Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

****1/2

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a film bursting with visual wit. It's also as good as his previous children's literary adaptation, A Little Princess.

The book was much longer than the previous two, but this is the shortest of the films thus far and although compression issues remain, I was never bored. Many sequences are improved enormously by the careful excision of cinematically uninteresting material. The book's condensation isn't as skilled as the three film Lord Of The Rings, but there are a lot of references and alternate material that readers will most certainly appreciate. It's a free flowing adaptation, gutting the story of inessentials and adding little moments of it's own, which serve and reinforce Rowling's terrific narrative.

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Harry Potter is in trouble. After losing his temper with beastly Aunt Marge, he accidentally uses magic and deforms her in a way that would make Roald Dahl giggle, subsequently breaking the law regarding the use of such trickery on Muggles (non-wizards). At the same time, Sirius Black, a known murderer has escaped from Azkaban prison. For some reason, he has a connection to Harry. The film takes delight in its dark set-up, involving a vicious-looking dog, soul-sucking ghosts and the means of confronting fear.

We have two new teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The first is a delightfully batty turn by Emma Thompson, as the Divination teacher, a comical caricature of gypsy, mad witch and helplessly near-sighted Seer. The second is Remus Lupin, the new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, introduced on the Hogwarts Express during a Dementor attack.

These are J K Rowling's most wonderfully chilling creations; they are the guards of wizard prizon Azkaban and keep prisoners under lock and key by draining every cheerful thought out of them, leaving them drowning in their worst horrors. Their scenes are superbly handled; frightening visuals and their sound designs bizarre, alien and foreboding. You might want to consider not bringing young children, as this takes an edgier tone than either of the previous films. A string of uncommonly scary encounters and a grimy dark feel sets the bar. Having said that, Cuaron doesn't forget that this is entertainment and freely mixes character comedy and highly accomplished technical wizardry with a dollop of madness. Just watch when a shapeshifter turns into an enormous spider and is defeated by slapping roller-skates on it.

The film reveals itself carefully and smoothly with narrative skill and well-judged performances. Daniel Radcliffe's Harry hits puberty and is no longer someone with whom to mess. The moxie-laden mini-babe Emma Watson and Rupert Grint provide admirable, dramatic and comic backup.

Richard Harris was miscast as Dumbledore in the first two films, Michael Gambon is an improvement in voice and performance, but I don't think he's quite grasped the character, either. David Thewlis is wonderful, bearing Lupin's uncomfortable secrets and connection to Harry's family and showcases it in helping the boy wizard conquer his weaknesses.

The cinematography is much better than the first two - more freeform, giving the strength of storytelling back to the filmmaker, rather than burdening it exclusively onto the dialogue and actors. The visual effects are highly accomplished and serve the film well. No Philosopher's Stone centaur rush-job here. Instead, we get a superbly realised Hippogriff, with a fondness for dead ferrets.

John Williams takes it upon himself to provide a carefully managed musical showcase - alternative themes played through an alternative style. Light and breezy choral work - his Something Wicked This Way Comes sequence, the Macbeth witch poem, as showcased in the trailer, works beautifully in tone and style - and even some jazz when comfortably ensconced in Hogwarts, contrasting with brooding music outside.

Ultimately, it's such a pleasure to see a real children's film by a real filmmaker. It's like seeing the previous films put through a cleverly created prism. Hogwarts is different, more vibrant, homely and alive and all the while managing the drama and dark tone with certitude. Chris Columbus has been replaced by a director of genuine talent and it'll be hard to accept that Cuaron will not return.

I wait to see what Mike Newell pulls out of the pointy hat for Goblet Of Fire. In the meantime, Prisoner Of Azkaban is the best of the books, and one of the year's best entertainments.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2004
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Harry returns to Hogwarts to find he is being pursued by the escaped murderer Sirius Black.
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David Haviland ****

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Writer: Steve Kloves, from the novel by J K Rowling

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Pam Ferris, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall

Year: 2004

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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