Rated PG - Running Time: 2:22 - Released 6/4/04

Is it already time for another Harry Potter movie? Seems like it was just yesterday that I was complaining about the length and complexity of the last episode of J.K. Rowling's epic, records-shattering series of juvenile wizardry. Well, the truth is, the time gap between the second and third movie has been even longer than it was between the first two, and in that span of time a few notable changes have been made. First, as most people know, the legendary stage and screen actor Richard Harris, who capped his illustrious career by playing Headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the first two HP films, passed away shortly after filming part two. For the third installment, he has been replaced by Michael Gambon, who provides an equally suitable—albeit quite distinct—interpretation of the character. The other major change, and it is major, is the director. While Chris Columbus, who directed both Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Chamber Of Secrets (‘02) to great success, stayed on as one of this film’s eight co-producers, he has handed over the directing mantle to Mexican-born Alfonso Cuarón, whom some may remember for his Oscar-nominated 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También, or his 1998 interpretation of Dickens’s Great Expectations, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.

There will be no doubt to anyone who saw either of the first two Harry Potter films that there is someone new behind the camera here. Cuarón has imbued this film with his own style and dramatically changed the look and feel of the Potter universe, putting more emphasis on mood and tone than on the slavish source-faithfulness that marked Columbus’s two episodes, with some important consequences. For one thing, while the book, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, is longer and more intricate than its two predecessors, the movie is actually shorter than either of the previous films, which I see as a marked improvement. However, in order to achieve this relative brevity, much editing of the original story had to be done. Potter purists will notice—no doubt with considerable annoyance—that much of the narrative details have been excised by screenwriter Steven Kloves, in favor of a faster pace and more action. While practically every image, creature, and conversation in the first two books was faithfully recreated on the screen in Columbus’s first two films, Prisoner is leaner, meaner, and darker, proffering a sparse, fast-paced product at the expense of character development and what some may call narrative “accuracy.” Whether this is a good thing is, again, dependent on the viewer questioned.

Of course, another quite noticeable difference is that the three leading players—Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione)—are all blossoming into adolescence, ranging in age from 13 to 15 (I think their characters are all supposed to be about 13 in this episode). Their acting continues to improve; while they all appeared energetic but inexperienced in Stone, they have certainly grown into the roles and imbued them with an increasingly textured depth to match their burgeoning physical maturation. They’re not going to be nominated for any Oscars yet, but they’re certainly more convincing now than way back at the turn of the millennium.

The story of this film is quite complicated and, as I have mentioned, has been radically simplified for the film. After enduring some strange and unsettling experiences on the way to his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry is warned about the recent escape of a dangerous killer from Azkaban, the previously inescapable prison for those in the wizarding community who have committed crimes against their ruling body, the Ministry of Magic. The escapee, a Charles Manson-ish wizard named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), was convicted of killing none other than Harry’s famous parents, and is expected, in light of his disappearance, to be coming for Harry. And soon after Harry rejoins his pals Ron and Hermione, they are treated with this year’s unsettling news item: evidence has been uncovered that implies Black is hiding somewhere at Hogwarts.

So as Harry, Ron, and Hermione (I think I’ll start referring to them collectively as HRH) begin classes, looking anxiously over their shoulders at regular intervals, they meet the other members of the ever-growing cast of characters, which are all played by the same actors as before, including their perennial nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton); their gamekeeper pal Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who has been promoted to professor of the institute’s Magical Creatures class; returning professors Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and the surly Severus Snape (Alan Rickman); and new professors Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson), who teaches Divination, and Remus J. Lupin (David Thewlis), engaged this year to teach Defense Against The Dark Arts (a position which seems only to be offered as a one-year contract).

The issues surrounding this story are complex and myriad, but suffice it to say that HRH are presented with another intriguing mystery to solve, involving everything from time travel to magic maps to lycanthropy among the faculty, and encounter a new bevy of strange beasts and entities, such as dementors, boggarts, grims, and hippogryphs. These things are all enchantingly realized on the screen by Cuarón and company, and some are so scary as to be questionable viewing for smaller children, but once again the special effects artists deserve much credit for the film’s effectiveness. There is more at play here than simply computer graphics, however; Cuarón’s direction is more real, more mature than the previous films, and his brooding tone is complemented by the more subdued performances of the cast. Special note must go to Emma Thompson, whose rendering of Professor Trelawney is hilariously over the top, and the thick glasses and fuzzy hairdo further emphasize her eccentricity.

For my money, the more efficient editing is a step in the right direction for this series, and even if a few details were changed or left out of the story, such is the fate of most movie adaptations. Rowling’s story is still enchanting, and this episode has all the wonder of the previous two without the drawback of an unnecessarily protracted running time. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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