This third entry in the "Potter" series is night-and-day different from the first two movies. So I suppose it's more fitting than ever that its high-definition Blu-ray reproduction looks and sounds night-and-day better than its standard-def transfer, and, more important, that the movie now comes in an "Ultimate Edition" that includes a ton of new extras.
The combination of a new director (Alfonso Cuaron taking over from Chris Columbus) for film three, a darker look, and a trio of now older leads make for a movie quite unlike either of the initial entries. I enjoyed the first two "Potters," mind you, but I thought they were mostly about special effects, the wonders of visual excitement, more than about story or characters. They were, in effect, cute and fun and delightful to look at.
This third, 2004 release in the series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is much more ominous and much more grown-up, so to speak, than the first two. That said, I wish it had more of a story to go with it. But we might lay that deficiency at the doorstep of the book's author, J.K. Rowling, as much as on director Cuaron. Rowling had certainly blossomed as a writer by the third "Potter" installment, but she still tended to be rather unfocused in her plot line, as the movie demonstrates, and wordier than ever, which the movie improves upon. Still, it takes Cuaron well over two hours to tell very little tale.
Yet the tone, mood, and atmosphere in number three are so much more imaginatively serious--even Hogwarts and its surroundings looking and feeling different--that it more than makes up for the thin narrative. Additionally, the three young leads have matured and become better actors, delivering more authoritative and realistic performances.
Although I liked this new one better than the first two "Potters," I still find it hard to give it the 8/10 I'd like because of those reservations about its not covering much story ground. "The Prisoner of Azkaban" feels like just what it is--a transitional tale, a bridge between the first two introductory books and the next ones to follow. Seen as a link in the progression of stories, "Azkaban" works well enough, but taken on its own, it feels rather unfinished and, ultimately, unfulfilling.
As I said before, I still think this latest "Potter" is the best so far, but I have to say it feels a little flat. The pacing is certainly one culprit, as the story doesn't really go very quickly in any particular direction; but also I attribute the story's lackadaisical nature to the fact that it has so little to say beyond a few character discoveries. The first two movies, while less developed in style and tone, told self-contained stories. They stood on their own. This latest one feels more like a brief anecdote than a fully evolved narrative; it's like a chapter in a book rather than a complete novel. The story is merely continuing the series with another episode in Harry's life of chronically dire predicaments and baleful scrapes, this time his trials with adolescence. I had the feeling as the movie was going on and again when it was over that while a lot of action occurred, nothing much actually happened.
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the new look. Hogwarts is gloomier than ever, no longer the place of childhood fancy but of genuine frights. And Hagrid's hut being farther from the castle and down a steep incline gives the movie a more visually diverse and appealing look, making Hagrid more of an outsider at the same time. I liked these touches.
At the time of the present story, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are thirteen years old and ready for more adventures. The difficulty this time develops when Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a wizard convicted of murder twelve years earlier, has escaped from Azkaban prison and may be out to kill him. That's really all there is to the plot. Sirius comes to Hogwarts, and after a few rousing escapades, they resolve the conflict. Then, it's time to wait for the next movie.
Still, the noir tone nicely complements the dark and troubled times in Harry's life as he enters his teens and has to make the transition from childhood to young adulthood. As a character study, the movie works well enough, with Harry having to face his worst fears; learn who he is; cope with a newfound sexual awareness; and deal with people who are "different" from others.
But, as I say, none of this character development has much of a story line to go with it, so the movie feels more unfinished than the previous ones. George Lucas had his young hero, Luke Skywalker, come to know himself, too, in "The Empire Strikes Back," while at the same time providing a compelling story. "Empire" went on to become the best "Star Wars" entry in the series, so the job can be done.
The other things I did like about "Prisoner of Azkaban," however, more than compensate for the movie's slender story. I liked the opening WB logo, reminiscent of Tim Burton's "Batman." I liked the humor of Harry's blowing up his obnoxious Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) to gigantic balloon size and floating her out the doorway, a scene reminiscent of the one in "Willy Wonka" where the candy maker turns an obnoxious little girl into a giant blueberry. I liked the imaginative and exhilarating bus ride through the streets of London. I liked the "monster books" that go for your throat if you let them. I liked the ghostly dementors, the guards of Azkaban prison, who visit Hogwarts to find Sirius Black and who will suck the life out of anyone who gets in their way. I liked the gentle impishness of Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore. I liked the sad-eyed David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, whose condition makes his stay at Hogwarts difficult. I liked the goofiness of Emma Thompson as the medium, Professor Trelawney. I liked the always-dependable Timothy Spall as the ratty Peter Pettigrew. And I loved the fantastical new creation, Buckbeak the hippogriff, something like a griffin except half bird and half horse.
Expect the rest of the gang to show up as well, old friends by now, whether good or evil. There's the sniveling creep, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton); the scary, ill-tempered Professor Snape (Alan Rickman); the maternal and sympathetic Professor McGonnagall (Maggie Smith); the odious Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and son Dudley (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Harry Melling); and, of course, there's the gentle, lovable giant, Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), now promoted at Hogwarts to a teacher of the care of magical creatures.
So, the interior "Potter" stories work. It's the more obvious exterior story that failed to grab me because it's practically not there. At best, "The Prisoner of Azkaban" is a good, atmospheric stepping stone in the "Potter" chronology, with yet something missing to make it an entirely satisfying movie on its own.
Understand, this third installment in the "Potter" series looks generally darker than the first two movie adventures, with their brighter, more vivid colors. This one has any number of scenes in it that are practically black-and-white. Each director created a different "look" for the films, this one much more subdued in appearance, leaning heavily toward shades of gray, blue, and brown.
Warners present the picture in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and they use a dual-layer BD50 and a 1080p-resolution VC-1 codec for the Blu-ray transfer. Interestingly, while there is a minor degree of softness in some medium and long shots, the close-ups are as stunningly good as anything in any of the films. I would guess that any softness about the image in some shots is inherent to the original print. Object definition in most other cases is usually quite good, excellent, in fact, and although there is a small degree of glassiness on occasion, there is very little noticeable grain. What's more, the black levels are solid, and they admit plenty of inner detail.
"The Prisoner of Azkaban" contains some of the most beautiful scenery in the "Potter" movie series, and the high-definition reproduction displays it splendidly.
WB offer the audio in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and it could hardly be better. It has a strong impact, a taut bass, and a smooth midrange. The frequency range is wide, the dynamics wide, and the surround channels more subtle than usual, used both for ambient noise reproduction and for specific, pinpoint sounds like those of birds winging overhead, winds whipping around corners, and sundry howls in the night. This soundtrack doesn't have the visceral force of that for "Chamber of Secrets" nor as broad a use of the rear channels, but it makes its presence known in nuanced ways, nevertheless.
What you won't get in this "Ultimate Edition" is an extended version of the movie. I have no idea why, as there are additional scenes on the bonus discs. Maybe Warners or the director felt the movie was better without them; or maybe Warners didn't want to go to the trouble and expense of processing them. Who knows. In any case, disc one presents the Blu-ray, high-definition theatrical version of the movie, with BD-Live access; English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and other spoken languages; French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles; English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired; and thirty-five scene selections.
Disc two is also a Blu-ray and contains a number of mostly new bonus items, several of them in high def. The main bonus is the third part of the ongoing documentary "Creating the World of Harry Potter," this one "Part 3: Creatures." It's sixty-three minutes long and divided into eight chapters, with lots of never-before-seen material. Then, there's "Inside the Creature Shop," a tour of Nick Dudman's workshop of models for the movie, eight minutes; and three TV specials: "The Magic Touch of Harry Potter," forty-two minutes; "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Something Wicked This Way Comes," thirteen minutes; and "The Making of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," thirteen minutes. Following those items are four additional scenes totaling about five minutes; "An Interview in Spanish with Alfonso Cuaron," eight minutes; and a series of teaser trailers, theatrical trailers, and promos.
Disc three, a DVD, contains most of the extras found in the previous DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray editions. It also features one of those oh-so-clever menus that make you search all around for the bonus items and then wait around for the animations to unfold. Warners would eventually give up on the idea, thank goodness. The first thing we see is an eleven-minute featurette, "Creating the Vision," wherein the author, the director, the producer, and the screenwriter reflect upon the book's screen adaptation. Next is a lengthy, forty-two-minute segment, "Shrunken Head Interviews," with British broadcast personality Johnny Vaughn interviewing the actors and filmmakers: The young heroes, the Gryffindors, the Slytherins, Professor Lupin and Sirius Black, Professor Dumbledore and Rubeus Hagrid, the Dursleys, the director, and others. Then there are several shorter bits: "Care of Magical Creatures," four-and-a-half minutes with the film's animal trainers; "Conjuring a Scene," about fifteen minutes on production design; several deleted scenes; games like "Choir Practice," a minute and a half with on-screen lyrics to "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble"; "Catch Scabbers," and "The Quest of Sir Cadogan"; a game preview; "Magic You May Have Missed," a tour of Lupin's classroom and office; and an exploration of the Honeydukes Sweet Shop.
In addition to all the extras on the three discs, you get the following materials in the box: A forty-eight page photo book with rare images from years one through seven; a year-three lenticular photo card; number two in a series of character cards; Digital copy access of the movie for iTunes and Windows Media (the offer expiring October 17, 2011); a fancy cardboard storage box; and a cardboard slipcover for the box.
After watching "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" four or five times now, once in the theater, several times on regular DVD, once on HD DVD, and now on Blu-ray, I admit I enjoyed it each time, even though I also felt vaguely dissatisfied with it. It was as though I had just finished the third chapter in an old-time movie serial, and the filmmakers told me to come back next week for another installment. But reservations aside, "Azkaban" is another wonder for the eye, especially in high def, only this time darker and more mature, appropriate to Harry's growing up.