Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/5/04 w/ Additional Edits.
When British novelist J.K. Rowling became a huge success with her children's story on the boy-wizard Harry Potter, Warner Brothers knew that a film franchise was born. After consulting with Rowling to turn her books into movies, Warner Brothers finally got a franchise that is likely to be successful. With family film director Chris Columbus on board along with an elite group of Britain's finest actors and young newcomers including Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role as the Boy Who Lived. In 2001, the first film Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone opened to huge box office success, as did its sequel, Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets the following year, both released on the holidays. While both films grossed huge amount of box office receipts and won some acclaim from critics and fans of the books, many wondered how will the next film for The Prisoner of Azkaban will be presented.
While Chris Columbus did a fine job with the first two films, some felt he was too faithful to the first two books and didn't do enough to make them standout as films. With the fifth book Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix looming for a June 2003 release, Columbus felt tired and didn't want to direct the third film leaving only to stay on his role as producer. Immediately, Warner Brothers scrambled on not just expanding the franchise's cast while finding a replacement for the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, but also finding a new director.
J.K. Rowling made a radical suggestion in choosing the controversial but acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron, whose previous credits had included 1991's Solo con Tu Pareja, 1995's A Little Princess, and the 1998 modern adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectation, was indeed a controversial choice his 2001 masterpiece Y Tu Mama Tambien was a raunchy, extreme sex film that pushed the limits of sexual content. Rowling chose Cuaron not for that film but more for A Little Princess because of his visual style and his approach to filmmaking. Cuaron at first wasn't sure if he wanted to do it but after reading the screenplay by Steve Kloves (who also wrote the scripts for the first two films), Cuaron joined the franchise.
Whereas the previous two films really were used to introduce Harry Potter, his classmates, teachers, and his cruel family, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban is where the Harry Potter story really begins. After thwarting his parents' murderer Lord Voldemort twice in the first two, Harry Potter becomes a teenager and is forced to new challenges and emotions. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry returns to the wizard school of Hogwarts where he is placed under guard by soul-sucking hooded creatures called dementors where a convict named Sirius Black has escaped the treacherous Azkaban prison and is rumored to come after Harry Potter. Amidst the guarded school, Harry learns more about his parents and Black along with his own powers while growing up with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
Directed by Cuaron with the adapted screenplay by Steve Kloves, the film was considered to be the most radical of the franchise. Where Columbus is more of an entertaining storyteller, Cuaron is more of the auteur who wants to make changes. Challenge actors and recreate sets to give a more livelier feel to the world of Harry Potter and separate itself from the books. With the young cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Tom Felton returning along with veterans like Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Maggie Smith, David Bradley, Robert Hardy, Ron Griffiths, and Fiona Shaw from the previous films. Joining the franchise for the new film are Gary Oldman, Pam Ferris, David Thewlis, Dawn French, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson, Julie Christie, and Michael Gambon replacing the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore. The resulting film isn't just the best film of the series but clearly raises the bar for the films ahead in the years to come.
For Harry Potter, summer has never been a fine time since he's forced to live at home with his Muggle relatives the Dursleys. This year, it gets worse when his Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) invited his sister Marge (Pam Ferris) to stay for a week with Harry's Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Marge loves to criticize Harry and his behavior is at a crucial point since he needed a permission slip from school to be signed by his uncle. Unfortunately, Marge's comments on Harry's parents pushed him too far where he had her blown up into a balloon and he leaves the Dursley home immediately. Knowing that he wasn't supposed to do magic outside of his school Hogwarts, he was ready to make his escape till he came across a huge dog. The dog disappeared when the Knight Bus arrived to pick him up where he read the Daily Prophet about a convicted murder named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped Azkaban prison.
Upon his arrival at the Leaky Cauldron, the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) tells him that Harry won't be in trouble since he is supposed to be watched. The next day, Harry sees his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) arguing over her new cat Crookshanks who had been going after his rat Scabbers. Harry meets the rest of the Weasley clan that included little sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), elder brother/new Head Boy Percy (Chris Rankin), mischevious twins Fred & George (James & Oliver Phelps), mother Molly (Julie Walters) and father Arthur (Mark Williams) who tells Harry about Sirius Black's escape, who is supposedly coming after Harry in order to resurrect the ailing Lord Voldemort.
Harry and the gang leave on the train to Hogwarts where they sit in an empty compartment with a sleeping man who turns out to be their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). On the way to Hogwarts, the train stops where everything begins to freeze and Harry comes across a black-hooded creature called a dementor, that was sucking the soul out of Harry. Lupin stops it and upon their arrival, Harry and his classmates learn that the school's headmaster Professor Dumbledore isn't happy with the dementors while announcing the new arrivals of Lupin and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) taking over as the new teacher for Care of Magical Creatures. Hagrid's first class starts off well until Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) starts to get himself injured after insulting a hippogriff named Buckbeak. Yet, Harry had other problems when he and classmates attended their first Divinations class with Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson who believes that Harry has a death omen around him.
With the news of Sirius Black's sightings looming all over Hogwarts, Harry and his classmates go to their first Dark Arts lesson with Lupin. Lupin teaches the students how to repel boggarts, a manifestation of things people fear. For Harry's classmate Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), his greatest fear was Potions master Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) in which, Neville made boggart Snape dress up like his grandmother with many other students conquering their fears but Harry didn't get his chance to fight one as Lupin feared that it would manifest into Lord Voldemort. Harry befriends Lupin, who knew Harry's parents as he used to go to school with them which brings comfort to Harry. Even as he was unable to visit the Hogsmeade village because he never got his permission slip signed.
During a fest, a break-in occurred when the Fat Lady (Dawn French) painting was in shreds where Dumbledore and caretaker Filch (David Bradley) learned that Sirius Black was in the castle. The students were forced to sleep in the Great Hall where Snape suspects that someone in the school brought Black into the castle. Snape takes over for an ailing Lupin where he gives them a lesson about werewolves. Yet, Harry has bigger problems during his Quidditch match where Dementors flew around him making Dumbledore extremely upset that they were on Hogwarts grounds. Lupin decides to teach Harry how to battle Dementors as he is still weary from his illness. With Harry desperate to go to Hogsmeade, Fred and George give Harry the Marauder's Map. A secret map of Hogwarts that includes secret passages to various place including Hogsmeade. During his secret visit, he meets with Ron and Hermione while listening to a secret conversation from Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Madam Rosmerta (Julie Christie), and Fudge about Sirius Black as he was revealed to be Harry's godfather. For Harry, it is heartbreaking news as he vows to confront Black.
With Harry learning how to defend himself against Dementors from Lupin, Harry also tries to ease the tension between Ron and Hermione over Scabbers' sudden disappearance. When they heard that Buckbeak is to be killed over what happened to Draco, the trio are unsure what to do. Then one night when Harry is checking the map for another sighting of Black, he suddenly sees a dot for a man named Peter Pettigrew. A man who was also a friend of the Potters who was supposedly killed by Black along with 12 other people with a single curse. Harry would find a link about Pettigrew as he finally confronts Black where some truths are uncovered about what really happened as Snape and Lupin would be involved with the confrontation.
While most film adaptations of books tend to have flaws and omit certain scenes in order to tighten story. The Prisoner of Azkaban clearly has a tighter and more complex story despite its flaws in the script. While fans of the book will be upset over what was cut in the story along with back story on objects, such as the Marauder's Map. Screenwriter Steve Kloves creates a more streamlined approach to the story in focusing on Harry, his friendship, and his newfound friendship to Professor Lupin over his connection with Harry's late parents. Kloves also makes changes to some of the setting and characterization. Notably Dumbledore, who was once this more restrained, regal kind of a character as he's changed into a more eccentric individual.
While Kloves deserves credit for tightening the story into script, the real credit for the film's brilliance clearly goes to Alfonso Cuaron. While Chris Columbus has a directing style that is more safe and goes by-the-book. Cuaron is a more of a stylistic director who works from a much broader canvas. Some have criticized Columbus for being a bit glossy but with Cuaron, he brings all of the arty elements of his previous films and puts into a mainstream family film where it achieves not just for a mass audience but also serious art film fans. Cuaron's use of wide-camera angle shots, close-ups, and some hand-held camera work really shows Cuaron taking on a different approach to the filmmaking than other directors of the series would've done. On directing the actors, there's definitely a more relaxed tone where the actors start to come into their own and give a bit of their personalities. The result isn't just a mesmerizing film that is entertaining and engaging but also shows what can be to a family film with elements of fantasy while broadening to appeal to more serious filmgoers. Even as the film opens with a veiled adult joke about Harry playing with his wand.
If Cuaron's wandering, abstract directing style gives the film an edge that raises the bar for the franchise. Helping him on the visual department is cinematographer Michael Seresin (noted for his work with Alan Parker) who really steps up to the plate with his bleak, colorful photography. While previous cinematographers like John Seale and Roger Pratt have done fine work, Seresin really aims for a darker look to the film with help from production designer Stuart Craig who gives Hogwarts a bigger look with its clock tower and bridge.
Plus, the art direction by Alan Gilmore is stepped a notch for giving Hogwarts and Hogsmeade a more contemporary look with a tone that kids could relate to. Even the costume design by Jany Temime is given new life where the school kids and even Professor Lupin and Dumbledore are given looser clothing that shows the new freedom the film has. Helping Cuaron and Seresin on the visual effects were supervisors Tim Burke and Steve Hamilton that really give the effects a livelier look with some fun and scary moments. Notably the look of the dementors that really lived up to its imagination for readers along with the Monster Book of Monsters and the creature of Buckbeak. Even the film score by John Williams is given new dimension not just adding a playful look to the film but also intensify in the action scenes while dabbles in melancholia in the more emotionally-driven scenes.
Then there's the film's amazing cast of elite actors where some greats like Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths, Mark Williams Fiona Shaw, Timothy Spall, David Bradley, and Julie Christie are well used in their small roles. Even the smaller performances of its younger actors like Matthew Lewis, and the Phelps twins were fun to watch while Maggie Smith and Robert Hardy were given time to deliver masterful performances in their respective roles. Pam Ferris' small screen time as Aunt Marge is hilarious to watch while Absolutely Fabulous TV-star Dawn French brings some humor as the Fat Lady with a funny opera scene.
While it's obvious that the regality that the late Richard Harris left for Dumbledore will never be replaced, Michael Gambon makes up that loss by being a more mischievous and off-the-wall to Dumbledore where he's both funny and carries a prestige presence. Alan Rickman continues to be amazing as Professor Snape with his sneering look towards Harry while we get to know him more and his hatred towards Harry's father. Robbie Coltrane also shines in the role of Hagrid where he brings a likeability and charm to his role while we root for him when Buckbeak is in trouble. Tom Felton also shines as Draco Malfoy where we finally see him gets what he deserves when Hermione clearly had enough.
Of the new actors added to the franchise, David Thewlis is amazing as Professor Lupin. He brings a compassionate, complex performance as a teacher who is loved by most students while in his scenes with Daniel Radcliffe, brings a mentor-like tone to his role while holding a dark secret. While Gary Oldman is only seen in pictures early in the film till we finally see him in the final act, Oldman brings another classic performance as the troubled Sirius Black. Known for playing villains and Sid Vicious to film fans, Oldman brings an eerie presence to the franchise and a provocative nature that is wonderful to watch. Emma Thompson is clearly the film's most hilarious performance as Professor Trelawney. Thompson, mostly known for period and drama films, returns to her roots as a comedic actress by bringing an over-the-top performance that is clearly gets funnier every time she makes a prediction.
Rupert Grint, who always served as the comic backbone for the character of Ron really gets to shine more dramatically while his comedic skills of sarcasm are heightened to perfect timing. Emma Watson really shines as Hermione by being a bit looser and more rebellious while using her brains to get Harry and Ron out of situations while finally standing up to Malfoy. Grint and Watson even have a strange but fun chemistry that is enjoyable to watch as they develop this love/hate relationship. Daniel Radcliffe clearly delivers his best performance to date in the title role of Harry Potter. We see him at first feeling a bit confident until the dementors arrive and we even root for him when he wants to fight them. Radcliffe delivers his best performance in the more emotionally intense scenes and clearly steps up to the plate when acting with the likes of Oldman, Thewlis, Rickman, Gambon, and Smith.
While it may not live up to the complexity of the book, Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban is clearly the best film of the Harry Potter franchise, so far. With a great cast, look, tone, story, score, and format, Cuaron raises the bar of what could be done for a fantasy film that appeals to young audiences. Fans of the Potter books and films will indeed find The Prisoner of Azkaban the best film of the series and truly lives up to the book's spirit while fans of Alfonso Cuaron will be pleased with the way he handled himself in a mainstream franchise. If there's one blockbuster film that will satisfy blockbuster moviegoers and more cinematic filmgoers, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban is the film to see
Alfonso Cuaron Files: Solo Con tu Pareja - A Little Princess (1995 film) - Great Expectations (1998 film) - Y Tu Mama Tambien - Children of Men - Gravity - Roma (2018 film) - The Auteurs #11: Alfonso Cuaron
Harry Potter Reviews: The Novels: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone - Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets - Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban - Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire - Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix - Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince - Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows
The Films: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone - Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets - Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire - Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix - Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince - Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 - Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2
Related: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Related: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
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