Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (PG)

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

Arriving amid much speculation about where Alfonso Cuarón would lead the franchise, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a faithful adaptation of JK Rowling’s popular children’s books without being too perplexing for audiences new to the series.

England, the present. With the start of his third year at the wizard school of Hogwarts imminent, Harry Potter, an orphaned schoolboy, flees from the foster home of his snide and heartless aunt and uncle to the Inn of the Leaky Cauldron where he is reunited with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Having already learned about prisoner on the run Sirius Black, Harry gets advice from Ron’s father not to look out for Sirius. The Dementors, black hooded creatures sent from the prison of Azkaban to track down the killer, halt the train bound for Hogwarts, but the new Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin comes to Harry’s rescue. At the school, Harry faces competition from the envious and tough-acting Malfoy, and the challenge of escaping the supervision of suspicious Professor Snape as he investigates the mystery of Sirius Black and his own past.

The film’s production and costume design help to create a rough-looking visual style, defined by faded colours and the gothic connotations of the scenery: this seems to correspond with the series’ notion of its three heroes having to grow up and to face greater challenges as the story and the film’s narrative tone take progressively darker turns. John Williams’ soundtrack adds baroque elements to the mix by introducing a chamber music-style harpsichord theme, and underscoring the looming threat with some effective drum cues during the pic’s final twenty minutes: all in all, the stirring score for The Prisoner of Azkaban represents one of the film’s major assets. And yet one cannot help but wondering whether the epic scope and splendour that the film is aiming for, really befits its source material: it is as if Cuaròn is giving the whole proceedings a grander sense of drama and tragedy than there actually is to it, treating Rowling’s story with a reverence and seriousness that, to me, seems to somewhat overestimate its worth.

Daniel Radcliffe is unconvincing as Harry, and continuously upstaged by Emma Watson’s female sidekick Hermione and Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Then there is the star-studded supporting cast: Michael Gambon, as a replacement for the late Richard Harris, is a strong addition to the already impressive group of Potter regulars like Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith (I could not help thinking, too, that Gambon, like Ian McKellen, would have made a fine Gandalf). In a nice piece of casting, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black appears typecast, but is vindicated eventually. Only the shrill cameos by Emma Thompson and Timothy Spall strike a false note. The strongest performance comes from David Thewlis in the role of the new Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin who shows great understanding for Harry’s plight and gives him valuable support. Thewlis livens up every scene he is in, and it is to his credit that The Prisoner of Azkaban, in spite of its protracted running time of 142 minutes, is entertaining enough.