Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review
And so the Harry Potter saga continues. Though this third outing for J.K. Rowling’s colourful medley of wizard folk is as frivolous and naïve as its two predecessors it nonetheless manages to be the most lean and persuasive adaptation of her work yet. The triumvirate of Harry, Ron and Hermione face their most perilous obstacles yet as they brave the wizard-world equivalent of a serial killer, a multitude of soul sucking wraiths and, most fearfully of all, the onset of puberty. For the first time in the Harry Potter universe, we have been blessed with an actual adaptation rather than a flabby page for page screen translation and though a few corners have been discreetly clipped, the result is a more digestible work, underpinned by a brooding sense of inexorable danger and clandestine mystery.
Our increasingly sullen hero (Daniel Radcliffe) begins the story, as always, incarcerated in the suburban hell of Privet Drive, a middle-class firmament for uptight twits such as his vile aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), belligerent Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and self-absorbed cousin Dudley. When his almost incomparably horrible Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) arrives and begins to goad and belittle him, Harry is quick to comically avenge his wounded pride with a cruel but visually remarkable spell. Fleeing his ‘home’ and fearing that Hogwarts – his wizard school – will expel him for using magic in inappropriate (i.e. non-scholastic) circumstances, Harry is more than a little perplexed when he's let off entirely scot-free. Such worries are soon quelled by the arrival of his two best friends: dependable Ron Weasley and prissy Hermione Granger. However slight consternation is caused when Harry is informed by Mr. Weasley that escaped killer Sirius Black is doggedly (readers of the novels please excuse the pun) hunting for him, though Mr. Weasley genially counsels Harry to avoid purposefully searching for Black – to which Harry offers the rather pertinent rejoinder “Why would I want to go looking for someone who’s trying to kill me?”. Needless to say, things soon get very complicated…
After his directing of the sexually permissive Y Tu Mamá También, I wonder if the Warner Bros. executives fretted about whether Alfonso Cuarón would be a prudent choice to helm the latest entry into the Harry Potter canon. Cuarón has professed an interest in exploring the dynamics of the 'triangular relationship' in his films, but his gleefully sordid look at a ménage a trois between two horny adolescents and the archetypal ‘older woman’ in Y Tu Mamá También didn’t necessarily denote a suitability for portraying the relationship between two chaste teenage boys and their geeky know-it-all girlfriend. Of course, Cuarón has proved to be more than up to the challenge, imbuing the film with an energy lacked by its predecessors and tackling the characters’ adolescence with the requisite delicacy for a family film – though I could have sworn there were a few knowing visual allusions to burgeoning adolescent sexuality.
It was with interest that I noticed that the unofficial embargo on the press from critiquing the performances of the three lead actors appears to have been at least partially lifted for the third film. For the first pair of films such an examination of these children’s acting capabilities would have been both unwarranted and unfair, since one can expect only so much panache from persons so young. There was also a greater balance of screen-time between the pupils and the theatrically accomplished teaching faculty, which often enabled the young actor’s occasional gaucheness to be overlooked. Now however, the scales have been irreversibly tipped as the trio careen towards adulthood, giving performances that range from the solid to the exceptional. Harry Potter himself has always been the victim of rather wan characterisation in Rowling’s books, so Radcliffe’s slight uncertainty and frequent inexpressiveness don’t do any damage and he unquestionably looks the part – or at the very least, looks akin to the Harry Potter I envisaged. If Daniel Radcliffe fails to sufficiently emote, then Rupert Grint slightly overdoes it, his elastic facial expressions occasionally seeming a little contrived, though to Grint’s credit he portrays Ron with an earthy conviction and is mostly credible in the role. But it’s Ms. Emma Watson who deserves the lion’s share of the honours for her bravura performance as Hermione. After being somewhat marginalised in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione returns to a deservedly prominent position, played with impressive precision and sass by Ms. Watson, outstripping her young co-stars and affirming her position as the most interesting of the three characters (though wasn’t Hermione intended to be a buck-toothed nerd in the novels, rather than a cute Londoner?).
The Harry Potter franchise looks set to run a lucrative course, but fortunately, if Azkaban is anything to go by, it need not be an artistically unprofitable one.
The 2.40:1 transfer is anamorphic and for the most part satisfactory. This Harry Potter instalment has a considerably grimier colour palette than its predecessors, and though the picture is clear it lacks the splendorous colour of the first two films’ transfers. The image is grainier than expected but it handles the deep blacks nicely and the grittiness of the film’s appearance is only to be expected.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a little more flat than I expected, less sonically dramatic but more subtle in its distribution, making proficient use of the surrounds and generally providing a competent audio presentation of the film.
The first disc yields only three trailers for the Harry Potter films, the remainder of the extra material being located on the second disc. The second disc – replete with ‘marauder’s map’ style menu – is divided into five sections: Divination Class, Defence against the Dark arts, the Great Hall, Hogwarts grounds and Tour Honeydukes.
“Divination Class” includes five vaguely interesting deleted scenes, an 11 minute featurette with Cuarón and Rowling entitled ‘Creating the Vision’ that discusses – in brief – the translation from page to screen, Rowling giving the occasional menacing smile and Cuarón’s thick accent frequently making his diction nigh on incomprehensible. There are a mass of interviews with the cast and crew (each of which last about five minutes), all of which feature the depressingly unfunny Johnny Vaughn and the occasional bit of enjoyable anecdote – marriage proposals to cast members by girls dressed only in towels in freezing cold New York for example – or unintentional candour about their own egos (the boy who plays Dudley gripes – barely jokingly – that he wants people to recognise him in the streets more often).
The rest of the disc is comparatively lightweight, being mostly comprised of ‘fun’ interactive games. These gaming delights include ‘Catch Scabbers’, ‘The Quest of Sir Cadogan’, along with two self-guided tours of Honeydukes and Lupin’s classroom. ‘Weightier’ stuff is provided by ‘Conjuring a scene’ – a look at the film’s special effects – and ‘Care of Magical creatures, which delves into the pains taken make the makeup convincing. All in all, a solid if unspectacular package
Breathing new life into a fantasy world at risk of staling, the latest Harry Potter installment demonstrates the kind of potential that hopefully will be fully tapped by the series's subsequent directors. The disc is competent, though ideally a more comprehensive edition will be released at a later date, since this version somewhat skimps on providing detailed information about the film's producton.