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Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Premise: The third film in the Harry Potter series. A charismatic new instructor (David Thewlis) begins teaching at Hogwarts and a murderer (Gary Oldman) with ties to Harry Potter escapes from Azkaban prison.
What Works: In ongoing film franchises, third chapters tend to be defining moments that determine the course of the rest of a series. Third installments that continue to be more of the same, such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon or Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, seal the franchise’s style and effectively lock up its creative possibilities. This often leads to gimmicks, such as the addition of Richard Pryor to the cast of Superman III or the 3-D effects of Friday the 13th Part III. But third chapters like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors or Escape from the Planet of the Apes take their respective series’ in new directions, imbuing the franchise with new creative life, and sometimes saving them in the process. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is such a film. Although its characters and settings are consistent with the two previous films, director Alfonso Cuarón brings a unique visual style to this picture. Picking up on the gothic undertones of the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban uses creative lighting and camera techniques that make effective use of darkness and shadow. Day light scenes are tempered by cool, grey tones and the creatures have a wildness and a danger to them that makes the fantastical world credible. These visual flourishes match the film’s broader scope and The Prisoner of Azkaban opens and deepens the Harry Potter mythology, making it richer and more complicated. The mystery of this film breaks through the domestic and scholastic barriers that defined the first two films, broadening the story by connecting the inner workings of the school to social and political structures on the fantasy world. Even though the film does not spend much time in those new environments, The Prisoner of Azkaban does make that canvas bigger, which future films in the series are able to build upon.

What Doesn’t: Prisoner of Azkaban is far from perfect. Although it has a more mature texture, the plotting of this film is as spotty as the previous Harry Potter adventures. Gary Oldman plays the mysterious Sirius Black and Oldman is underused in the film. The mystery of Sirius Black and his true allegiance is built on misinformation on Harry’s part and there is not much buildup to the confrontation and reversal that occurs in the climax. The secret of David Thewlis’ character is really a red herring and when it comes to bear on the story it plays like a contrivance to get the filmmakers out of a narrative corner.
DVD extras: The two-disc edition includes deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, an image gallery, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a good film, despite some of its narrative flaws. The creative style and the expansion of the Harry Potter universe pushes the franchise into new and exciting places that makes this a new beginning for the series.  

Episode: #349 (July 24, 2011)