Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring:
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman
Directed By :
Alfonso Cuaron
Grade
B

Synopsis: Harry Potter, destined to be one of the greatest wizards ever, and inexplicably tied to one of the most villainous wizards ever since the night Voldemort killed his parents and left Harry with his trademark lightning-bolt scar. Harry has since become a teenager and is learning to develop and control his powers through attending the Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Now entering his third year, Harry's rocky homelife makes him think more of his parents and their lives, meanwhile an old threat returns in the form of Sirius Black: a man linked to Voldemort and to Harry's parents' deaths who has escaped from Azkaban Prison and may be looking for Harry.

Evaluation: Chris Columbus (the director of the previous two H.P. installments) left the series to allow other directors to helm the films, saying he'd interpreted the H.P. universe to his satisfaction and wanted to see what others could do with it. With all the principle actors on board for at least a little while longer, this change in directors is probably the most significant difference between this film and the previous two. Of course, Richard Harris unfortunately could not continue his role as Dumbledore, but Michael Gambon looks and acts phenomenally like him, and does a fine job. Most people will probably not notice any difference unless they're really looking hard for it.

Before tackling the difference in directing, let me tell you my overall impression of the film. First, I really liked the first two films. I only saw them once, but I really appreciated them. I wouldn't say they're necessarily made for kids, but they're about kids, and they're told from that point of view, while still being accessible to adults. Not an easy feat, but one which apes the appeal of the books very well. Also, I haven't read the books, though I do listen to the critiques of those who have. I am an odd duck in that I particularly liked the first H.P. film specifically because it was slower and spent more time on exposition. I really appreciate a film that takes time to build a compelling universe instead of just jumping into the action/adventure/whatever. This is especially important in serial-type films such as comic book movies or the H.P. films.

Now, the cast for this installment is a little older and consequently I think a little more fun to watch on the screen. They're not going to win any awards anytime soon, but this movie doesn't need to rely on the performances of the series' always impressive supporting cast. Radcliffe in particular gets to break free of the stodgy little Potter mold a bit in this film. The effects, likewise, continue to evolve and while not on par with say, LOTR, do a decent job most of the time and a great job some of the time. I was never really pulled out of the film by obvious effects shots like in some movies. The music continues to hold the narrative together and adds extra punch to the emotional content of the film. But when it comes down to it, the vital part of the H.P. universe is the compelling stories which J.K. Rowling originally crafted and how well those are realized on the screen. Here is where this film may run into some problems.

For me, the film is essentially divided into two parts. The first half is set-up, the second half is adventure. From what I understand, this is the loosest adaptation from the book yet. The third H.P. book is a more complicated one to realize, with more material and less of a clear villain. Much of the story is spent exploring the past of Harry's parents and how that is relevant to his current life. And a huge focus is the Quidditch Cup which had been lead up to in the previous books. Both these aspects were virtually dropped for the film. So what does that leave as the main plot for the film then?

SPOILERS AHEAD!
Time travel. Yes, Harry Potter has become a time travel movie. That, and the occasional threat of Sirius Black tracking Harry down to murder him because Black is still loyal to Voldemort. But you see, neither of these plot threads is very well realized. The beginning of the film is so well done, that it was like a bell went off in my head as soon as they began setting up for the time travel portion. Characters were suddenly out of character, making decisions and actions that didn't make sense and I knew couldn't stand. This is fixed later in the movie when they use time travel to return and rectify mistakes, mistakes which seemed out of place when you watched them the first time. Thus, the second half of the film seems pointless, like an exercise in correcting the bad story you'd just watched. The mechanics of the time travel are internally consistent, so it works in that respect, it's just that the story doesn't seem loyal to the characters. I have enough faith in Rowling to think this must have worked much better in the book, but in the film it comes across very poorly. And as for the threat of Black, well, it's not much of a threat really. I understand that in the book it is played up a lot more effectively, but in the film Black is neutered as a villain pretty quickly in what must've been one of the most horribly rushed reveals in cinema history.
END SPOILERS

I can only blame all this on Cuaron. At the time filming started, he had not read the H.P. novels or seen the previous films, showing a distinct lack of respect for the source material. In the present film, not only are costuming choices and geographical locations different from the books, but they're different from the films! (No explanation for Hagrid's home suddenly being a mile closer to the school.) No big deal if you've only seen the movies once years ago, but pretty inconsistent otherwise. Now, there's the same screenwriter adapting all the books, so I can't blame inconsistencies on him, because he obviously has a sort of plan and knows what he wants to accomplish. Unfortunately, directors notoriously butcher good scripts on set and through editing. I can understand that the previous films trimmed the Quidditch setup a good deal, but to ignore a main story point entirely seems a piss-poor adaptation to me. An extra two scenes would've been sufficient to capture the plot, and while Quidditch scenes would've upped the budget a bit, I'm sure the studio would've sprung for it on a guaranteed success like the third H.P. film. And while the backstory with Harry's family is gone into a little, what is on the screen is really half-assed because it lacks explanations that add impact. (What is Harry's patronus? Why would he be certain it was his father's? Where did the map come from? What's the significance of his father's childhood friends!?) These points all come together to flesh out the main theme of the film, which is only half-realized as it stands.

Who Will This Appeal To?: H.P. fans must see the film of course, though fans specifically of the books should prepare to be bitterly disappointed. Though this is the darkest and most mature H.P. film yet, it is still within the acceptable boundaries of fare for kids, and parents should enjoy watching it with their kids. If you didn't care for the first two H.P. films, the change-up may appeal to you, or this may be the worst one yet for you.

Final Verdict: For all my harping on some key points in the film, it's still a good movie. I'm just left with a sense of loss at how great a movie it could've been. With Mike Newell set to direct The Goblet of Fire, at least we won't have to deal with Cuaron butchering another adaptation…the question is 'Is a director known for character dramas capable of pulling off a big budget fantasy film?' In the meantime, give The Prisoner of Azkaban a shot. Then join me in checking out the book. I hear it's a lot better.

Details, details…: You can't keep a good man down. Warwick Davis continues his cameo as Professor Flitwick in the series, adding to his endless list of cameos since being discovered by George Lucas. He's mostly played Ewoks or other Star Wars characters, though he's been in Labyrinth, The Chronicles of Narnia, and well…the Leprechaun movies. But we'll all still remember him from Lucas' ill-fated fantasy epic Willow. Listen for him as Marvin the Robot in the upcoming The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

- - Jeff Light

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