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With: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewliss, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters
Written by: Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language
Running Time: 142
Date: 31/05/2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sirius Fun

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Harry Potter films are precision machines. Their cogs and gears have been so thoroughly lubricated and snapped into place that a director is almost unnecessary. This is why not even the hopelessly bland Chris Columbus could screw up the first two entries, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

But what happens when a real director steps up? You get by far the best film in the series, and undoubtedly one of the summer's few highlights.

Mexican-born Alfonso Cuaron made one of the most highly acclaimed films of 2002, Y tu mamá también, which was enough to elevate him to A-list status and consideration for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His films possess an extraordinary sense of mood and place, which shows through even in his less-acclaimed films like A Little Princess and Great Expectations.

From the start, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban moves with a new confidence. It's less scrubbed and disinfected and throbs with a more nightmarish excitement. Weather makes more of an impact here; you can feel the autumn chill and the December gray.

In addition, Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves delete much of the series' exposition that has become so familiar. We don't need to see more than a couple of minutes of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) spending the summer with the horrible Dursleys, nor do we need such frivolities as the mysterious train platform, or yet another Quiddich game, or the counting of house points. Cuaron and Kloves cut right to the chase. But best of all, they still have the full 150-minute running time with which to flesh out their characters.

At age thirteen, Harry and his two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) return to Hogwarts amidst warnings of an escaped criminal, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Black's creepy wanted posters show him cackling a silent, maniacal laugh long before he makes his first screen appearance.

To help hunt Sirius, the guards from the horrible Azkaban prison roam the school grounds. Called Dementors, they have the ability to discover within a person's soul that which is most terrible. Their presence leaves a chill, and their gaze can suck a person's will.

Groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) now has a teaching position and introduces the children to a magical creature called a Hippogriff, made from the best computer animation this side of Gollum.

Meanwhile a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewliss) befriends Harry, but harbors a dark secret of his own. In one scene, Thewliss acts his heart out alongside Oldman and Timothy Spall -- all veterans of Mike Leigh's school of improvisational acting -- and it's spectacular. Cuaron has a much higher appreciation of actors than Columbus did, and every member of this phenomenal cast has a moment to shine.

As a hippie-ish fortune-telling professor, Emma Thompson savors her peculiar dialogue and Alan Rickman gets a laugh from his eloquent and sinister reading of the line "turn to page 394." Even our three heroes have begun to develop a few acting chops. They're much more comfortable and appealing in their roles -- though Grint's cowardly Lou Costello routine can get a bit old.

Indeed, the filmmakers have managed to pack a great deal of plot and a huge number of characters into their fast-moving film, but they still keep pace enough for dozens of little moments to register. It's probably the one summer film that deserves a second viewing.

Sadly, it looks as if Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will stand alone in the series, as Cuaron will not return to make the fourth film. As of this writing, Mike Newell will take the reins. Though Newell has turned such great screenplays as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco into good films, he has very little personality of his own. I'm afraid the Harry Potter machine will simply swallow him up.

As expected, Warner Home Video has released a wonderful two-disc set with extraordinary picture and sound quality, but lacking a commentary track from director Cuaron -- whose comments surely would have been more interesting that anything Columbus had to say. We get a glimpse of Cuaron in some of the featurettes, and he looks a little wild; he probably intimidated the studio heads into letting him do what he wanted on this film. Other extras include deleted scenes, interviews, trailers for all three films, and lots of interactive tours and games.

In 2010, Warner Home Video released a deluxe Blu-Ray box set. It comes with an amazing, high-def presentation of the film -- the only one in the series that I have seen more than once -- and tons of goodies, like character cards, a hardcover photo book, and two discs worth of extras. The first disc is a Blu-Ray with a brand-new documentary, and the second disc is a DVD with (presumably) most of the same extras from the past versions of this release.

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