Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review

Harry Potter has hit that awkward age of 13.  I remember when I was 13 and trying to find my place in the world but I never had magical powers (well, I did have a magic wand). However, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the series, couldn’t be more self-assured even with the subtle masterbation joke at the beginning.

This installment is considered the best of the five books and, yes, it is the best of the movies so far as well.  The expanding of the magical world and the addition of two of the more well-liked characters (Lupin and Black) make for an amazing story both literary and cinematically.

Alfonso Cuaron, best known for Y Tu Mama Tambien, seems a strange choice as director, but he expertly handles both the actors and scenery.  An adaptation is nearly always a difficult task and Cuaron excels here and also brings some of his own grand vision to the landscape. The finished product is simply the best Harry Potter movie to date.

Harry is older and experiencing revelations about the world he lives in. The story, at its core, is about Harry and his search for a father.  He defends him, longs for him, learns things about him, thinks he’s found him, and may even have found a replacement for him. His friends grow closer together and you just know they are going to be fabulous in the next four movies and two books.

Back to the movie: Cuaron and cinematographer Michael Seresin fill the screen with motion and color and all the little details of life at Hogwarts. It feels like a real castle and grounds.  Every frame showcases their talents in realizing the printed page on screen. It is very dark, but the book is dark and that translates into a more mature film to go along with the more mature central cast of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of great British actors, who unfortunately only have something a bit more than cameos this go around. Besides the returning Alan Rickman as Professor Snape and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid we get some new faces. David Thewlis plays the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Lupin who helps Harry face his fears, and Emma Thompson is a scene stealer as divination professor Trelawney. As the mysterious, ominous Sirius Black, Gary Oldman infuses his character with courage and empathy.  Michael Gambon takes over seamlessly as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, the role Richard Harris played until his untimely death.

Most importantly, Daniel Radcliffe and the young actors who co-star as Harry’s companions are more confident than ever in their roles. Radcliffe, little more than a cheerful boy in the first two films, is now older, sadder and more multi-faceted. Emma Watson, as Harry’s bossy, but brilliant friend-who-is-a-girl Hermione, has developed into a strong, beautiful young woman. And as Harry’s best friend, Ron, Rupert Grint dials down his broad comic mugging featured in the last two movies into much funnier comic relief.

Overall, it is Cuaron who takes control of the HP universe and brings a wider, deeper and darker sense to the movie.  He gets performances out of his young actors instead of line readings.  Any sense of wonder that is the hallmark of the books is translated to the screen visually in stunning detail and mysterious, foreboding tones. A scene in which Harry takes a ride on a hippogriff (a flying animal that’s half horse, half eagle) has a soaring, I’m-the-king-of-the-world vibe going on, only without the tiresome Celine Dion singing.

As a stand alone movie, it quite falls apart. To be honest, I can’t imagine too many people will see this movie who have not read the book or seen the first two movies. The next two books are basically too large to have more than nods and winks of the greater story, but I’m confident that Steve Kloves who adapted the first two Harry Potter books for the screen and wrote the script for this one as well, will do it justice.  I’m overjoyed that they are only going to have one movie and not split into two a la Kill Bill. Believe me when I say, the next movie could be three hours and people will see it in droves.

After seeing the best of the three movies so far, I can’t wait for director Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire just in time for Christmas, 2005. I’m guessing it will be magical.