Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Frightening Moments, Creature Violence and mild Language
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Written by: Steve Kloves
(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN by J.K. Rowling)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson & Tom Felton
PRISONER OF AZKABAN marked a distinct shift in HARRY POTTER from family friendly entertainment to mature fantasy-adventures. Ironically enough, PRISONER is the best film in the franchise and had the lowest box office return. Director Alfonso Cuaron replaced Chris Columbus in the director’s chair and the running time was considerably shorter than previous installments, but PRISONER OF AZKABAN also benefits from a smart script, solid performances, a refreshingly serious tone, and better filmmaking all-around.
Harry’s third year at Hogwarts has begun with him accidentally blowing up his aunt, being quickly pardoned by the Minister of Magic and discovering that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a dangerous killer, has escaped from Azkaban prison. Because Sirius has his murderous eye on Harry, Hogwarts has undergone extra security measures in the form of soul-sucking creatures called Dementors. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) find themselves beset with new classes, difficult challenges, and buried secrets. Forming a friendship with newly appointed Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), Harry discovers details about his father’s past and Sirius Black begins to enact a long-awaited plan of revenge…but things aren’t as they seem.
PRISONER OF AZKABAN is very different from the other installments in the series, because Voldemort isn’t the main antagonist, which allows for a more confined story as Harry makes new friends and discovers new enemies. The focus is strongly on characters and this third film is likely the most emotional entry as a result. The threat of Sirius Black on the horizon builds a solid sense of escalating suspense and there are interesting subplots that brilliantly tie into the main story to keep the viewer hooked the whole way through. The final hour packs enough twists, turns and surprising revelations to make your head spin. These become even more rewarding upon repeat viewings and you know what clues to look for.
Performances have drastically improved over the previous two installments. Daniel Radcliffe stretches a lot of emotional muscles, which make for genuine moments of joy, anger and heartbreak. Rupert Grint is above simply being comic relief and transforms Ron into a believable best friend. Emma Watson’s Hermione seemingly existed for exposition and extra emotional stakes in the first two films, but she adds a ton to the proceedings this time around. Alan Rickman’s Snape is given plenty of room to develop, while Hagrid has a great subplot as well. Michael Gambon replaced the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore and puts a new spin on the character. Though he has a noticeably changed Irish accent, Gambon’s Dumbledore is fantastic and serves as my preferred interpretation of the two in the series.
New additions to the ever-expanding cast of characters include: Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Sybill Trelawney, and a certain other person who I won’t mention by name. The titular prisoner of Azkaban, played by Gary Oldman, is one of the strongest characters in the entire series. I don’t want to go into specifics, for fear of spoilers, but he’s a fascinating figure that delivers hugely impactful scenes. David Thewlis plays Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin and provides one of the best story arcs in the film, helping Harry cope with his fear of Dementors. Emma Thompson delivers quirky comic relief as hack Divinations Professor Trelawney, while Timothy Spall is perfectly cast as a certain character.
The film’s tone is darker and its pacing considerably quicker than STONE or CHAMBER. Director Alfonso Cuaron had a careful eye for artistic touches. Creative scene transitions make the world of Hogwarts feel expansive and fleshed out. Smaller scenes like a visit to Hogsmeade (a village outside of Hogwarts), frequent cuts to the Whomping Willow, and interesting class sessions make for more natural (dare I say, realistic) footing to this fantastical story. The special effects hold up perfectly (whereas STONE and CHAMBER have both shakily aged in this department). The Dementors are legitimately frightening, while a winged Hippogriff brings one spectacular sequence. It should be noted that small details laid carefully throughout come back in big ways too.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is all-around fantastic! The complex story plays out masterfully and rewards viewers upon repeat viewings. This mature vision of HARRY POTTER shifted the series into bold new territory and stood out from the pack. It also serves as a faithful adaptation, capturing all the important details of the book and translating the magic from the page to screen. Of all eight HARRY POTTER films, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is the best of the series!