Review: ‘Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban’

A new filmmaker provides his take on the third book by author and creator J. K. Rowling, providing a darker tone that meets the book halfway for its older and wiser student wizard.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) will soon begin his third year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, but not before an incident at Uncle Vernon’s (Richard Griffiths) house strands him on the streets. Something wicked this way comes indeed: the Dementors of Azkaban have been set loose upon the wizarding world to hunt for the first person to ever escape, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Unbeknownst to Harry, he and Sirius have a history together, and many believe Siruis may be trying to kill Harry because of it. When things don’t quite add up, it’ll be up to Harry with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to figure it all out before the Dementors finish their business at Hogwart’s.

Director Alfonso Cuarón takes over duty from Chris Columbus to take Harry Potter into his third year of facing life-threatening danger while getting a proper education in wizardry. At around two and a half hours, there still isn’t time for everything, but the filmmakers have managed to squeeze the feel of the book into the running time instead of cover every page and event. Plus, with the darker tone of the novels maturing along with the readers and fans, the film takes full advantage to create the darkest chapter yet and infuse the missing mystery and enchantment from the second film back into the mythos.

In fact, Azkaban nearly borders on the horror genre while still boldly clinging to a PG rating (and I’ll predict here and now that the fifth film may have to relent to a PG-13 on the subject matter alone). For the first time, Harry & friends are starting to look like they really may be in danger, yet at the same time are beginning to show real confidence in their individual abilities. The child characters are growing up in time with the child actors portraying them, and the gamble is paying off.

The effects have grown, too, and while wizardry may seem very common to the wizarding world, Muggle audiences want to see more enchantment. The mythical creature named “Buckbeak” is proof of that as are the new spells Harry arms himself with. But for all the production design and improved effects, it’s still Rowling’s story and vision that fuels the imagination that bought Harry Potter to life and continues to enchant.

The cast has expanded, so it is fortunate that exemplary casting has remained in place even for those characters that aren’t as active this time around. Michael Gambon’s take on Albus Dumbledore is decidedly a stronger character than the late Richard Harris portrayed, and that will be even more important down the road. Gary Oldman as Sirius Black is dead on as a tortured man bent of vengeance, while the brief appearance of Emma Thompson as Professor Sybil Trelawney are wonderfully befuddled.

I must confess that my familiarity with the books upon which the Potter films are based will always color my reviews, but there’s no denying that the magic is still there. Azkaban shouldn’t disappoint fans, but with more films already in production, can Potter’s supporters continue to justify the rising costs? With three films down and four to go (two of which will be based on books that aren’t even finished yet), Harry Potter’s biggest challenge may to be continue on where only 007 has successfully ventured before. Hang onto your Sorting Hats, because The Goblet of Fire will be both Harry’s and the film franchise’s biggest challenge yet.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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