Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
review by Elias Savada, 4 June 2004

Yes, one of our beloved literary characters, courtesy of J.K. Rowling, heretofore heir to a cinematic fortune just under (and soon to be much, much over) $3 billion, endures some enlightening growing pains in his third excursion to the big screen, dvd, and beyond. Don't be alarmed, though, because he's not yet Harold Potter. He's still Harry, and I (and you) should all be wild about him, a maturing 13-year-old student at the esteemed Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He's returning for his third year of magical study with his delightfully bewitching friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, on the trail of darker adventure and direction (than in predecessors Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), while keeping much of the same eye-catching scenery and supporting characters intact. Chris Columbus has moved out of the director's chair (yet still keeping a watchful eye as one of the film's executive producers), replaced by Mexican-born and raised Alfonso Cuarón, who takes a determined and deliberately more sinister leap into the world of one of cinema's big-budget fantasy franchises. The choice is Cuarón, whose last film was the award-winning Y tu mama también (which also garnered an Oscar nomination for best screenplay), is inspired, and was more a decision based on The Little Princess, his enchanting, four-hankie, 1995 adaptation of the classic children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett (released by Warner Bros., which also handles production/distribution for the Harry Potter films).

So what is Harry (dependable Daniel Radcliffe) up to when his latest adventure begins? Well, the prototypical likable lad is on the brink of adolescence and, like many young male teenagers, he is tempted to experimentation under the bedcovers. Steve Kloves, who has channeled all of Rowling's Harry Potter novels to the screen (and continues to imbue his adaptations with humor and humanity), pokes fun at the coming-of-age tradition of nocturnal emission, casting a bright, new comic light for the kid who used to live in the closet under the stairs. This small chuckle at the expense of Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) segues into a bigger guffaw as Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) pushes her potty mouth to Harry's limit and quickly learns that egos aren't the only things than can be inflated. It's a wonderfully edited sequence by Steven Weisberg (who also cut Cuarón's The Little Princess and Great Expectations), slowing inflating the comic effect. Moments later, the bridge from summer vacation to school and studies is taken aboard the spirited Knight Bus, a frantic triple-decker ride through London by Ernie, the vehicle's myopic driver, a droll ticket taker, and a wisecracking Shrunken Head, replete with Jamaican accent. No Muggles allowed.

With so much slapstick on the front end of the film, most of the remaining comedy is of the nuanced, wit, and amusing prop variety (all very funny). Also, no sooner does Harry learn of the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, one of Hollywood's most lovable nasties, q.v. The Professional, The Fifth Element, Lost in Space, The Contender, etc.), the eponymous inmate jailed a dozen years earlier, Harry and his close friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) find that life at Hogwarts has taken a somewhat dismal turn toward self preservation because the escaped wizard is seeking out Harry.

Despite the enormous cast, many of our old favorites and new additions are reduced to extended cameos. Returning, ever too briefly, are Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters); Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon taking over the headmaster chores from the late, great Richard Harris); Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith); Professor Snape (Alan Rickman); and members of the Dursley residence, including the aforementioned Uncle Vernon, plus Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Dudley (Harry Melling).

Newly minted roles are Madam Rosmerta (Julie Christie), caretaker of the Three Broomsticks pub in Hogsmeade; Divination Professor Sibyll Trelawney (Emma Thompson), a ditsy, thickly spectacled Berkeley Bohemian type; and, when he finally shows up, Sirius Black. David Thewlis, a 20-year veteran thespian, returns to the fantasy realm (after last year's forgettable Timeline) with a sturdy role as the slightly disheveled, but completely earnest Professor R.J. Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who helps Harry perfect his Patronus Charm, takes a keen liking to the student, and is foiled by a startling, dark secret.

The lovable giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is back, promoted to Care of Magical Creatures teacher, and he's got a Hippogrif (a magical half-horse, half-eagle) name Buckbeak that takes a liking to Harry and a disliking to bleach blond school bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). With all the real dangers about, I wish Harry or Ron or Hermione would just turn their odious classmate into a frog. The Whomping Willow gets major screen time, for snatching a few careless birds, announcing seasonal changes, or giving Harry and Hermione an amusement ride they won't soon forget. There's a bit of rain-drenched Quidditch for sports fans, a map like none you'd find at mapquest.com (which becomes the title design for the end credits), a werewolf (twice in one summer!), shape-shifting Boggarts that are tamed by laughter and comic intentions, and the Cloak of Invisibility, helping Harry to sneak in and out generally unnoticed (damn those footprints in the snow).

I won't get into the story line (hey most of you have read the book, right?), other to say that you might feel a sense of déjà vu about two-thirds of the way through the 142-minute film.

Let's talk about the scary parts. While the film is rated PG (for frightening moments, creature violence, and mild language), the ominous Dementors are a flock of grim reapery, ice-inducing, soul-sucking creatures that nearly paralyze Harry to the edge of death on more than one occasion. They also are likely to menace children under 10-years-old with a few scares. Don't be surprised to see a few youngsters cower under a parent's umbrage, probably asking mom or dad to tell them when these beasties are gone. These nightmarish beings approximate the shadowy, unearthly shapes in Ghost that escorted bad guy Tony Goldwyn to an after-death location considerably deeper than six feet under.

This well-intentioned disclaimer aside, the cast and crew of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are to be congratulated for a more adult vision than the earlier films, and a (slightly) shorter one. Some fans might be distracted by the darker visual palate, but the spellbinding landscape is definitely familiar, the humor elevating, the effects wondrous, and the characters filled with enough eccentricities for plenty of entertainment value. In a summer barely begun and Shrek 2 already speeding past the quarter-billion-dollar boxoffice gross mark in just two weeks of release, Azkaban is poised to overtake the green ogre and be not only the most successful yet of the orphan wizard's cinematic tales, but possibly one of the year's biggest hits.

All hail Harry Potter!

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Directed by:
Alfonso Cuarón

Daniel Radcliffe
Rupert Grint
Emma Watson
Michael Gambon
Gary Oldman
David Thewlis
Timothy Spall
Pam Ferris
Paul Whitehouse
Robbie Coltrane
David Bradley
Tom Felton
Richard Griffiths
Robert Hardy
Alan Rickman
Fiona Shaw
Maggie Smith
Julie Walters
Mark Williams
Emma Thompson
Julie Christie

Written by:
Steve Kloves

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13.







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