The combination of a new director (Alfonso Cuaron taking over from Chris Columbus), a darker look, and a trio of now older leads make for a very different movie than 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 it. But that deficiency might be laid 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 plot. What's more, the three young leads have matured and become better actors, delivering more authoritative and realistic performances.
Although I liked this new one the best so far of the first three "Potters," I'm still hard pressed 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 still feels more than 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. The old castle of 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.
Now, maybe the next installments will continue the darker atmosphere with more story to tell. But no director will dare add much that's new to Ms. Rowling's plots, and I found the written stories of Ms. Rowling becoming more diffuse as they went along. So, I guess there are no promises here.
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 intense 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, the conflict is resolved. Then, it's time to wait for the next movie.
Still, the noir tone of the story 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, with Harry having to face his worst fears (Sirius Black); learn who he is (the allusion to his father and the stag); cope with a newfound sexual awareness (hoping his uncle won't catch him playing under the covers with his wand); and deal with people who are "different" (Lupin's outing).
But, as I say, none of this character development has much of a story 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 things I did like about "Prisoner of Azkaban," however, more than compensate for the movie's slender story line. 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 are sent to Hogwarts to find 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 charlatan 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 wanting to make it an entirely satisfying movie on its own.
The picture is presented in its original theatrical exhibition size, 2.40:1 anamorphic. Since the image is so dark most of the time, there is a tad more light grain in evidence than usual, giving darker scenes a grittier look. But it hardly interferes with one's enjoyment of the movie or the visuals. Blacks are very deep, nicely setting off the other colors, but shadowy scenes do not admit a lot of inner detail. The entire visual experience is pretty much as I remember it from the motion-picture theater, with cold, iron-grays and blues establishing the movie's tone.
As always, the sound, too, is excellent, only this time the Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics are more subtly used. The frequency range is wide; the dynamics are strong; and the surround channels are 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.
Even though this third installment is more mature in style and substance than the first two "Potter" movies, Warner Bros. continue to market their extras with mainly younger audiences in mind. Therefore, you will again not see an audio commentary or a full-length documentary among the bonuses. Disc one is fairly bare-bones, presenting the movie itself; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; a cast and crew listing; thirty-five scene selections; and three theatrical trailers, one for each of the movies thus far in the series.
Disc two includes a large number of miscellaneous bonus items, but like the movie itself, while there are a lot of activities, there isn't a lot of substance. Anyway, the disc contents are divided into five areas. The first is "Divination Class." This includes "Trelawney's Crystal Ball," five deleted scenes in various stages of completion; "Creating the Vision," eleven minutes of comments by the cast and crew; and "Head to Shrunken Head," individual cast interviews. The second section is "Defense Against the Dark Arts." Here you'll find "Magic You May Have Missed," a memory challenge game; and "Tour Lupin's Classroom," a self-guided, 360-degree look around the classroom, using one's remote. The third section is "Great Hall," which includes "Catch Scabbers," an interactive game where you try to capture Ron's rat; "Choir Practice," the "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble" song; and "The Quest of Sir Cadogan," another interactive challenge game, this one utilizing the moving portraits of Hogwarts. The fourth section is "Hogwarts Grounds," which contains "Care of Magical Creatures," a four-minute piece wherein we meet the animal trainers who worked on the film; "Conjuring a Scene," a fifteen-minute behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Buckbeak the hippogriff and the dementors; a preview of Electronic Arts' new "Harry Potter" computer game; and for those viewers with a DVD-ROM drive, a Hogwarts timeline and some magical trading cards. The final section is "Tour Honeydukes," a self-guided, 360-degree tour of the sweet shop.
Unlike the first two "Potter" releases, which came in foldout cases and slipcovers, this one comes packaged in a regular two-disc slim-line keep case, with an informational insert guide. English and French language choices are available for the second disc of extras.
After watching "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" twice now, once in the theater and once on DVD, I enjoyed it both times, but I also felt vaguely unsatisfied with it. It was as though I had just finished the third chapter in an old-time movie serial and was being told to come back next week for the next installment. If this "Potter" series is to continue for as long as the books hold out, I would imagine we're all going to have to get used to that idea. But reservations aside, "Azkaban" is another wonder for the eye, this time darker and more mature, appropriate to Harry's growing up.