Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Runtime: 142 mins. Reviewed in Jun 2004
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Fantasy violence

With a new director at the helm of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (Warner Bros.), the franchise forges forward. This is the third — and arguably the best — adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter fantasy novels about the boy wizard.Chris Columbus, who directed “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in 2001 and ’02, switches to a producer’s hat this time, as Alfonso Cuaron (“A Little Princess”) slips into the director’s chair.

Cuaron brings a more cinematic sensibility to the tale just as Steve Kloves’ screenplay is less concerned with a literal translation of Rowling’s novel. The resulting visuals are impressive, sometimes glorious — and occasionally frightening. In other words, too intense for young children unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, for whom nightmares about snapping monsters and horrible ghouls would be a natural aftermath.

The story opens as wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 13, is seething under the insulting remarks made by his Uncle Vernon’s cruel sister (Pam Ferris) about his tragically murdered parents. Unable to rein in his temper or his promise not to perform magic outside his Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry bloats her and floats her — up, up and away like a giant blimp.

This is a scene of comic delight that precedes the darker emotional territory Harry is headed for. Storming out of the house, he’s picked up by a magical purple bus and taken on a warp-speed ride (with delightful special effects), eventually ending up with his best buds, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), back at school.

Danger lurks there as prison escapee Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), accused of killing Harry’s folks, is in the area, and said to be set on adding Harry’s scalp to his belt. Just as fearful are the Dementors, black-hooded spirits who can suck the soul from their prey and have Harry in their sights.

On the plus side, giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) has been promoted to teacher status and sends Harry on a fabulous flight astride Buckbeak, a huge, winged horse-bird whose very survival is soon threatened. And the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), helps Harry defend himself against the Dementors while harboring quite a shocking secret.

Director Cuaron “opens up” this third Potter film, in that it is frequently outdoors in creepy forests or at spiky hillsides and precipitous cliffs, suggesting Mother Nature’s instincts may be less than maternal. This is particularly true when it comes to a certain tree that “embraces” Harry and Hermione, an example of special effects that are as scary as they are swell.

There are fewer classroom scenes, although Emma Thompson as a heavy-goggled, clueless soothsayer, contributes periodic comic relief. Nor does the swooping game of Quidditch figure much in the telling of this tale. Overall, the film is visually enthralling and displays an equally intoxicating sense of fun and of danger.

The three teen leads are showing growth in their acting skills and Cuaron has especially been able to tone down Grint’s tendency to make Ron hammy. More seasoned performers such as Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon (replacing the late Richard Harris’ Professor Dumbledore) do well in their small roles and the ever-reliable Alan Rickman’s sinister Snape does not disappoint.

But all is not goodness and light as the story centers on Harry’s learning about those involved in his parents’ deaths and coping with a deep desire for revenge.

It’s seen as sheer fantasy when Harry makes the arrogant aunt inflate (she’s rescued later and none the worse for wear) but his wish to destroy Black is grounded in reality, just as it’s problematic when Hermione is cheered and congratulated when she slugs her classmate-tormentor, Malfoy.

Happily, Harry gradually matures through the narrative as he uncovers the truth, stays loyal to his friends and gleans lessons in living from his experiences. To its credit, this is accomplished in well-paced, polished fashion, and — as in the two previous movies — it remains very clearly a fantasy, in no way a textbook for teaching black magic, and thus is no threat to Catholic teaching.

“The Prisoner of Azakaban” is likely to hold a worldwide audience captive.

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