May 28, 2015

Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)


Although I didn't know it at the time when I was fourteen and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was first released, the hiring of Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón to take over from Chris Columbus was a big deal. Rowling and the suits at Warner Bros. were ready for Harry Potter to evolve. Stylistically, Cuarón was the man to make that happen. The deciding factor that made Cuarón a candidate was most likely his work on A Little Princess which I have to admit I've never seen. Although it wasn't as well received, I believe Great Expectations also played into it. 

I don't dislike the Columbus-directed Potter movies, but I suppose I've grown out of them to a certain extent. There's a fair amount of Columbus-styled cheesiness that gets to me, but they're enjoyable family-friendly fantasy movies all the same. Fans of the books and movies were growing up though and to stay in the same gear for the entire film series would've been too dangerous from a financial point of view. The last thing Warner Brothers wanted was for audiences to lose interest. So with that in mind, Prisoner of Azkaban is a more grown up take on the magical world of Harry Potter and that's exactly what was needed.

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At a Glance


Genre: adventure, family, fantasy
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Produced by: Chris Columbus, David Heyman, Mark Radcliffe, etc.
Written by: Steve Kloves
Music by: John Williams
Running time: 142 minutes
Production company: Warner Bros., 1492 Pictures, Heyday Films, etc.
Distributed by: Warner Bros., IMAX, Karo Premiere, etc.
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Language: English
Budget: $130,000,000
Box office: $796,688,549 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: 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, Pam Ferris, Tom Felton, Mark Williams, Oliver Phelps, James Phelps, Chris Rankin, Bonnie Wright, Devon Murray, Warwick Davis, David Bradley, Matthew Lewis, Bronson Webb, Josh Herdman, Harry Melling

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Synopsis


Summer vacation is a difficult time as always for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). After an unpleasant visit from his Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) goes south, Harry leaves home with his trunk and no clue of where to go. He accidentally summons the Knight Bus which then takes him to the Leaky Cauldron in London. Things start to look much better the next morning when he runs into the Weasley family as well as Hermione. However, it's revealed to him by Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams) that he may be in grave danger which sadly is nothing new.


Review


Just because Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is supposed to be darker and moodier, that doesn't mean all the humour has been cut out. The opening bit with Aunt Marge is a good example of that, as is most of the Knight Bus sequence and the boggart lesson too. Fantasy "CGI shows" were a much bigger deal in the two earlier Harry Potter films and there are a couple of them here as well. The difference is that in PoA they feel more like the sideshows that they're meant to be, a chance to catch your breath. They're also quite amusing too. The Monster Book of Monsters anyone?

It's extremely clear that the intentions of Prisoner of Azkaban are different from Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets though. Shadows are deeper and the colour palette is noticeably darker. There's also a noticeable absence of cheerier scenes. Take the arrival at Hogwarts for example. The song "Double Trouble" is performed by a student choir before we get a foreboding and slightly hopeful speech from Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). There's no feast however as the film cuts directly to the Gryffindor students going to the common room. Those feasts sure looked delicious in the first two movies, but they'd take away from the tone of what PoA has going on.

Prisoner of Azkaban also seems to mature in a cinematography sense. Director of photography Michael Seresin and Alfonso Cuarón combine for some pretty nice results in PoA. The camera seems to always have a purpose, whether its stationary or moving which wasn't always the case with the two earlier movies. While I sort of appreciate the snake-like behaviour of the camera-work in Chamber of Secrets, the work of John Seale and Roger Pratt was generally muddled and lacked focus.

There's quite a bit of CGI in Prisoner of Azkaban and it has aged quite well. The Dementors are a particular success. They're quite scary-looking and the freezing effect that they bring with them is pretty cool. Buckbeak the hippogriff is another CGI creation and still looks pretty good too. The flying sequence that comes with him is particularly good, especially given the finest work that John Williams turned in during his time working on Harry Potter. Other special effects in PoA come off quite well too.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves had no choice but to cut many story elements which is what happens when you have to adapt a 317-page book. Obviously if you've read the book, you'll have a far better understanding of everything that's going on in Prisoner of Azkaban. If you haven't, well it could be a bit of a murky movie to follow then. I personally don't really mind that because it gives the feeling that PoA is a bit more open to interpretation. It's not as obvious and spelt out as Philosopher's and Chamber and that's cool with me.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have grown once again of course and with that, comes a bit more experience and know-how. Radcliffe has a bit more responsibility in this entry and he's not perfect by any means when it comes to more emotional scenes let's say. He gets the job done though and I think that Cuarón succeeds in getting the most that he can out of the trio. It's Emma Watson in particular who shows the most growth as an actress.

Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are extremely well surrounded as usual by the best that the United Kingdom has to offer, most notably a new actor for Dumbledore. Michael Gambon takes over the reigns from Richard Harris who sadly passed away. Gambon doesn't try to emulate what Harris had already done, but brings his own take on the character that I'll admit I actually prefer. Gambon's Dumbledore is clearly powerful, stern, but also caring and has a big sense of humour. Newcomers like David Thewlis, Timothy Spall and Emma Thompson also throw their weight around to great effect.

The story of Prisoner of Azkaban takes a really entertaining turn and finishes with spectacular results.There are some pretty dark moments now and again, but the film is well balanced with the lighthearted scenes that I mentioned before. PoA has a bad guy who has to be dealt with, but it's also a film that takes Harry as a character even more seriously than ever before. The loss of his parents weighs heavier than ever and there are some beautiful scenes that highlight that.


With all this said, I guess it's pretty obvious that I like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It's my favourite movie of the entire series in fact and I don't really see that ever changing. The defining feature of Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets are the wonderful and high quality costumes and sets plus the massively talented English cast which are still retained in Prisoner of Azkaban. Add in Cuarón's vision that's a bit more open to interpretation, improved cinematography, more character-based scenes and a darker mood and we've got a winner. Prisoner of Azkaban truly feels magical.

Rating

9/10

Related Reviews:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) 
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) 
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)