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Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004)
Director: Alfonso Cuaron

review by Amy Harlib

The first two film versions of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular fantasy novels concerning the education of a young British wizard were also deservedly huge successes. The third cinematic outing in this series, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, far surpasses its predecessors, good though they were, in quality - an improvement due to a change of director. With Chris Columbus leaving the helm this time around to serve only as a producer, taking his place, highly regarded Alfonso Cuaron, admired for his stylish, edgy adult drama Y Tu Mamá También and before that, extolled for his charming, child-friendly A Little Princess, brings a more character-driven, swiftly-paced and darkly exciting aesthetic to the project. Steve Kloves, superb scripter, now for all three productions, keeps the continuity going.

Potter purists may object to Cuaron's not slavishly following the book as written, altering and even excising some parts of the printed source material for the sake of on-screen dramatic necessity, the result capturing the essence of the story and improving the theatrical experience. In this opus, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his peers, reaching adolescence, are maturing nicely, their growth process well handled by Cuaron's deft supervision. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, assuming viewer knowledge of the personalities and events from the books and the earlier pictures, plunges right into a brief prologue in which the orphaned protagonist's anger at his cruel adoptive guardians, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), reaches an overwhelming crisis point. Reacting, Harry breaks a seminal rule, using his magic in the muggle/mundane world - a spell to be reversed and erased later and largely forgiven by the clandestine Witching World authorities, for they face an even more serious problem.

Harry, with best friends Ron Weasely (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), all now 13 years old, reunite for their third year at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft. There Harry finds out that he and his venerable institution of learning face, for mysterious, convoluted reasons, a threat out of and related to his past involving the man who may have killed his parents, the eponymous escaped prisoner named Sirius Black (ably played by Gary Oldman) who now approaches Hogwart's, no doubt targeting Harry. Higher administrative authorities, over the objections of benevolent Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon admirably filling the role after the passing of the late, lamented Richard Harris), have summoned to protect the school's grounds, a posse of Dementors - dark, tattered-looking, wraith-like, soul-sucking, protecting guards meant to apprehend the prison escapee - a police force's presence that proves very problematic!

To help Harry and his friends cope with these genuinely eerie and scary Dementors and other attendant malign forces, a new 'defence against the dark arts' teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) proves a worthy ally despite his uncomfortable secrets. Also on hand, lending their wisdom, we find beloved returning characters and some newcomers: Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), the deliciously sneering potion master given juicy scenes; witchcraft instructor Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith); sweetly loopy, spaced-out divination Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson); and the lovable, bear-like Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) this time in charge of and teaching about uncanny creatures while being caretaker of Buckbeak, an astonishing hippogriff CGI creation of incredible believability that later proves central to the plot. Also significant, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) makes a surprise, pivotal, creepy, repellent appearance in the revelatory, twisted, and spine-tingling climax.

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, even more dazzling than the first two films, features brilliant CGI effects seamlessly blended with live action and contributing to a greater sense of enchantment than ever before. Cuaron's decision to open up the scenarios to more action on the grounds and in the forests surrounding Hogwart's, reflects Harry's and his friends' new growth and broadening horizons, giving the story more heft. The production, with beautiful cinematography by Michael Seresin, comes filled with marvellous character-revealing scenes and stunning visuals, the latter including sets, costumes, backgrounds, and scenery - all rendered in breathtaking detail. Set pieces like the 'knight bus'; even more clever animated paintings and a special map; ghosts in the hallways; an increasingly complex and crucial whomping willow; invisibility effects; and oh, that fabulous hippogriff - will linger long in the memory. John Williams' gorgeous score continuing and embroidering on themes established in the previous opuses proves the perfect accompaniment.

Those stubborn muggles who managed to resist the Harry Potter spell before, if they give The Prisoner Of Azkaban a try, will surely succumb to the series charms and excitement. Cognoscenti will be thrilled, captivated and enchanted!
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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previous Potter films -
Sorcerer's Stone
Chamber Of Secrets

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