The third film adaptation of the "Harry Potter" films had helming duties change hands from Chris Columbus to "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Great Expectations" director Alfonso Cuaron, prompting fans of the series to wonder exactly how much the tone would change. Thankfully, Cuaron has provided a fresh perspective to the series, changing the atmosphere of the film towards a more ominous feel. It's not a film without flaws, however.
The picture has Harry once again living with his evil aunt and uncle, finally losing his temper and using magic where he's not allowed once another aunt insults Harry's mother and father over dinner. After refusing to turn her back after she's floated off, Harry makes a break for it and leaves for good. Harry hops on an oddball bus and ends up in London, once again paired up with pals Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). Harry has found out that a murderer named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison and that he could be in danger.
Harry is forgiven for what he did to his aunt and finds his way back to Hogwart's, but not before he's confronted by one of the Dementors - dark beings from the prison who are searching for Black - on the train ride in. When Harry and the rest of the students arrive, they find that the Dementors have taken up posts around the school while Black is on the loose, and that the creatures do not exactly stop to figure out the difference between who they're after and who's merely gotten in the way. There's also some other sub-mysteries about, such as a couple of new professors who seem suspicious (David Thewlis and Emma Watson) and the fact that Hermione seems to be in more than one place at once.
I am one of the few who have not read the "Potter" books, but have enjoyed the films. Cuaron and writer Steve Kloves apparently took liberties with the third book and, while that is to be respected, the third film also feels a tad choppy in terms of narrative and character development at times. I also found the final moments a tad unsatisfying after the build up of the past two+ hours.
While I was a little underwhelmed with the story, the look and feel of the third film goes a pretty strong way towards making up for it. Cuaron and cinematographer Michael Seresin ("Angela's Ashes") go for a considerably more subdued palette that I found more visually interesting and dynamic than the rather golden tones of the first two films. While Hogwarts seemed warm and rich in the first two films, it looks almost intimidating here. Even the brief Quiddich game this time around takes place in a pretty nasty thunderstorm. Visual effects, which are done by ILM and others.
However, where the second film doesn't have too much humor, there are some funny moments, such as when an invisible Harry comes to the rescue of Ron and Hermione when Harry's enemy Draco comes upon the two in the snowy woods. Some of the key members of the crew, such as ace production designer Stuart Craig ("English Patient"), set decorator Stephanie McMillan and others return here, despite the change in directors.
The acting is, once again, excellent. The main trio's weakest link is still lead Daniel Radcliffe as Potter, although he's noticably improved over the prior two films. Supporting players include no less than Alan Rickman (once again a highlight), David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Gary Oldman, among others.
Overall, the third "Harry Potter" film entertained me, but didn't engage me quite as much as the other films in terms of story. However, the acting is once again terrific and the atmosphere, tone and overall look of the film are distinctly more interesting and involving than before.
VIDEO: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is presented by Warner Brothers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. With the majority of the supplements housed on the second DVD, the presentation largely has the first disc's space to itself. The result is a presentation that, while not flawless, is largely outstanding. Sharpness and defintion are first-rate, as the picture looked exceptionally crisp and clear throughout, revealing a great level of detail. The image also boasted superb depth and a very "film-like" appearance.
However, some concerns were occasionally noted. Light edge enhancement was spotted in a couple of the outdoor sequences, while a little bit of shimmer was also spotted. Aside from those minor issues, the picture looked crisp and clear - no pixelation was noticed, nor were any print flaws.
SOUND: "Prisoner of Azkaban" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 by Warner Brothers. The film's soundtrack is largely very fine, although maybe slightly less aggressive than I'd expected. The main focus is often John Williams' superlative score, which matches the darker tone of the third film marvelously. The score is wonderfully spread across the front soundstage and reinforced quite solidly by the rears. The surrounds also do kick in for some sound effects, although not consistently. While the rear speakers offer a satisfying amount of information, I would have liked to have heard them offer a bit more detail (and subtle detail) than I felt they did.
Sound quality really lifted the overall presentation up. Sound effects seemed dynamic, punchy and well-recorded. The soundtrack overall seemed potent and full, which a richness, range and clarity that delighted. The score sounded especially stellar, coming through with pin-drop clarity and enveloping the viewer quite well. Dialogue also seemed crisp and clean, with no problems.
EXTRAS: Although I thought the switch in directors may lead to a different selection of supplements with the third film, the extras section once again is loaded with features largely targeted towards kids. A commentary with the actors or producers next time around would certainly be nice, and this kind of film is certainly crying out for a large-scale, hour-long documentary following the production. The first disc's supplements are only the trailers for the three "Harry Potter" films.
The first supplement on the second disc is a series of deleted sequences, which are unfinished (missing effects, etc.) While I was hoping for a lot more character development and maybe some fun tidbits, there are only 5 sequences here, the majority of which are slight extensions. A longer scene detailing the "security problem" at Hogwarts is of some interest, though. "Creating the Vision" is an 11-minute promotional piece that offers interviews with author J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers. "Head to Shrunken Head" has the Shrunken Head character from the bus interviewing the cast/crew.
"Magic You May Have Missed" is an interactive quiz regarding scenes from the movie. In the same section is an interactive tour of Professor Lupin's classroom. There's also an interactive tour of the candy shop in the film. "Conjuring a Scene" talks about the creation of make-up and visual effects in the film, such as the creation of Buckbeak and the Dementors. "Care of Magical Creatures" visits with the animal trainer who cares for the animals on-set.
Viewers also get a video game preview, computer DVD-ROM features, "Choir Practice" sing-along and the interactive games "Catch Scabbers!" and "The Quest of Sir Cadogan".
Final Thoughts: The atmosphere and tone of "Prisoner of Azkaban" is more mysterious and captivating than the prior films, but I wasn't as interested in the story, which could have been filled out a little more. Overall though, the third "Potter" does entertain with a fine mix of mystery and magic. Warner Brothers has produced a fine DVD, as well - while the supplements didn't inform too much (they weren't targeted towards me, either), audio/video quality is very good. Recommended.
The Film ***
Image copywright Warner Brothers 2004.