One of the series' strength so far has been their ability to cast major adult players to support the three talented but novice junior leads. To that end, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is an embarrassment of riches. Many fans loathe Michael Gambon interpretation of Dumbledore, but I love his slightly loopy take on the wizardly Headmaster, and he is certainly is peppier than the late Richard Harris. Alan Rickman continues to score as Professor Snape; so few actors could make a line of dialogue like "Turn to Page 394" menacing, yet Rickman does it three times in the same scene. David Thewlis creates a memorable sympathetic ally (or is he?) in Professor Lupin, the (say it all with me now) new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, and as the wacky Divination Teacher Professor Trelawney, Emma Thompson seems to be channeling SCTV's Andrea Martin. Robbie Coltrane is wonderful as always as Rubeus Hagrid, though Maggie Smith does not get nearly enough screen time this time around as Minerva McGonagall. To top things off, the always watchable Gary Oldman is called in to play Sirius Black, the escaped prisoner of the film's title, and it is hard to think of an actor who could have better fit the role.
Yet, with this superior adult cast, it is still the youngsters who carry THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. This time out, Emma Watson as Hermione has a more prominent role, and she proves herself up to the task with an energetic performance that includes punching that little snot Draco Malfoy in the nose. (Ten thousand points to Gryffindor, I say.) Daniel Radcliffe, too, has matured as Harry, easily moving from the cute child Harry of the first two films to a troubled adolescent Harry without a hitch. It is hard to say if Rupert Grint has progressed, since, with Hermione and Harry taking charge throughout much of the film, Grint's Ron Weasley doesn't figure much into the plot. Luckily he still has plenty to do as comic relief, a role in which he always shines.
PRISONER OF AZKABAN's lengthy climax delights in upsetting our expectations as it twists and turns in myriad ways to reveal the truths of what we thought we were watching all along. Everything from the moment Harry discovers something suspicious on a magical map through to Sirius Black's final flight just may be the longest sustained highlight in the series so far. The first time around, you will be saying "what?", "huh?" and "oh, I see... wait... what?"; the second time around it all fits together, even if, as Harry and Hermione agree, it may not even make sense.
The wizardly wonders of Rowling's Potter world are still here, of course, but they are often pushed to the background, with the story always taking priority. Alfonso Cuaron's camera doesn't linger over teapots that pour by themselves as Chris Columbus's would have in the first two films, but such magic is there if you want to see it. Instead, Cuarón concentrates on the characters, coaxing distinctive performances out of all involved. This is not only evident in Watson and Radcliffe, but also in David Thewlis's relaxed, slovenly Lupin, Emma Thompson's hilariously New Age Professor Trelawney and Michael Gambon's mischievous Dumbledore.
Chris Columbus's Potter films were sumptuous adaptations that recreated J. K. Rowling's novels almost page by page. Cuaron's AZKABAN has a more personal touch; there is a sense that it was directed by someone with a point of view rather than by committee. If you want the movies to be exact replicas of the book, you may be disappointed in this third Potter film. But if you can view the movies as a completely separate part of the whole Potter phenomenon, and that is the best way to view them, you just may find that THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is the most enjoyable Harry Potter film yet. ½ - JB
JL: So far, the makers of the Harry Potter films have followed a pattern of making two films consecutively, then taking a year off before embarking on the next two. Because of this, the young regulars of the series have aged noticeably since THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (in particular, Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy now towers over Daniel Radcliffe's Harry in a way that is both comical and appropriate). This approach was a wise one for THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, for the young'uns have shed the "kid look" and are now convincingly on the brink of adolescence just as the Potter series starts to deal with the angst of that awkward age.
Perhaps more importantly, new director Alfonso Cuarôn has injected the series with a greater degree of heart than Chris Columbus achieved with his straightforward adaptations of the novels. Columbus's approach, albeit effective, teetered on the manipulative: we cared about Harry and his cohorts because that's what the story said we were supposed to feel. Cuarôn is subtler and more capable of subjectivity in such matters. Harry Potter may exist in a fantasy world, yet Cuarôn finds the common link between Harry's emotions and our own. For the adults in the audience, THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN elicits the pains and joys of being 13 again; that it manages to do so in a world of Dementors and Hippogriffs is but one of the film's wondrous aspects.
John B. is correct in pointing out that AZKABAN de-emphasizes the effects in favor of the story. The film is an endless visual feast, but Cuarôn achieves this with inventive camerawork (with some help from computer generation) as much as through the use of "Wow!"-inducing effects. Cuarôn camera glides through scenes, suggesting the viewpoint of a bird (Hedwig the owl, perhaps?) or a Dementor, while at other times it seems to burrow in the ground like an animal or spy from the underworld. The use of slightly overexposed, washed-out colors also aids in establishing the chimerical environment.
In addition, every frame of the film is packed with such abundant visual detail that demands not only multiple viewings, but multiple freeze-frame viewings. You have to look closely to notice the customer at the Leaky Cauldron reading Hawking's A Brief History of Time, someone performing an Indian Rope Trick at a table in the background, Professor Lupin's train set, and a quickie sight gag with the housemaid that's better seen than described ("I'll come back later"). Even the placement of trees and waterfalls in the background are perfectly and elegantly composed. There's so much eye candy in AZKABAN that it took me three viewings to realize that Julie Christie was in the film.
And yet, it's still the story and the characters that command center stage. I often think that one reason the Potter series is so phenomenally successful is that we live in a culture starved for quality entertainment. More so than its two predecessors, THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN proves that special effects are best employed in service of story and theme; and that a bit of dwelling on such matters as the nature of mankind, a youngster's rites of passage, and the forces of good and evil, can only enhance and augment the entertainment value. And it is because each successive Potter film explores such matters in an ever-more-thoughtful manner that the series gets better and better. ½ - JL
IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR GOOD MOVIE QUOTES"Come now Harry, the Ministry doesn't send people to Azkaban for blowing up their aunts."