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Goodbye, Columbus


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2004

Rating: 4.1



Posted: June 7, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Anyone who's survived it won't argue the point: Adolescence is a scary time. And the strange growth spurts and blossoming sexual awareness aren't the half of it. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of it all is the encroaching, implacable sense that your capacity for carefree days is rapidly diminishing, until one day your innocence has been shed like a snake's skin, tucked away in a musty chest with your first rattler and the other keepsakes of your childhood. Worst of all, you're faced with the cold realization that you'll soon have to go out into the world and make something of yourself.

With the arrival of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, adolescence has come to the Harry Potter films, just as it's come to Harry himself. And while there are a couple of the awkward, gangly growing pains you'd expect, the onset of maturation looks good on both the boy wizard and the entertainment-industrial complex franchise that bears his name; both character and series are beginning to make something of themselves.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is 13 now, a little taller, a little more sure of himself, and gaining a bit of a temper. He's also just the tiniest bit bored by things that ought to concern him more than they do, namely the news that a wizard named Sirius Black has escaped from the prison of Azkaban, ostensibly to track down Harry himself: Black, it turns out, was a close friend of Harry's parents, and is believed to be the one who betrayed them to the evil wizard Voldemort (the series' still-unseen villain).

Harry doesn't seem overly concerned with the idea that Black might be hunting him down; he's more terrified of the Dementors, the silent, faceless wraiths who guard Azkaban and have been dispatched to patrol the Hogwarts School for signs of the escapee. The Dementors are presented as floating, ethereal avatars of terror, sucking the essence of happiness -- and, yes, innocence -- from anyone who gets in their way, as apt a metaphor for puberty as any. (Harry's trusty invisibility cloak and the proscribed fate of a mythical beast called a Hippogriff also serve as handy symbolism.)

Radcliffe, blooming as an actor, plays Harry with the right pubescent mixture of gloominess and cockiness, confidently embodying the solipsistic worldview of burgeoning teens who think the whole world revolves around them. As such, he admirably holds his own, for the most part, with Azkaban's adult thespian heavyweights, including newcomers Gary Oldman as Black, who provides an unexpected link to Harry's parents' past; David Thewlis as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor Remus Lupin, whose name gives away his secret (one of them, anyway); and Michael Gambon as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Gambon, who takes up the mantle from the late Richard Harris, is a bit more genial in the role, which slightly lessens many fans' main complaint about the character: namely, that he often seems too omniscient. (Emma Thompson also joins the cast as a fluttery Divination teacher, with little to do but mouth an ominous omen.)

Azkaban, many fans' favorite of the series of books for its progressively darker tone as well as its engrossing, time-bending plot twist, is a much more mature effort than its predecessors, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Under the hand of director Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien), the first two films' mechanical, super-literal translations (courtesy of Hollywood veteran Chris Columbus, of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire infamy) are eschewed for a picture that excises and moves around some bits from the book, resulting in both a tighter plot and a looser, less rigid atmosphere.

From its appropriately bleak sets (even Hogwarts looks more foreboding and less like the backdrop for a medieval version of The O.C.) to its constantly moving cinematography (gone are Columbus' static shots) and the more nuanced performances of its budding cast (Harry's friends Ron and Hermione, played by Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, also emerge as capable young actors), Azkaban engages the senses in ways that its predecessors, especially the staid Sorcerer's Stone, never could. Cuarón's deft touch makes Azkaban not just the best Harry Potter movie to date, but an engrossing film that makes a place for itself alongside such sturdy children's fantasies as Time Bandits and Iron Giant.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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