Ealasaid/ June 7, 2004/ Movie Reviews and Features, Writing

Originally written for The Milpitas Post
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis
Rated: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.
Parental Notes: although particularly young children will find some of the sequences far too intense, older children and preteens will doubtless enjoy the film. Be sure to warn your kids that this film is very different from the book, though, or they might be disappointed by the changes from page to screen.

Harry Potter is growing up. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is a darker, moodier film than the first two in the series, just as the book it’s based on is darker than the earlier ones. Although some of the changes made between page and screen will doubtless have die-hard Potter fans screaming, overall the film stays true to the basic story of the novel.

As usual, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is in danger. Madman wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the wizarding prison, Azkaban, and of course he’s coming after our hero. Harry’s relationship with Black and the truth about Black’s past are the core of the film. There are other subplots, of course, including the mysterious ability of Harry’s pal Hermione (Emma Watson) to be in two classes at once and the fate of Buckbeak, a gorgeous half horse, half eagle creature called a hippogriff.

There’s plenty going on here, and doubtless those who haven’t read the book will be a trifle confused. Anyone who hasn’t at least seen the previous two films probably won’t understand a thing – director Cuaron assumes that his audience is very familiar with the universe of the Potter stories and doesn’t even bring us up to speed with a summary. Considering how much story there is to deal with, this is hardly surprising. Anything not directly relevant to the plot has been cut, and the barebones storytelling makes this a fast-paced ride of a film.

One of the best things about “Prisoner of Azkaban” is that the actors playing the trio of heroes are really starting to come into their abilities. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint are natural in front of the camera, and Grint in particular has finally moved beyond making faces to actual acting. It’s not easy to be a child actor surrounded by the kind of adult greats who fill out the secondary roles in the film (Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, and more) but the youngsters are definitely coming along well.

Another bonus is Cuaron’s superb visual sense. The lighting of the film reflects its mood and tone, there is plenty of visual symbolism scattered through the film, and the special effects sequences are stunning. Wisely, Cuaron saves the effects for when they’re really needed, so the sight of Harry flying through the clouds on his broomstick and the stunningly graceful hippogriff are breathtaking rather that just another bit of CGI. Although Cuaron has moved a few locations around and made some bits of Hogwarts look different than in the previous films, overall he’s put together a gorgeous movie.

Of course, there’s sure to be plenty of complaining that the film isn’t as good as the book. It’s true. “Prisoner of Azkaban” is one of the strongest books in the series (in fact, it’s this humble reviewer’s favorite Potter book to date) and much of what makes the book great is left out of the film. Cuaron did the best he could with an unenviable task: reduce a book of hundreds of pages to just over two hours of film. It’s easy to complain about his cuts but at the same time, those with an eye for storytelling on film can see why he cut what he did. Cuaron wasn’t out to make a slavish reproduction of the text, he wanted to tell the story, and that meant some things had to go.

The only cut that is surprising is an explanation of the relationship between Sirius Black, Prof. Lupin (David Thewlis), Harry’s father, and Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall). That web of relationships and how it changes is vital to the story, and most of it just isn’t there in the film. Otherwise, Cuaron’s cuts may disappoint fans but they serve the telling of the story.

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is a strong film, darker and more lyrical than the previous Potter movies and in many ways better. Hardcore fans of the book will need to go in knowing that it’s really, really different in spots, but if they can let go of the urge to nitpick, they’ll likely be impressed. It’s a shame that Cuaron won’t be directing the next film — “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is an adapter’s nightmare, and could use his smooth touch.

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