Many Hollywood types were surprised when young hotshot director Alfonso Cuarón accepted this job after the success of his racy hit, "Y Tu Mama Tambien." It was later revealed that J.K. Rowling herself was such a fan of Cuarón's filmed version of "A Little Princess" that he was actually *her* first choice to helm Harry's debut.
Chris Columbus ended up bringing the first two novels to the screen,
and some critics lamented that Columbus was a little too faithful to the books. There was much speculation that Cuarón would bring a more daring touch to "Azkaban." However, Columbus is still on hand as a producer, and this film doesn't veer too far away from the world he already created for the screen.
The one big difference between this film and the previous ones is that so much of the action takes place outside Hogwarts Castle, but that's as much a reflection of Rowling's book as any decisions made by Cuarón.
"The Prisoner of Azkaban" is a transitional chapter in Harry Potter's story, bridging the wonder and discovery of the first two books into the darker, more dangerous tone of those that
follow. Harry and his friends are now 13 years old and fully experiencing the emotional ups and downs of adolescence. Because of his tragic history and difficult living situation, Harry's feelings are a little more intense. Where a normal teenager may have the urge to slam a door in anger, the rage of a teen wizard can do some actual harm (which he demonstrates to comic effect).
Michael Gambon as
Once again, Harry arrives at Hogwarts under the vague threat of mortal danger. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a legendary murderer, has escaped from Azkaban prison, and we soon find out that the entire wizarding world expects that Harry will be his next victim. Searching for Black are the prison's creepy guards; ghostly creatures known as Dementors, who disturbingly take an interest in Harry.
In the course of the year, Harry learns more about his past -- and gets closer to the understanding the circumstances that led to the death of his parents, Lily and James.
Much of his new-found knowledge is provided by Professor Lupin, a new teacher with a dark secret, portrayed by David Thewlis. It turns out that like the dreaded Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Lupin
was a classmate of Lily and James Potter. Unlike Snape, he was their friend -- and he takes Harry under his wing.
The Harry Potter series seems to be employing the entire population of good British actors. In addition to Thewlis and Oldman (who are both wonderful), this film brings us Emma Thompson as a
flakey teacher of prognostication and Julie Christie as a witchy pub owner. Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Gambon's is a more robust and mischievous portrayal, and while he's very good, Harris' frailty brought
more poignancy to the role.
Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (as Harry, Hermione and Ron) are growing into very attractive young actors who can really carry the action, and director Cuarón gets the most out of them. This is good, but it's at the expense of veterans Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman. Rickman makes the best of his diminished presence by stealing every scene he is in with drippy malevolence.
Despite its flaws, Prisoner of Azkaban was responsible for some of the most satisfying casting
decisions in the series to date -- featuring Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, Emma Thompson
as Professor Trelawney, and David Thewlis as Professor Lupin.
Like the previous "Harry Potter" films, this one is rated PG for some frightening moments, so parents should evaluate whether their younger children can handle it or not. I felt this one
was a lot safer for the little ones because the dangers Harry and his friends face are more psychological: There is no face-off with the evil Voldemort (just wait until movie #4!) and nothing as graphically scary as the giant snake and spiders we saw in the last film. What you have here are the spooky Dementors and a werewolf; if your kids could handle "Scooby-Doo" without nightmares, they should be fine with "The Prisoner of Azkaban."
The movie feels a little more disjointed than the previous two, which may be due to the need to condense the action into 136 minutes (which is pretty long for a film these days, especially one targeted to families). Potter fans may miss some of the details revealed in the novel, and those who aren't familiar with the book may have a few moments when they have trouble following the story. My eight-year-old daughter, who enjoyed it very much, left with several questions about what was motivating Professor Lupin and Sirius Black. She wants to see it again... but in the meantime, she is actually reading the book. A movie that is entertaining *and* inspires your kids to read? There's nothing better than that.