Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (hereafter called Azkaban) is the first Harry Potter film not directed by Home Alone helmer Chris Columbus. This time out Alfonso Cuarón called the shots, fresh off the beyond-R-Rated Y tu mamá también. He may seem like an odd choice to film a “veddy-British” and family-friendly PG-rated movie like this, until you recall that he also helmed the G-Rated A Little Princess.
Azkaban clearly has a much differently sensibility from the warmer, more friendly tone of the first two HP films. There is a more foreboding tone that suggest that Cuarón had a better handle on the darker elements of J.K. Rowling’s novels.
The story, as with the previous films, begins another school year at Hogwarts. And, as usual, Harry has to escape from his foster family to get back to the school. In the Christopher Columbus films, I always found this part to be overlong and unnecessarily slapstick. In Azkaban, it’s still slapstick but mercifully short as Cuarón moves the movie along quickly to the real story.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to Hogwarts and reunites with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) just as a crisis has erupted. A former professor turned convicted murderer, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from prison and the rumor is that he means to finish the job he helped start with the murder of Harry’s parents. Other than Ron and Hemer—, er, Herem—, um, the cute girl, Harry’s only ally is Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), an old friend of Harry’s parents.
Most of the other regulars are back with the obvious exception of the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore. Michael Gambon steps into the role and acquits himself admirably, although it’s hard not to miss the presence that an iconic figure like Harris brings to the movie. Maggie Smith is back as Professor McGonagall, as is Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and Alan Rickman as Snape. Tom Felton also returns as Harry’s chief tormentor, Cary Elwes‘ Mini-Me clone, Malfoy.
The production design itself is almost the price of admission, vividly bringing to life the atmosphere of pre-teen wish fulfillment and supernatural menace that are so much a part of the appeal of Rowling’s books. The storyline may be a little too complex for my forty-year-old brain but that’s probably a product of cramming Rowling’s massive books into a two-hour movie.
Of course, the success of these films rides on the shoulders of its three young stars and the casting director of the original film has to be credited for hitting three out of the park from the start. As individual actors, they are able beyond their years, never precious or obvious, and as a team, the chemistry is spot-on (although after three films I still can’t spell or pronounce Herm… the girl’s name, but that’s J.K. Rowling’s fault).
In short, Azkaban is the best of the three Potter films so far and a worthwhile addition to any DVD collections.