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Harry Potter
And The Prisoner
Of Azkaban

Turning 13 can be so difficult. Hormones shoot off everywhere in ways that nobody can see. You start noticing members of the opposite sex as people that might be more than just friends. Adults annoy you most of the time. Psychotic killers break out of prison just to hunt you down. And worse, you may actually be 15 and playing two years younger.

Actually, none of those things turn out to be a problem in Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. In fact, they all add up to the best film of the series yet. Perhaps in some people's minds that's not hard to accomplish, but director Alfonso Cuaron, with the aid of a cast of wickedly young old pros, really has managed to make a movie that stands separate from the book's cult. Finally, somebody made a Harry Potter film that is more than just a recitation of your favorite literary moments, though that definitely had its charms.

The charm of The Prisoner of Azkaban lies in a movie that treats the fantastic as being mundane and somehow manages to make it all the more magical as a result.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), of course, has turned another year older, and his life among the Muggles has grown no easier. But from the very beginning of the movie, Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves give us a Harry who is an ordinary 13-year-old that just happens to have extraordinary abilities. Under his covers, a bright glow filters. Though a flashlight might be easier, Harry practices reading by wand light while trying to avoid being caught by his grumpy Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths). It's a moment we can all identify with, and from then on, this movie has us.

It's still filled with wonders, but they all get tied to something recognizable. Wizards get just as annoyed by car alarms as the rest of us. Though proud and otherworldly, a hippogryph will still defecate like any other steed. And a boy without parents clings desperately to a half-imagined memory of them, and be grateful for any information that will build upon it.

For the first time, the movie actually lays groundwork for dramatic irony to come. Let's be fair to Kloves, who has adapted all the scripts so far; the books have the same sudden lift in volume 3. But it's more than that. When new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) speaks wistfully of Harry's parents, take special note. Kloves gives him quite canny dialogue in describing them that will pay off in about three years.

Cuaron has also taken this opportunity and run with it, crafting a story with a sense of motif and sly acknowledgments of J.K. Rowling's influences. Catch the Wicked Witch of the West's cameo. It's an obvious one, but it leads to a bigger game of looking for the less obvious, rewarding repeated viewings in its richness.

The director plays with color and lighting in a way that previous helmer Chris Columbus did not, heavily utilizing the camera iris for his cuts. Unlike the previous efforts, Cuaron demonstrates a fluency in the language of film itself to tell his story. Keeping a steady flow (and making the shortest movie out of the longest book of the three), even incidental sequences drive us forward instead of just stopping to prove how cool everything is. (And yet they do, by the way, prove how cool everything is, rich in detail but simply so.) A scene might begin as a simple bit of students enjoying themselves, but pulls back to remind us of the film's tagline: "Something wicked this way comes."

In this case, the wicked would really be The Dementors, the strange guards at Azkaban that feed on souls. Under Cuaron's guidance, the designers have made them rather simple in appearance, depending upon lighting, music, and just shrewd shooting to make them utterly creepy and at times outright disturbing. There's not much to actually see, and Cuaron never forgets that our own imaginations are a powerful tool in his hands. Just because you can show something doesn't mean you should, and every special effect serves a purpose.

Once again, the production has a tremendous cast. The three kids have grown out of precociousness, but have charm that makes up for the moments when their characters aren't particularly likeable, especially Radcliffe. He's going to need it, because Harry has a lot of teenage angst ahead of him, and it could be a tricky line to walk.

Replacing the late Richard Harris, Michael Gambon makes an understandably different Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwart's Academy. A little more fey, perhaps, but his aging wizard is also a bit more Machiavellian, setting himself up with plausible deniability while pulling strings to make sure that justice is done, always.

Carrying the lion's share of adult screen time, Thewlis as Lupin provides the warmth that Dumbledore cannot give Harry, and their relationship gives the film a bittersweet edge that sneaks up on the audience.

The masterstroke of casting comes with Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, the mysterious escapee from Azkaban, the high security prison of the magic world. Though he doesn't actually appear until the last third, Oldman dominates the film with a simple recurring image of his screaming. Every time it appears, we have a new piece of information which makes its intent look different. And then the actor actually underplays a bit, revealing layers of pain. For a guy who has mastered chewing scenery, it's amazing to see him steal a show by actually being restrained in his performance.

If you haven't guessed by now, this is really one high-quality family film, though it may be a bit intense for younger kids. While the previous two movies have held up in a fun "fast forward" to your favorite parts on the DVD sort of way, The Prisoner Of Azkaban is one you have to take in its entirety, and will be glad you did.

As a side note, Warner is releasing this on IMAX screens, too, and having seen it in both regular projection and freakin' huge screen, if you have the IMAX option, go for it. The sound alone is worth it.



Derek McCaw

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