FILM REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
Just as J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" represents a step in maturity beyond the series' first two books, director Alfonso Cuaron's film version improves upon its predecessors. This third "Harry Potter" movie shakes the candy coating off of the franchise without violating its spirit.
Chris Columbus, who directed the first two, is skilled at assembling the elements and moving a story along, but he doesn't leave behind ideas that haunt or images that linger (unless Macaulay Culkin's "Home Alone" scream pose counts).
Cuaron is one of the most gifted visual storytellers around, whether he's working with the lavish production design of "A Little Princess" (1995) or the intimate, near-verite style of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2002). What those two very different films have in common is that the Mexican-born director goes so far beneath the young protagonists' skin that you virtually can feel their hearts beating.
It's no wonder, then, that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) comes into his own at last in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," which has the advantage of being based on an emotionally rich book that begins with him hitting the troublesome age of 13. In "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002), Radcliffe's title character was too cute, unruffled, goody-goody.
The Harry of the books is far more of a mischief-maker, and Cuaron and the increasingly assertive Radcliffe get the idea. You know you've entered new territory from the opening shot, as Harry reads his wizard books under his bedsheets while furiously flicking his wand for light.
Using magic while living with Muggles (non-magical humans, in this case the beastly Dursley family) is forbidden, but Harry has had enough of being treated like the black sheep. As in "Chamber of Secrets," the new film has Harry causing havoc in the household, but Cuaron doesn't play the sequence for slapstick. When Harry casts a spell on his visiting Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) after she cruelly disparages his late parents, his rage and his relatives' fear become palpable.
Like all of Rowling's books, this episode aims for an incrementally older audience than its predecessor while covering a year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Once again Harry tries to excel in wizard training and the airborne game Quiddich while warding off the increasingly dark forces that threaten his life.
This time a notorious killer, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), is on the loose after becoming the first-ever escapee from the famed Azkaban prison, and Harry soon hears that Black is after him. Making matters worse, Azkaban's cloaked, phantomlike prison guards, called Dementors, are roaming in search of Black, striking our hero with particularly deep fear and dread. Also fresh on the scene are new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin (David Thewlis, a warm, lanky presence), who has a habit of protecting Harry at key moments, and Divination Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson, wearing Coke-bottle glasses in a comic-relief role).
The usual suspects are back as well: Harry's best friends, regular-bloke Ron (Rupert Grint) and assertive brainiac Hermione (Emma Watson); the gentle, bearish Hagrid (Robby Coltrane), who takes over the Care of Magical Creatures class with typically unwieldy results; the sneering Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) of the rival Slytherin house; the acidic Professor Snape (Alan Rickman); the stern but kindly Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith); and Hogwarts' wise, eccentric headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, adding a sly twinkle as he replaces the late Richard Harris).
Film producers rarely receive the kind of recognition that directors do, yet that cast offers a powerful reminder of how well produced this series has been, by David Heyman and, on "Azkaban," Columbus and Mark Radcliffe (no relation to the actor). Rowling's vast world requires the casting of dozens of key roles, and over three movies there hasn't been a ringer in the bunch, especially now that Daniel Radcliffe's Harry has stepped up.
It's hard to return to the books and not have the movies' actors in your head. The same goes for the scenery, as Cuaron has inherited production designer Stuart Craig and his clearly articulated vision of Hogwarts, though the place has never appeared so weirdly wonderful as in our first glimpse of it here, as choir singers grasping fat frogs serenade a banquet hall illuminated by airborne candles.
Cuaron makes us view the familiar with fresh eyes as he and new-to-the-series cinematographer Michael Seresin (best known for work on Alan Parker films such as "Angela's Ashes") abandon the verging-on-Disneyland colorfulness of the first two movies for more muted tones and film grain you practically can scrape your hand on. The camera moves more, and the magical feels more real, even if some of the computer-graphics work (such as on Buckbeak the Hippogriff) remains dodgy.
Most important, the visuals inevitably are tied to mood and feelings. When a power outage hits the students' annual train ride to Hogwarts, there's a beautiful faraway shot of Ron's hand pressed to the window, his flesh the only visible light at that moment of vulnerability.
Even more chilling are the Sirius Black "wanted" posters, which show the scraggly escapee raging in a film loop. On a lighter note, when Harry finally rides the winged Buckbeak, the movie takes off with him as he leaves behind his frustrations and ill omens for a moment, at least, of pure exuberance.
Given how much deeper the feelings of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" run, it's odd that the place it comes up short is the ending. The book's conclusion packs a wallop, drawing connections between Harry and his dad, the living and the dead, in a way that's as profound as it is poignant. The movie hits the same plot points, but many details are missing, so what's there feels more rushed, less resonant and, despite the overall darker tone, not weighty enough.
Columbus tried to be faithful to the books by cramming in as many specifics as possible at the expense of wit and tone, making his movies feel more like literal translations than works that breathed their own air. Cuaron, whose sense of humor is drier and more in keeping with Rowling's, streamlines the "Azkaban" plot in part to keep the story more focused on Harry's emotional arc and in part by necessity - each successive book has grown longer, while "Azkaban," at 142 minutes, is the shortest of the movies. Director Mike Newell and writer Steve Kloves (who has written all of the Potter screenplays so far) face an especially formidable task with book four, the epic "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."
Cuaron and the producers may have felt a three-hour family movie wasn't a good idea, but fans of the book will find more missing from this installment than the previous two, whether in the capturing of everyday Hogwarts life or the back story that gives substance to the inevitable yet sufficiently surprising twists.
Yet fans of moviemaking should celebrate nonetheless. Until now Harry Potter has been a great book character and a functional movie hero. With Cuaron leading the way, Harry has burst from the printed page to soar on-screen.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron; written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; photographed by Michael Seresin; edited by Steven Weisberg; production designed by Stuart Craig; music by John Williams; produced by Chris Columbus, David Heyman, Mark Radcliffe; A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday, June 4. Running time: 2:16. MPAA rating: PG (frightening moments, creature violence and mild language).
Harry Potter - Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley - Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger - Emma Watson
Hagrid - Robby Coltrane
Draco Malfoy - Tom Felton
Professor Snape - Alan Rickman
Professor McGonagall - Maggie Smith
Albus Dumbledore - Michael Gambon
Sirius Black - Gary Oldman
Professor Lupin - David Thewlis
Professor Trelawney - Emma Thompson