Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Alfonso Cuaron, UK, 2004

: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanThe third film in the Harry Potter series is fantastic! My expectations were through the roof–unfair for any film but all part of the fun in anticipating today. The tone is definitely darker, but it really works. The cinematography is much more interesting, with shades of grays and blues. More of the action takes place outside Hogwarts’ halls, with Scotland doubling nicely as the grounds and woods around the school.

The kids are older and a bit gawkier in that awkward in between stage, but they’ve matured into the characters they play. It’s also a plus that they aren’t front and center all the time but share screen time with some of the finest character actors in film today. Michael Gambon slips right in as the new Dumbledore, a commanding presence. Maggie Smith is there, but with too little screen time. Alan Rickman is, as always, amazing. I was glad to see he features here more prominently than in the last film, but I’m always hoping for more. Gary Oldman is good, if not brief…but stay tuned for The Goblet of Fire, when, gladly, Jason Isaacs will also be back as Lucius Malfoy. Emma Thompson is a hoot as the goggle-eyed new teacher Trelawney, and David Thewlis gives a stand-out performance as Professor Lupin, the new dark arts teacher with a dark secret of his own.

I want to especially mention the music and special effects in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Composer John Williams is not a favorite of mine, especially when it comes to Harry Potter movies. I can still remember my intense dislike of the music in the first movie: it was bombastic, in your face, and always there, loudly telling you how to feel rather than setting the mood and helping to create an atmosphere. With Azkaban, I noticed the score, but in a good way. It was toned down, effective, rousing when appropriate, and thankfully, outside of the main theme, it sounded quite different from previous Williams’ scores. I think John Williams’ music has all started to sound the same, no matter what the film, but in Azkaban there were fresh nuances that enhanced the story.

When it came to creating the world that Harry Potter inhabits, I’ve also tended to be underwhelmed by some of the special effects in past films. The set decoration is amazingly detailed and clever, and the films have excelled at bringing to life the various characters and creatures. However, the CGI effects always left me flat. Remember the Quidditch match in the first film? Awful. And when it came to establishing shots of the school, it never looked real and awe-inspiring, as I thought it should. With Azkaban it all comes together. Everything looks right and real. Perhaps it’s the darker pallet used to shoot the film, but it really looks good. It also helps that there’s only one Quidditch match in this go around; it’s brief but very effective. Buckbeak the Hippogriff is memorable.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has definitely raised the bar for future Harry Potter films. [**** 1/2]

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