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HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters
Director:  Alfonso Cuaron
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  November 23, 2004

“Where do you suppose this goes?”

“I have a hunch…I just hope I’m wrong…”

Film ****

Something wicked this way comes into the world of our favorite young wizard, and the result was his darkest yet most enthralling adventure yet.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the third volume in J. K Rowling’s popular and acclaimed series of novels, as well as the third of the Potter stories to be brought to the big screen.  Each filmed entry has surpassed the one before it, as the cast and crew of the movies seemed to grow more confident and more finely in tune with Ms. Rowling’s original visions.  As her world of wizardry and witchcraft has grown in wonder from story to story, the scope of the canvas expanded with it.  Azkaban is the one where the darker corners began to show.

It’s noticeable right from the start…young Harry (Radcliffe) endures yet another episode with his miserable extended family the Dursleys, as he had in the first two stories.  But Harry’s patience seems to be wearing a bit thin the third time around.  When a bloated aunt makes cruel remarks about his parents in front of him…well, let’s just say Harry puts her hot air to good use.

Then it’s off to Hogwarts for a third school year, where he once again meets up with chums Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson).  But this time, the train ride to Hogwarts isn’t all moonlight and magnolias.  Harry and friends have learned of the escape of one Sirius Black (Oldman) from Azkaban prison, and the custodians of that prison, the Demontors, are on the hunt.  Looking like spindly black banshees, they freeze everything around them…and they seem to have developed a keen taste for Harry’s soul.

Everything about this installment is bleaker, from the themes to the stakes, to the overall look of the film.  Hogwarts is frequently shown awash in miserable weather, and the film’s Quidditch scene even plays out in a horrific storm.  And all of this dismal atmosphere leads up to one pivotal moment:  when Harry discovers the truth about Sirius Black…namely, that he was responsible for the death of his parents, and has apparently broken the bonds of his prison to come after young Potter and finish the job.

Aiding Harry this time is the school’s newest professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, Lupin (Thewlis).  If Harry is going to protect himself against the Dementors and face the dangerous Black, he’ll have to learn more than a few new tricks.

Despite taking the characters into darker waters, this is still a wondrous movie of enchantment from start to finish, with so much magic on the screen that you can’t possibly drink it all in with one setting.  The most amazing new creature is Buckbeak, a hippogriff (half bird, half horse), and the most intriguing new magical item is a rogue’s map, that not only shows the complete layout of Hogwarts, but identifies everyone in the school and shows their movements in real time…what a handy parchment!

But as before, the real magic comes from the trio of talented young stars who seem more and more comfortable in their roles with each passing film.  Azkaban lends more opportunity for character development, and the performers are up to the challenge, anchoring our emotions in a sea of enchanting sights.  Daniel Radcliffe keeps Harry a perfect protagonist for the audience to cheer, while Rupert Grint and his goodhearted aversion to danger will keep you smiling.  And Emma Watson, who has grown from a fresh faced pretty little girl into a blossoming young beauty, gets some of the movie’s best moments, including leading a heroic effort to save the day at the climax…which, astonishingly enough, is a day that’s already passed!

Chris Columbus, who directed the first two installments, continues to serve as producer.  This time, Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) sat in the director’s chair.  While I wasn’t sure what effect a change like that might have on the franchise at first, his capable hand kept the magic flowing smoothly and steadily.

Of course, that could probably be most attributed to the singular, striking vision of J. K. Rowling, who first dreamt up the world of Harry Potter for the world, and has kept him coming back much to the delight of her legions of fans.  Both Columbus and Cuaron expressed a desire to preserve her detailed vision for the films.  It was the best possible plan of attack.

Though I enjoyed the first two Potter films greatly, I have to say that Azkaban is my new favorite.  In fact, it’s the first of the movies that I actually restarted from the beginning and watched a second time through right in a row.  With a magical, imaginative vision, sure handed direction, an almost limitless offering of visual wonder and three terrific stars who have matured confidently before our very eyes, there’s no reason to believe that Harry Potter won’t be back and continuing to weave his spell over audiences for a long time to come.

Video ***

The overall darker look of this installment plays a little havoc with the digital transfer.  Some nearly all black scenes show a bit of light diagonal lining moving across the screen.  At first, I thought it might have been my TV, but when I paused the image, the lines froze.  Curious.  There is also a bit more noticeable grain and occasional lack of definition when things start to really dim.

That being said, most of the rest of the presentation is marvelous, with good coloring and a new kind of look to the Potter films, deliberately muting some of the tones for effect.  Detail level is mostly good.  The frames are packed with information and wonder, so you definitely want to forgo the pan & scan version of this DVD.

Audio ****

No complaints in the audio department…the 5.1 mix is lively and potent, and frequently as fast moving as a good game of Quidditch.  There are plenty of big scenes to keep both front and rear stages gainfully employed, and John Williams’ music sounds soaring from start to finish.  The subwoofer keeps the ominous tones alive.  Dynamic range is very strong, and dialogue is clean and clear all the way.

Features ***1/2

Disc One contains a cast listing (no info to go along with the names) and trailers for all three Potter films.  Disc Two features the rest of the extras, which are navigated via an enchanted map like the one in the film.  There you’ll find a short making-of featurette (including interview footage with Rowling), three deleted scenes, an array of cast interviews (using the shrunken head as comic relief), interactive tours of Honeydukes and Professor Lupin’s Classroom, a look at the special effects of the Dementors and Buckbeak, a game preview, a “meet the animal trainers” bit, and a pair of fast moving interactive games.  Take choir practice for a sing along, or pop the disc in your DVD ROM drive for even more extras.  You’ll also get to take a look at certain scenes where you may have missed some magic…careful, there’s a quiz you’ll have to take.

Summary:

More than ever, I’m just wild about Harry.  It’s stunning to me that not only does the franchise seem to be NOT running out of steam, but every installment to date has managed to top the one before it.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a strong, striking cinematic vision that isn’t afraid to explore the darker regions of its own vast, imaginative universe.  Highly recommended.

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