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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writer: Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Tom Felton, Emma Thompson.

Review by Rob Vaux

When a franchise plans for the long haul, as Harry Potter is clearly doing, the question becomes how to maintain our interest. We now know everything we need to about J.K Rowling's boarding-school wizard, his friends and foes, and the fantasy world in which they live. Where do we go from here? And more importantly, how do we stay engaged and entertained while still saving energy for the four films presumably to follow? That's the challenge faced by Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a challenge it fitfully yet faithfully answers.

It probably helps to change directors. Having helmed the first two entries in the series (with ultimately admirable results) Chris Columbus now steps aside in favor of Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón. The shift is presumably intended to provide a fresh outlook. Columbus was always a studio man, able to submerge his proclivities beneath Rowling's more pressing vision. Cuarón comes from a different background; his ideas are more his own and thus may blend more awkwardly with the source material. On the other hand, this may be the right entry for such tinkering. The Prisoner of Azkaban feels very much like a placeholder -- an amusing diversion before going back to the real story. What better place to give the series a new visual kick?

You can feel the difference right away as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) return to Hogwarts for their third year of schooling. Though the setting is instantly recognizable, it carries with it a new zeitgeist: a little darker, a little colder, a little more Gothic. A colossal clock tower dominates the campus -- something we haven't seen before -- while the surrounding countryside appears starker and covered in foreboding pines. The changes may be jarring to purists, but they also bring renewed vigor and energy to the proceedings. We may have been to this world before, but Cuarón is showing us a new side of it. He also provides a ghoulish -- and peculiarly English -- sense of humor to it all, visible in such notions as a phantom bus navigated by a shrunken head, or one of Harry's abominable relations (Pam Ferris) inflating like a balloon and floating away.

What it lacks is the strong narrative thread of the earlier films. Ostensibly, Prisoner centers on Harry's relation to the mysterious Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted criminal purportedly responsible for the death of his parents. When Black escapes from Azkaban prison, Harry is warned to be on his guard. Yet despite that, the sense of a credible threat never coalesces. There's foreshadowing aplenty, and a few cryptic references to the series' chief baddie Voldemort, but nothing that really grabs hold. Black is a background figure for most of the film, and while we get the usual sneering from the school's resident weasel Malfoy (Tom Felton), that particular shtick is growing old.

The results give The Prisoner of Azkaban a curious meandering quality: meditative and thoughtful, but frustratingly insubstantial at times. The backstory on Harry's past fills up vast amounts of screen time, squeezing out the sense of the here and now. As character development, it's great -- particularly the inclusion of Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), whose growing bond with Harry gives this installment its best sequences. But the sheer amount of information shoveled at us is bewildering -- who did what to whom and when becomes a tangled maze, especially since most of it refers to events long past. A firmer sense of immediacy -- along with a more direct antagonist -- would have cured most of the film's ills.

In light of that, Prisoner's greatest pleasures can be found in Cuarón's exquisite mood, in the yeoman work of the cast, and in the expected visual effects (which here take on an impressive sense of depth), rather than the plot. The performances, as always, are an embarrassment of riches. Too many good actors do little more than stand around (including newcomer Emma Thompson, who thankfully would be fabulous reading the phone book), which contributes to the film's stuck-in-neutral feel. On the other hand, the fact that they still hold our interest even after three pictures is a testament to how rich and well-conceived they are. The three young leads have settled into their respective parts marvelously, and can consistently find unseen nuances in the beloved heroes they have come to embody. And while some of the supporting figures are just talking scenery, others lend a more energetic hand: Alan Rickman comes off the bench with a vengeance as Professor Snape, and Michael Gambon fills in gamely for the late Richard Harris as Hogwart's venerable patriarch Dumbledore.

Perhaps most surprising is how well the visual effects complement these personalities. Monsters and boogeymen have always been a part of Harry's world, but here they possess enough character to stand proudly beside the flesh-and-blood performers. Visions such as the Dementors -- skeletal apparitions on the prowl for Black -- carry a palpable dread that none of the earlier films could quite conjure, and a hippogriff named Buckbeak (the latest pet of Robbie Coltrane's gigantic groundskeeper Hagrid) has more life in him than most real animals. Together with the human elements, they cement the plausibility of the film's universe, allowing us to relish it for its own sake without worrying where we're going.

Naturally, such a pause shouldn't last forever. There's clearly a long road to travel, and if we dawdle too much, we'll never reach the finish line. But considering that we're less than halfway through an increasingly elaborate saga, it might behoove us to stretch our legs for a bit. Rowling has created something truly unique; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a celebration of that uniqueness, less a proper story in itself than a reminder to enjoy the wonders she has conjured. Next year's Goblet of Fire can reignite the series' sense of purpose. For Cuarón -- and The Prisoner of Akzaban -- it's enough just to gesture out the window and say, "Hey, this is pretty cool, isn't it?"

Review published 06.03.2004.

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