a critiQal film review Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Plot: Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is danger in his 3rd year at Hogwarts - this time from convict Sirius Black (Oldman), who has escaped from the wizard's prison of Azkaban. Harry also has to be on the lookout for the Dementors, the creepy Azkaban prison guards looking for Sirius. Plus, will the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts , Professor Lupin (Thewlis), be able to last longer than any of his predecessors?

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  • ...new series director Alfonso Cuaron brings a darker feel - and Gary Oldman - to help make this Harry's best movie to date!

Finally, the third Harry Potter has arrived in theaters. After the so-so Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and the much better Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), I was definitely excited to see where Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban would go.

With a new director and great new additions to the cast (including the always impressive Gary Oldman, whose performance in The Professional (1994) was the best I’ve seen), things were definitely looking positive for this third installment.

Then came the bad news: the new director hadn’t even read the books; the reviewers weren’t impressed; the kids are getting pretty old – how much longer are they going to be believable in their roles?; etc., etc., so on and so forth. Because of all the negativity floating around, my enthusiasm was dampened. Would all the reviewers actually be right this time, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban wouldn’t live up to my expectations, or would those other guys be wrong yet again?

All of the main actors have become so used to their roles, they are able to fill them almost without even trying. But, this usually leads to a bit of stagnation by the third film (can anyone say Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)?). Luckily, the change in directors seem to be the boost these kids needed to keep the roles fresh. They come at their characters with seemingly renewed vigor, making these old friends of ours shine with renewed exuberance.

That’s not to say that everyone does a great job here – it seems the kids are more into the renewal, while the adults are starting to go the stagnation route. Hopefully the adults will take their cue from the kids and keep this series going strong for the rest of it’s films.

The new characters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also do a great job of blending into the returning characters. Gary Oldman, who took a strange trip in The Fifth Element (1997) with a really odd and ridiculous character, luckily is on his way back to the land of normal, and does a great job realizing the character of Sirius Black. After reading the book, then seeing this film, I couldn’t have picked a better actor to play Sirius than Gary myself. He so fits into the role that it would have been almost criminal not to have cast him.

David Thewlis, while a bit younger than I expected from the book, also does a pretty good job in his role as the new Defense of the Dark Arts / Harry Potter mentor for the film. And Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew: Well, he kind of reminds of Danny DeVito’s Penguin character from Batman Returns (1992). Eww.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban takes a new approach when it comes to bringing the book to the screen. While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) tried to cram everything from the book into the movie (leaving a horrible mess), and the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) just cut out chapters and crammed the rest in (leaving a much better film), this film does it differently.

While taking some scenes (especially in the last half hour of the film) straight from the book – to the point of almost word-for-word – it does a bit of a mix with the rest. It rearranges sequences, and shows us quick scenes from earlier chapters – just to get us reacquainted with Potter, without going into too much detail about it. This way, you get the major points in the beginning that help shape the rest of the story, but not a lot of time is wasted, and you get right to the meat of the story rather quickly.

It’s a new approach, and one that I think should have been used all along. It works great. Almost before you know it, you’re in the thick of things, and can’t wait to see what happens next. And, at that critical moment, it sticks to the book so closely you could swear you saw this scene in your mind while you read the book.

This is a crucial moment that goes by unnoticed in most films based on novels, leaving a lot of the novel’s readers feeling somewhat cheated by the film. Although readers of the book may feel a bit confused in the beginning, as the film quickly skims through the first chapters, the feeling is replaced by a sense of reliving the book by the time the major events begin to happen. It’s a great way to convert a novel into film, and my only regret is I wish someone would have thought of this sooner.

The special effects continue to astound, as they did in the first two films. This film has a much darker feel to it than the first two did (just as the book seemed to), and that is presented exceptionally well.

There are a few inconsistencies (example: when they are in Hagrid’s cottage, he says they shouldn’t be out so late, even though it’s clearly quite sunny outside), but overall Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban stays true to the originality of the first two, and seems to heighten the special effects to a greater level, while at the same time making them look much more simplistic. The Dementors remind one of ghouls, but their creepiness is heightened by the freezing that goes before them.

The major scenes involve, among other things: a few examples of morphing, a marauder’s map that is able to show where everyone is at Hogwarts at that moment, a Hippogryph (a gray animal, kinda looks like the legendary horse Pegasus, except with an odd head), and a magic called Patronus (a white light that can take certain shapes). All of these effects are done with such realism, it’s easy to forget that it’s just computer images, and not actors and lighting effects.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is easily Harry’s best film to date. With it’s darker feel, a new director’s approach, and the willingness of the kids to work at making their characters stay fresh and new, plus the addition of the impressive Gary Oldman, it far surpassesHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

Go out and see this one in the theaters today – it’s worth it.

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