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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Carnie Wilson's stomach surgery doesn't take.

© 2004, Warner Bros.
All Rights Reserved

Year three for Harry (a maturing Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry starts off with a bang with the news of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an evil, murdering wizard who has escaped the high-security Azkaban prison and is now on Harry's trail. With the help of his new Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), Harry explores his ties to Sirius. His discoveries lead him to enlist the help of his friends to battle evil and stop the wicked occurrences happening at Hogwarts.

There's been a change behind the camera in the "Harry Potter" world, with establishing director Chris Columbus stepping down after two films, and Alfonso Cuaron stepping up for this, the darkest tale of witchcraft and wizardry that "Potter" fans have seen so far. Having already established a distinctive visual style through his films "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and the cult family film, "A Little Princess," Cuaron's aesthetic is most certainly in tune with the ominous, dreary impulses of the "Azkaban" script (again written by Steven Kloves).

"Azkaban" (IMDb listing) is a film drenched in rain and shrouded in darkness, and follows with detail the maturing emotions and more volatile reactions of our three young protagonists. Gone from the new film is Columbus' sweepingly epic approach, blanketed by John Williams' unmistakable score. Gone too, is the earlier films' delicate, affectionate tone. Cuaron announces himself right away with a hand-held shot in the second scene as well as a final shot which closes the film on a freeze frame: two Columbus no-nos.

Cuaron is also not a filmmaker who shies away from the sinister side of a script. Instead he embraces Harry's burning pathos, and is clearly ready to explore it. "Azkaban" is filled with nightmarish imagery, most notably in the design and execution of the Dementors; the chilling, grim reaper-like guards of Azkaban who keep watch outside of Hogwarts for any sign of Sirius Black. The Dementors alone are enough to ensure weeks of bad dreams for the younger audience members (the PG rating is bent to a breaking point), but Cuaron goes even further, stuffing his frame with shrunken heads, offscreen animal beheadings, and mysterious, hungry wolves that stalk the moonlit night for Harry. Yes, "Azkaban" is a dark film, and yes, is more violent and disturbing that its predecessors. But Cuaron has made an art form out of capturing dread with this beautiful picture, and he succeeds at conveying the danger within the story far better than Columbus could have. The trade-off is that "Azkaban" is definitely not a likable, cheery romp along the lines of the earlier pictures.

The difference between the first two installments of the series and "Azkaban" is in the bulk of the story. While all the "Potter" films have been subjected to a severe paring down from their literary counterparts, "Azkaban" suffers the most from the deletions. It's not that anything is left unsaid in the final print, but more that there's barely a still, reflective moment left in the picture. Cuaron's movie is wall-to-wall exposition, without a single moment of dalliance allowed. There is too much ground to cover, and a smaller running time to do it in. Speaking as a non-reader of the books, the swirling, towering amount of information Cuaron expects the audience to process is remarkable, and might leave many Muggles feeling a bit dizzy as they exit the theater. A generous amount of story is never a bad thing, but "Azkaban" sorely lacks the playful sense of wonderment that Columbus always allotted time for. Sure, we've seen most of Hogwarts by now, but there's so much of author J.K. Rowling's world left to discover, it's a disappointment to see Cuaron speed through it all at MACH 9 just so he can complete his story in 135 minutes (the shortest "Potter" to date).

Another new face in the "Potter" scheme is actor Michael Gambon ("Open Range") as all-knowing Professor Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris who originated the role. Instead of simple mimicry, Gambon reimagines the role of Dumbledore and makes him a quicker, sharper headmaster of Hogwarts, in the process losing the character's much needed warmth and authority. But Gambon is merely a spoke in a very big wheel which also sees the likes of Emma Thompson as the feeble-eyed Sybil Trelawney, Tom Felton as the wicked Draco Malfoy, Robbie Coltrane returning as the lovable Hagrid (along with brand new Hagrid-sizing visual effects to combat the puberty growth spurts), and the extraordinary Alan Rickman, who once again steals the film away from the teenage principals as Professor Snape. Since the material asks so much more of the cast, the performances are stronger in "Azkaban," forming a tight company of actors that I hope stick this series out as far as it dares to go.

Fans of the book will no doubt delight to see the visualization of Harry's "Marauder's Map," Buckbeak the Hippogriff, and the Dementors' wrath on Harry and Sirius. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is an exceptionally high-quality adaptation and a triumph of threatening details from Cuaron. But to the average moviegoer, the story still holds water, but the cracks are beginning to show.

Filmfodder Grade: B

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