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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I like the Harry Potter books and so far Ive liked the Potter films. The castings been excellent, the realizing of the world has been deftly done, and the movies by and large have retained the flavor of the books while being enjoyable in their own right. When Chris Columbus announced he wouldnt be helming the third one (or exhaustion would have killed him), I was concerned because more or less I felt he was the primary factor in why these films so readily translated the magic of the novels. And while hes still involved with the new film, you can definitely tell someone else is doing the driving. There would have been more changes between this one and the last one at any rate; the cast no longer looks twelve, they look like they belong on The O.C. Richard Harris died, so you have a new Dumbledore, who is such a key player in the saga. And the third story is where things stop completely revolving around Harry and Hogwarts and we start to see the larger wizardly world. So Azkaban was going to feel different from its predecessors no matter what. But unlike the rest of the world, apparently, Im not utterly thrilled with how different this movie is. Hogwarts has been completely rearranged; the kids only barely wear their uniforms, and only barely go to school; and characters who had been well handled up until now become doddering dunces. Which is not to say Azkaban is a bad film, because its not; there is some excellent material in there. Its more to say Azkaban is a joyless film, one with little warmth or heart or humor. Thats fine if you set out to make a movie like, say, Underworld, but it seems oddly out of place in the world of Hogwarts. The three leads are all fine, even if they look sixteen or seventeen now (save Watson, she looks a tad younger). No adult character should ever refer to their age in the script again, though; these kids can no more sell thirteen than Luke Perry could sell himself as a high schooler in 90210. I actually prefer the new Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) who seems more like the sly old wizard in the books. Most of the supporting professors are given short shrift: Emma Thompson is fun but wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo as Madame Trelawney, Maggie Smith gets her one scene to cluck at Harry and his pals, and even Alan Rickmans Snape seems to lack his usual menace. Newcomer Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) is perfunctory, never bad but never great. He lacks any sort of strong screen presence and does little more than fill his role ably. Compare any of these characters to the knockout showing by Ken Branagh last time as Lockhart and you come away woefully lacking. Director Alfonso Cuaron seems not to understand what makes these movies special; the whole point of Harry Potter is that it takes place in a world like ours but wonderfully removed from it. I was initially pleased that our time with the Dursleys was glossed over briefly (you can never leave Privet Drive too quickly, even in the books), but when the Weasley family was similarly relegated to the three minutes and out rule after dad gets his obligatory expository scene, I began to worry. We return to a Hogwarts that looks and feels different from the one in the first two films, none of the kids wear their uniforms for more than a moment or two, and even the balance between the main trio is upset. Ron is reduced

to a punchline, a moron who babbles brilliant every other scene but is given little else to do. Draco Malfoy, so wonderful last time around, is there only to sneer and be spit upon. Harry is given proper treatment, and Hermione is so boosted up that her name should be in the title too. But nearly everyone else is poorly handled (other than Dumbledore), and most of the movie I felt like I was watching a clumsy amateur attempt at making a Harry Potter film than an actual part of the franchise. There are moments of magic in this movie, though. When Harry soars on the hippogriff, Cuaron allows us to feel some of the magic that should have infused the whole film. Harrys realization at the end about his own abilities is a nice moment as well, and the very few scenes with Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) are all extremely well done. The first scene and only the first scene with the dementor is extremely effective. And so on; little bits of sunshine in an otherwise murky effort. I wont belabor you with the details of everything I thought done poorly (though the quidditch match was a disappointment of Lucasian propriotions), because I didnt think this was an awful film (my words above notwithstanding), I just felt it lacked that certain special warmth and attraction that every Potter book and movie before it had in abundance. Honestly, I feel like this film is a shining example of it wasnt broken and you didnt need to fix it. That doesnt make it a bad film, but it certainly pales in comparison to the first two. I would suggest a little more care but put into casting and staffing next time if Warners wants to make sure the franchise lasts out the full seven books. Another downer like this one (and the fourth book will be a troublesome adaptation in any case) and people might not want to come back. June 5, 2004 Postscript: Obviously in the eight years since this review was written, the Harry Potter films continued to be global phenomena and were smash hits both with the fans and the box office. I still, however, dont care for this film, and although I stopped following the film series after Goblet of Fire -- which I recall liking I did finish the books. Theres just something about this film that makes it to me the only piece of Harry Potter I encountered that I did not enjoy.