, independence is sought, curiosity prevails, and most importantly, lessons in life are learned. It's a time period in which everyone can associate with - an adventurous, explorative, inquisitive time when it's impishly fun to be a wizard.



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