Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban review by The Grim Ringler

I can’t say I have ever read any of the Harry Potter books but since the first film I have found myself drawn into the world of the young wizard and his friends. In the five books that author J.K. Rowling has written an entire universe and history has been created, and at the center of it is a young man with a scar shaped like a lightning bolt and the gathering forces of darkness poised around him. Making movies out of these stories now seems like a natural progression and all we can ask is – where do we go from here? Well, wherever that path may lead, if it takes the path carved by director Alfonso Cuaron in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban then we and Harry are in for a hell of an adventure.

Prisoner picks up the adventures of young Harry what we can only guess is several months later than Chamber of Secrets, the second film in the series, and when we find Harry we find a very angry young man. Harry has suffered another summer at the angry hands of his aunt, uncle, and their insufferably spoiled son and is now ready for school. They are more cautious of him than before, either knowing or sensing his growing power as a young wizard, but still not ready to relinquish their hold on him. But it is still not quite time for another year at Hogwarts so Harry must bide his time. Another obstacle arrives though in the form of his uncle’s sister, an awful prune of a woman who hates Harry and his parents so strongly that any insults he has heard before from the Dursley’s seem now like stones into an ocean. Bidden to do as he is told and to hold his tongue while she is visiting, Harry does his best to hold his growing rage in check but, once his aunt has slandered his parents on time too many Harry’s powers, which are beginning to show themselves more and more, spiral out of control, finally causing his nasty aunt to inflate and float off into the sky. Having had enough of life with the Dursley’s, Harry packs his trunk and leaves his surrogate home, uncertain where he is going but content just to be away. Harry doesn’t make it far before some mysterious beast which looks like a dog but isn’t appears and is about to cause him even more trouble but just as the worst is yet to come a rickety double-decker bus appears out of thin air, summoned somehow to come take him away. Supposedly a mode of transport for wayward wizards, Harry gladly takes the bus and has them head towards an Inn for magic folk. The journey is for more perilous and nerve-wracking than Harry might have expected though but he does find out something during his trip – a murderous wizard named Sirius Black has escaped the inescapable Azkaban prison and the magic world is suddenly very dangerous. Upon arriving at the Inn Harry gets a brief and none too harsh lecture from the head of the magic division, a man his friend Ron’s father works for, warning Harry that he cannot use magic in the ‘Muggle’, or human, world and that he cannot just leave his family, no matter how awful it is there. Harry, content just to be away from the Dursley’s apologizes and moves on to his room. The next morning he finds that while he has been sleeping, friends Hermione and Ron have arrived as well and are waiting like he for the train to school. Before he can leave with them and catch the train though Ron’s father pulls Harry aside to warn him of the danger he is in. It turns out that Sirius Black is no ordinary wizard but was in fact a protégé of Lord Voldemort, the wizard responsible for the death of Harry’s parents, and Black was also the man who betrayed Harry’s parents and set Voldemort on them. And now he has escaped and wants to finish what he began – he wants to kill Harry. All of this leaving Harry with quite a bit to consider as the three friends take their train to school. But the danger for Harry is far more immediate than any had thought as the train is halted en route and something enters it. Uncertain what it is but not liking that the train has stopped for anything, the three friends huddle close when a dark, floating form which seems more akin to the Grim Reaper than anything else, its body a floating shape of black rags, its hands skeletal, its covered head in the shape of a sucking mouth. It is a Dementor and is one of the guards of Azkaban, now sent out to capture and retrieve Black. The Dementor happens upon Harry though and mistakes him for its quarry and begins draining the life from him, all around the friends and their car frosting over with the presence of this creature. Just as Harry is weakening Harry though a sleeping man who had been in the car before the children (a man who they soon find out is Professor Lupin, Hogwarts’ new Professor Against the Dark Arts) awakes in time to spare Harry with a spell of protection, leaving Harry unconscious and more than a little frightened. What they find at Hogwarts is a place on high alert, the Dementors now hovering just outside of the walls of the school, as it seems Black is making his way there, his single-minded purpose now known to all the teachers. As Harry and his friends re-adjust to school life and to one another it is more than obvious that the three are changing – Harry is becoming more powerful as a wizard and his dark, mysterious past is still haunting him and creating a young man who is becoming more and more isolated by the world around him and Hermione and Ron seem to be slowly falling in love, something I am sure will be messy rather soon. In Professor Lupin though Harry has finally found a confidante and friend among his teachers, and someone who was very close to his mother and father. But Lupin is hiding two secrets that could bring and end to Harry if he doesn’t learn them first. And if this weren’t enough, Black is believed to be hiding on school grounds, slowly making his way towards Harry, anxious to fulfill his quest. And other forces are beginning to gather and conspire against Harry and his friends unless they can find the strength in themselves and an ally or two to keep their enemies at bay. Harry’s own dark prophecy is becoming clearer, but is to be life…or death?

A much darker film than the first two entries, Azkaban seems to fulfill the promise that the first films gave rumor to – a ground breaking fantasy series not just for children but for adults as well, and one which wouldn’t pull punches. Azkaban’s world is one of dark shadows, murky grays, and predators hiding as people. We are finally seeing what affect the past is having on Harry and it’s not pretty. Harry is becoming an angry, isolated, confused boy on the verge of manhood. The greatest difference between the world director Chris Columbus has created and the one created by director Alfonso Cuaron is that this is not a world of wonder and glimmer but a world made very dangerous by magic used by careless and hateful hands. A world of secret pasts and mysterious bonds. This is a world where all that Harry has come to believe in is beginning to strain against the truth, which gets a bit murkier by the end of the film. The laughing, loving, talented boy that Harry is remains, but the laughs don’t come as easily and the talent, while stronger, is darker as well and becoming potentially dangerous. The biggest difference between this film and the first two is this – Cuaron is less interested in being completely bound to the books and is more interested in getting at the heart of what they are saying, cutting out sub-plots and getting to the point of the matter, and by doing this he has created the best and most assured of the three Potter films.

The three young actors that have taken the leads in the Potter films are finally being pushed to become better actors and we are being rewarded with fuller, stronger performances. The adult cast itself though is as good as has been assembled in the films. Actor Michael Gambon has taken over the role of headmaster from the late Richard Harris and does a marvelous job in the role. His Dumbledore is definitely different, more whimsical and less brooding than Harris’ but the character feels true and they have stayed honest with the first actor’s creation. Gambon has simply added his own hand to the character. The two standouts here though are David Thewlis as Lupin and Gary Oldman as Black. Both actors keep you guessing at their motives and characters to the very end and each one has created wonderfully mysterious men we are sure to meet again in this world. The plot gets very convoluted towards the end, several plot lines having to be tied up and together before this entry can finish, but director Cuaron has done an admirable job of keeping the machine running smoothly. He has also opened up the world of Hogwarts like never before, allowing us to see more of the grounds and more of the surrounding areas of the school and giving the entire area a better feel of what lies beyond those hallowed walls. I give all involved a lot of credit for sticking with the darkness that is at the heart of this story because it’d be all too easy to lighten things up and make this a world more kid friendly. The effects are very exceptional, each installment getting closer and closer to fully representing this magical world as realistically as possible but not leaning on the effects as a crutch. The effects here do seem a little less ‘gee-whiz’ as well, another difference brought on by the directing change, Cuaron seeming to be more interested in showing that to these people, magic and magical creatures are not so much awe-inspiring as just part of the everyday canvas of their lives.

The biggest problem people will have is that a lot has been cut from the book. I know this from friends who have read the books as well as have seen the films and essentially Cuaron cut out the stuff that wasn’t crucial to the story, much like Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings films. I am sure we are losing nuances and moments special to the books but it is impossible to slavishly adapt something and still make it an interesting film and Cuaraon knew this going in, preferring instead to get the essence of the book and go from there. Personally, I think he made a fine choice, but again, I haven’t read the books. The other problem is that the end is very convoluted. Almost too much so. In the last hour so much is thrown at us that we almost need a notepad to keep everything straight in our heads. I think it works, but it gets very confusing and very strange so I would imagine a lot of kids will just shake their heads and hope for the best for Harry.

All told, I love this film. It’s a wonderful adventure and an amazingly assured fantasy film. I like the first two films very well but this one is a revelation and a new beginning for the franchise. It was a risky proposition to use director Cuaron, someone whose last film was a very adult fairy tale, but the risk has paid off and the franchise is stronger for it, and me, I am more anxious than ever to see what adventures our young Mr. Potter shall find himself on next.


9 out of 10 Jackasses
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