Movie review by Greg Carlson
To say that “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is the strongest of the three movies in the series is something like faint praise; translating Potter to the screen has consistently resulted in long-winded, ponderous juggernauts that try way too hard to please fans of the novels by cramming in far too much plot and not enough cinematic breathing room. Alfonso Cuaron, who takes over the directing duties from Chris Columbus, is a superior filmmaker, but for all his efforts, “Azkaban” manages to overwhelm his considerable sense of style. Even so, the film remains tremendously entertaining, and seems poised to win even more converts to J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world.
Boy wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is reintroduced in a sly tableau of archetypal adolescent discovery: practicing spells under the covers in his bed. Cuaron may be announcing his grown-up sensibilities, but the entire opening set-piece, in which Harry blows a fuse and inflates a cruel dinner guest until she literally floats away, should have been excised. A manic ride on a phantom coach is enjoyable enough, but “Azkaban” doesn’t really begin to move until Harry is reunited with pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) aboard the train to Hogwarts, where they encounter new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), as well as some Dementors, floating, spectral reapers apparently on the trail of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the escaped prisoner of the title, who has something to do with the death of Harry’s parents.
Cuaron has thoroughly re-envisioned Hogwarts for Harry’s third year. Aided by phenomenal cinematographer Michael Seresin, Cuaron paints the sprawling grounds of the academy with a darker, more sinister brush. A large portion of the action takes place outdoors, and this also helps to free the movie from the predominant soundstage effect that plagued the first two. Buckbeak, the half-falcon, half-horse hippogriff tended to by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is the best-rendered creature of the series so far, and the natural forest settings emphasize the beast’s grandeur and nobility.
More attention is now being paid to unraveling some of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Harry’s folks, and both Thewlis and Oldman – who are excellent in their roles – reveal new insights that will change Harry profoundly. Other characters, like Emma Thompson’s Sybil Trelawney, could have been cut without harm to the film, and Timothy Spall’s Peter Pettigrew scarcely has a chance to register before the movie rushes off to deal with other things. Michael Gambon has replaced the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, and his take on the character is more lively and spirited, if less sweet. As always, Alan Rickman’s Snape is brilliant.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron are growing up quickly, and it has been fun to watch the young actors age along with their characters. All three exhibit a marked increase in confidence, and the development of their acting skill is reflected in the comfortable way in which they inhabit their roles. Certainly the fourth Harry Potter movie (which will still utilize the original trio) will mark a major turning point as the performers head into their middle teen years. Speculation abounds that they will eventually be replaced for the later films in the series, but that would be a shame – with “Azkaban,” they are really coming into their own.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/7/04.