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Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban
2004 - PG (for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language) - 142 Mins.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Producer: Chris Columbus
Written By: Steven Kloves
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Peter Best, David Bradley, Julie Christie, Robbie Coltrane, Alfie Enoch, Tom Felton, Pam Ferris, Dawn French, Michael Gambon, Jimmy Gardner, Richard Griffiths, Joshua Herdman, Matt Lewis, Hugh Mitchell, Devon Murray, Katharine Nicholson, Chris Rankin, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Jim Tavare, Julie Walters, Jamie Waylett, Paul Whitehouse, Emma Thompson (cameo)
Review by: Joseph Kastner
   
For the first time a film adaptation of one of the wildly popular Harry Potter books is presented with two new challenges. First, Chris Columbus, who had directed both the 'Sorcerer’s Stone' and 'The Chamber of Secrets,' has moved into the producer’s chair in order to give Alfonso Cuaron, director of 'Y Tu Mama Tambien,' a chance to take a stab at the fantasy series. Secondly, though the previous feature films had enjoyed fruitful success at the box office during the Thanksgiving holiday, the 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is the first film in the series to open during the summer.

Perhaps WB is trying to prove Harry Potter can have just as much success at changing venues as Pixar did last summer with 'Finding Nemo?' Maybe … The most notable change for the series of film adaptations is the particular demographic it is attempting to play to. Though the first film was aimed mainly at the tweener and teenage crowds, the third movie shifts swiftly by aiming for a more mature audience, namely teens and young adults. Will too many changes all at once be too much for this film to handle? There is no doubt its opening weekend will bring in big numbers, so its final evaluation will depend mainly on the reaction of movie-goers and, of most concern to WB executives, the fans.

The story once again follows the adventures of young Harry Potter, now a teenager, just as he is about to start his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. After an incident in which Mr. Dursley’s snobbish sister, Marge, is blown up like a balloon after angering Harry, the wizard in training goes on the run and catches a ride aboard a bus, on which he hears about the new danger that threatens his life. For the first time, a man has escaped from Azkaban prison, the place where the wizardry world’s most notorious criminals are held, including one Sirius Black. Word was that he was once a trusted friend of the Potter family but unbeknownst to them he was following the dark path of Lord Voldemort, which led him to betray the Potters, revealing to the dark lord their whereabouts.

Though Voldemort’s following has long since disbanded, Black's time in Azkaban prison has led him to go mad, swearing to return to the wizard world and finish the task that his master was unable to do … by killing Harry Potter. With Black on the loose and young Harry attending school, dementors, evil creatures which guard Azkaban prison, have descended upon Hogwarts in an effort to capture the madman. But instead of presenting Harry with a finer sense of security, they present a darker threat to him, one in which he must find the light within himself to uncover additional clues needed to unlock his mysterious past. The story for 'Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban' presents not only a continuation of the Harry Potter plot line but is successfully able to mature its stylization and atmosphere along the same lines as the series’ continually maturing audience.

As with the previous two films, the 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is well paced. It leaves the audience feeling at the end as it should, not longing to continue this particular storyline, but anticipating an entirely new adventure in the next adaptation.

Though a considerable amount of the cast members from the previous two Potter outings have returned, the younger actors and actresses have gone through a considerable change, namely puberty. This doesn’t hurt their performances in any way and actually contributes significantly to the idea of the series of films maturing along with its characters and audience.

Daniel Radcliffe’s performance is obviously the one critics will focus on and they should see a heightening sense of his acting capabilities, especially as he is ever more comfortable with the character he is playing. Radcliffe presents one hell of a performance - his maturing actions can be seen in this film.

The most notable addition to the cast, at least to fans of the film series, is Michael Gambon, who takes on the role of Professor Dumbledore after the recent passing of venerable acting talent Richard Harris. Though his performance doesn’t quite match up to Harris’, Gambon gives it his best shot and maintains a certain level of charm.

Gary Oldman, notorious for his villainous roles in movies like 'Bram Stoker’s Dracula' and 'Air Force One,' slips perfectly into the role of Sirius Black. The only disappointing aspect to his character is that there is not nearly enough of him in the film (as the advertisements imply). This isn’t necessarily a bad mark against the film; it’s actually quite reasonable considering the source on which the film is based on … it’s just an annoyance. And Alan Rickman, reprising the role of Professor Snape, presents another amusing performance.

Overall, director Alfonso Cuaron picks up right where Columbus left off but, in the process, stylizes the third adaptation to his own specifications and presents the most mature and darkly toned Potter film yet to grace the screen, which, in the end, makes it all the more spellbinding. With that in mind, those parents whose younger children were more then skittish watching 'Chamber of Secrets' will have greater difficulty sitting through 'Prisoner of Azkaban' despite the shorter running time. Parents might want to wait for the DVD this Christmas break to watch in the comfort of home. The dementors alone are enough to creep out even the most confident of adult viewers … what do you think they will do to a sensitive six year old?

The rest of the film comes complete with “jump” moments, murky atmosphere, and ominous musical score, which are more than enough to unsettle a little child. So for the most beneficial viewing experience for both the child and the movie-going audience around them, please take proper precautions prior to venturing out to the local Cineplex this summer. This is not to say that the film is a horribly frightful experience … in fact for teenagers and young adults it should be quite an entertaining film, with a wonderful blend of slight humor, eerie chills and whimsical fantasy.

The only major flaw in the film is the level of confusion over Sirius Black's revelations. It’s hard to describe without giving anything away but when it does appear in the film, relatively near the end, be sure to pay attention to details and actions of the characters or else it will leave one slightly confused as to what is exactly going on. Overall, 'Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban' succeeds at being one of the more enjoyable experiences of the season.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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