"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.