Warner Bros. // 2004 // 142 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // December 6th, 2004
Something wicked this way comes.
So there's this boy wizard, made popular in a line of ridiculously successful kids books. And this kid gets in all sorts of magical misadventures, and is the target of unending supernatural malfeasance, and generally finds himself smack in the middle of whatever crazy things seems to be happening at any given time. With the potential of being the world's dopest wizard, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) must first survive the trials and tribulations of school and the forces of evil and puberty.
Three movies in -- and there is no denying that Warner Brothers has itself a cash cow. But as the first two entries in the Potter series proved to be merely adequate representations of the source material, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban brings with it a new director, some darker themes, and a gaggle of young wizards entering the most critical part of their lives: adolescence.
It's year three at Hogwarts Academy, and Harry is raring to go. After another summer of misery at the hands of the Dursleys -- his aunt, uncle, and fat twit cousin -- Harry couldn't be more anxious to head for the hills and Hogwarts, and what is sure to be another grapple with death and dismemberment.
Harry's angst reaches a boiling point when an obnoxious relative visits the Dursley household and proceeds to insult his parents. An outburst of magic leads to the literal inflation of the woman, the venom of the Dursleys, and Harry storming out of the house.
Already the year has taken a bad turn.
The menace is compounded by the appearance of a sinister black dog, the surety of his punishment for illegal use of magic, and the news that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element), an infamous murderer, has escaped the wizard prison Azkaban, and may in fact be on the prowl for Harry.
Harry reconnects with his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and boards the Hogwarts Express. Their bliss is short-lived, though, for the train is stopped on the way and searched by the guards of Azkaban, the Dementors, dark and vile wraith-like creatures that can suck out a person's soul.
Harry is spared a gruesome fate when the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), forces the Dementor off.
And so begins the third tale in the Harry Potter saga, which features Hogwarts on the lookout for Black and surrounded by Dementors, Harry and company struggling to balance studies and bullies and near-death experiences, the slow revelation of legacy of the Potter lineage, and glimpses of Harry's potential as a bad-ass mofo of a wizard.
Allow me to share with you my Harry Potter faith journey. Originally reluctant to fall prey to the momentous hype of the boy wizard's adventures, I held off reading the books. Once the first movie was released, and after incessant prodding by friends, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and zipped through it in about twelve minutes. A nice, fun read it was. However, I found the first movie uninspiring; while certainly not a failure, Chris Columbus's effort lacked inventiveness. Everything I saw on the screen, I had already pictured in my head. So, I decided to just watch the movies as they came out and forego waiting in lines behind nine year-olds at the library children's room to reserve copies of J.K. Rowling's forthcoming installments. Chamber of Secrets came and went, and it was okay, and I thought that I wasn't missing too much in this possibly over-hyped series.
And then I caught this film in the theatres, and it was great. I immediately picked up books three, four, and five from the library and inhaled them like fudge-flavored cocaine. Goblet of Fire officially made Harry Potter my pimp, and now I consider myself a belated member of HP fandom. I owe much of this to Alfonso Cuaron's excellent on-screen transformation of this pivotal book in the series (though I suppose an argument can be made that all of these books are "pivotal").
I'm not here to bash Columbus, whom I think has been overly flayed. Sure the first two flicks didn't rock my world, but they were far from worthless. It's not as if Columbus cast Harry as a middle-aged Laotian woman and Lord Voldemort as a magical cucumber with wings.
Also, I think Cuaron had the benefit of working from some richer source material. It's no mystery that Rowling developed as a writer as her hero grew up (and the books grew in volume), and the narratives of successive books became heavier and darker. As such, Cuaron had much more to mine with his translation, and to his credit, he pulled it off exceedingly well.
Prisoner of Azkaban is a darker movie. Issues of loyalty and betrayal are central, and the film is drenched in talk of death and murder. Not to mention the ghastly Dementors -- slightly derivative of Nazgul, but who cares? In short, this a heavy-hitting PG. (But if the filmmakers pull off a PG rating for Goblet of Fire, something ain't right.)
As a result the actors are given more meat to chew on in their roles. Radcliffe is able to push Harry into directions he's never been in, and really begin to explore some of the orphan wizard's angst, while also prepping him for the oncoming onslaught of crap that awaits him in subsequent films. His scene following a big revelation about Sirius Black is especially good.
Radcliffe indeed is called upon to do much of the heavy lifting. Watson and Grint really seam to play back-up, until the final third, where the trio regain the spotlight. The big losers are the Hogwarts faculty. Besides Lupin, the professors are given very, very little screen time. Most disappointing is Alan Rickman's Severus Snape, a major player in the HP cosmos, and Maggie Smith's Professor McGonagall. And where's my man Warwick Davis?!
The other change of note is Sir Michael Gambon filling Richard Harris's shoes as Dumbledore (Harris passed away). I think the guy does well, though he does lack his predecessor's charm. On the other hand, he's got plenty of time to make the character his own. Gary Oldman doesn't have too much to do, but he seems like a good choice; his role will be expanded in future films, and I look forward to what he does with Rowling's most compelling character.
Outside of plot, two production changes in this film really set it apart from the prior entries. First is the location. On the bonus disc, the production designer notes how the whole affair was moved to Scotland, and more scenes were filmed outside, rather than on a set. The payoff is obvious: Hogwarts and its surrounding geography are given more room to exhale, and Cuaron sets up some great sequences and camera shots to drink it all in. Most notable is Harry's hippogriff flight; a sequence where, for the first time in a Harry Potter film, the on-screen fancy matched up to the book for me. Connected with that is the choice to downplay John Williams's over-abused theme. That first movie just drummed the score into my noggin something fierce. Prisoner of Azkaban rations the tune out more conservatively; some newer music by Williams is far more effective, and, well, grown-up.
Warner Brothers crammed this two-disc set full of extras, and apart from the glaring omission of any kind of commentary track for the film, what's here is either (a) informative or (b) fun. The second disc, devoted solely to features, can be divided up into two categories: interactive and film-centric. For the latter, a whole slew of interviews are included, featuring the three child stars, their Slytherin nemeses, the filmmakers, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, and Robby Coltrane. Even the Dursleys get some screen time. The interviews are fun and mainly anecdotal.
Numerous behind-the-scenes features abound, with looks at the animals used in the film, a segment called "Conjuring a Scene," which lays out the processes of bringing Buckbeak and the Dementors to the screen, and, lastly and best, a conversation with Alfonso Cuaron and J.K. Rowling.
On the interactive side, some nifty 3-D tours can be taken of Professor Lupin's classroom (featuring some extra work by Thewlis) and the Honeydukes candy store. Three DVD remote games are included, too -- and, man do I suck at them. (I can beat friggin' Halo 2 on Legendary, but I can't help Crookshanks catch Scabbers!) Some ho-hum bonus film footage rounds out the offering.
Technically, The Prisoner of Azkaban didn't floor me. The 2.40:1 widescreen transfer, while decent, often seemed stale. The colors were not as rich as I would have liked, and the screen palette -- with the exception of the outdoor sequences -- came across as somewhat washed-out. The film sounded nice, though; the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix making strong use of the surrounds and pushing my subwoofers adequately in the action scenes.
Certainly the superior of the three Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban delivers a darker, heavier-themed story, and lays the groundwork for some of the more hard-core Harry Potter action to come. Despite an advantage in source material, Cuaron still makes his talent evident, and, like Harry riding bareback on the hippogriff, soars.
Nottius guiltyonus. POOF!
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Bonus Footage
* "Creating the Vision": Interview with J.K. Rowling and the Filmmakers
* Cast and Crew Interviews
* 3-D Tours of Hogwarts Sites
* Three Interactive Games
* Choir Sing-along
* "Conjuring a Scene": Creating Buckbeak and the Dementors
* Animal Trainers Spot
* Game Preview
* DVD-ROM Content
* Official Site
* J.K. Rowling's Official Site
* The Leaky Cauldron