Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

My daughter, one of the legions of Harry Potter fans out there, nervously sat at home the last two weekends. She could have easily been in the theater watching the latest Harry Potter cinema incarnation, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban instead. Why did she wait? The third book she said is her favorite book. And she was afraid like the first two movies it would be a pale shadow of the original material. Her thinking was: better to not see it and not be crushed again.

But we got a lot of positive reviews from friends who had seen the movie. So we finally sat through a showing yesterday. While I have read the first two books, I never got around to reading the third book. (The second book felt so much like a repeat of the first book it hardly made me crave more.) I was anticipating at least being surprised by the movie. And like my daughter I was hopeful that maybe, finally, someone would do a Harry Potter movie right.

Thankfully our hopes were vindicated. My daughter was delighted with the movie. My wife gushed about it. And I found, unlike the first two movies, that I was wholly engrossed watching it. It’s a sign of a good movie when I can actually tune out the noise around me and plunge into the movie itself.

The movie works this time around because the producers finally ditched director Chris Columbus. Picked instead was a relatively unknown director Alfonso Cuaron. It was a risky but smart move. Columbus’s approach was no risk: never deviate from the book, not even in the smallest degree. The result was two movies that were technically faithful yet more than a bit soulless. The characters did their best to be convincing but only fooled the prepubescent crowd.

Finally though we get a director that is faithful to the spirit of Harry Potter. Just as Peter Jackson was faithful to the spirit of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Cuaron was smart enough to know when to tailor the plot a bit to make it work as a movie. Just as importantly he brings to the film his own vision of Hogwarts. The Harry, Ron, Hermione and Draco Malfoy in this movie are wholly believable. The special effects (of which there are plenty) work seamlessly. The movie paces wonderfully. With Michael Seresin as Director of Cinematography the camera follows the action with near perfection, slowly moving in on just the right moments.

Moreover the characters become more complex in the third film. Part of it is a function of characters hitting mid adolescence. But mostly it is a sign of excellent direction. For once the actors feel like they are really in Hogwarts instead of on a movie set. And they project it faithfully onto film. We see these young adults wrestle with their strong adolescent feelings and anxieties. Harry Potter finally shows real anger. Even the stereotypical Dursleys come across as more believable. Richard Griffiths, as Uncle Vernon is actually a bit understated instead of farcical.

If you haven’t seen a Harry Potter movie you haven’t missed too much. But you might regret missing this one. The special effects (particularly the Dementors) occasionally look like they borrow a little too closely from the Lord of the Rings movies, but they integrate perfectly and scared the bejeezus even out of this middle aged man. Computer generated imagery keeps improving. It was impossible for me to tell a computer generated the hippogrif; I can’t say the same for Gollum in the Rings movies. The result is a well-rendered fantasy world that works well for all except those ten or under, for whom it is not one dimensional enough.

I haven’t seen either of the first two movies more than once. When this one arrives on DVD doubtless my daughter will pick it up. I will be in the TV room watching it with her.

3.4 out of 4 stars. Well done!

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