Daniel Radcliffe and his ominously looming descent into puberty return again for a third installment in the wildly successful 'Harry Potter' series. 'The Prisoner of Azkaban' marks a departure from the previous movies, as this time it's helmed by Alfonso Cuaron (the rather not-for-children 'Y tu mama tambien' ) instead of Chris Columbus. The novel as well is rather longer, and a bit darker than the earlier material.
School's back in at Hogwarts, and after a few troubles at home Harry is once again taking up residence along with his two best friends, Hermione and the genetically unfortunate Ron Weasley. Hogwarts isn't the sanctuary it once was however, as the notoriously evil wizard Sirius Black has escaped from the formidable Azkaban Prison (a magical version of Abu Ghraib, if you will). No doubt angered by digitally obscured photos of his genitilia as well as vicious treatment at the hands of the terrifying Dementors, Mr. Black is now quite insane. To make matters worse, he was once a fervent supporter of Voldemort, and now seems bent on revenging himself upon young Mr. Potter. The same Mr. Potter who is quite unable to resist getting himself hopelessley entangled in momentous events.
Aside from Sirius Black, there are a couple new characters at Hogwarts this semester. Enter Professor Lupin, the new Professor of the Dark Arts. Although there's something mysterious about his disheveled appearance, he's really quite a helpful chap. Enough so that Harry doesn't think twice about accompanying him on vaguely romantic walks, or eagerly accepting treats from the shady Prof. Also on the faculty side, Emma Thompson does an excellent job stepping in as Professor Trelawney, an over the top teacher of divination (no, not this divination, but this divination). Regulars such as Hagrid and Draco Malfoy (now sporting a less grease-intensive hairstyle) also reprise their roles. Sadly, Malfoy doesn't get as many lines as before, and we're deprived of hearing him virtually spit Harry's last name.
Although Cuaron does a remarkably capable job directing the movie, he has some rather large shoes to fill. Columbus did an impeccable job in bringing the series to life, and capturing the vision of 'Harry Potter' exactly as millions of fans around the world imagined it. Inevitably Cuaron's interpretation of the material is different, and suffers somewhat in comparison. Eschewing the fantastic architecture of Hogwarts and it's myriad mysteries, Cuaron focuses on the gorgeous scenery of its surrounding lands. While this is undoutedly beautiful to behold, it doesn't create the magical ambience we've become accustomed to in previous movies. Essentially, the movie doesn't feel like it's taking place in Hogwarts, familiar characters nonwithstanding. We're missing those warm fuzzy holiday shots of the visually intimidating school, and Cuaron approaches the passing of time with little interest, leaving the viewer feeling that the entire story was wrapped up in a couple of days.
Cuaron provides a tight narrative however, and keeps the story moving quickly in the right direction. His handling of the darker material is somewhat clumsy however, as 'Prisoner of Azkaban' doesn't begin to approach the tone set in the second movie. Cuaron isn't able to elicit believable raw emotion from his actors. For example, Harry's reaction to his parents betrayal, and Black's supposed insanity both seem weak, and aren't as fully developed as they could have been.
This isn't to disparage any of the actors however. For all intents and purposes, the 'Hogwarts 3' do a solid job bringing the beloved characters to life. Rupert Grint's comic timing is absolutely perfect, and Emma Watson once again does a great job portraying Hermione as both intelligent and fallible. It's Radcliffe that has the hardest job, and sometimes he seems called upon for scenes just out of his grasp. Given his age and the demands upon him however, Radcliffe's performance is superb. The supporting characters are excellent as always. Gary Oldman turns in his usual intense performance, and Emma Thompson is completely enjoyable as the eccentric Professor Trelawney.
Cuaron brings a natural and scenic mood to the film, and although it may disappoint some viewers - it adds a refreshing aspect to the film. The scenery is breathtaking and Cuaron delivers flawless shots for our enjoyment. As you'd expect from the franchise, the visual effects are matchless through the entirety of the film. It's especially appreciated that the quidditch scenes have lost their look of unreality, and are really quite convincing (and abbreviated!). The Dementors look very intimidating and one has to see the eerie flutter of their tattered robes to truly appreciate the effect. At one point the audience gets a hint of the hidden mouth which only adds to their mystique. Throughout the movie the visual effects have been approached with meticulous care, and it's apparent in the final presentation.
Adapted from Rowling's excellent book, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' tells a solid story, but truly shines in the details. There are plenty of funny moments, and the attention spent on creating creatures, characters, and locales is enormous. Once again, it's a wholly immersive world that manages to make you forget you're in a theatre for the duration of it's running time.
Perhaps the greatest thing about 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is that it's more of what we like. Granted, Warner Bros. didn't take any risks with this movie - but they've delivered exactly what audiences were expecting and hoping for. Guaranteed to gross over a quarter of a billion dollars in the US alone, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is a solid movie sure to delight Harry Potter fans the world over. An excellent third installment in what is sure to be the most lucrative single franchise in cinematic history.