Sunday, February 9, 2014

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, movie review)

      The 2004 motion picture titled “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is in many respects the finally to the classic Harry Potter trilogy. I say this because the first three entrees in the series were like family adventure films that can appeal to younger audiences. After this, the series will be aimed directly to young adults, with much darker storytelling, less magical charms and far less color in the scenery. “Prisoner of Azkaban” is like the transition movie, going from kid friendly adventures, with children as the main characters, to the more adult stories with young adult characters. Before I continue, I should probably note that this film is widely praised by both fans and critics as the absolute best entry in the series. This is the installment that everyone goes nuts for, this is the one that always appears on greatest movie sequel lists, and this is the one that’s often ranked the highest of the HP movies. I think the films praise is mostly justified because it is a damn good entry in the series. I have some small problems here and there which keep it from being my absolute favorite Harry Potter movie, but it’s still one of the best.

      The Plot goes like this, after another situation involving Harry Potters dead beat relatives, the Dursleys, he runs away from home only to learn that he’s facing a new threat. A murderer by the name of Sirius Black has just escaped from Azkaban Prison, he apparently wants Harry Potter dead and is the man responsible for the demise of Harry's late family. When it’s later revealed that this mysterious killer is none other than his own god father, Harry vows to take revenge on him for the death of his parents. With the aid of his friends and a new teacher named Professor Lupin, our hero finds himself traveling through time, battling werewolves, hooded phantasms called Dementors and discovering the truth about who really betrayed his parents. I think this is the installment that has something for everyone, as I described “Sorcerer’s Stone” as a simplistic experience in a magical world, and I described its sequel “Chamber of Secrets” as a fast passed adventure flick, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is the movie that combines both of these styles flawlessly. 

       Naturally, our trio of young hero’s are back and this time their clearly growing and maturing along with the material. The characters are a lot edger and Harry Potter himself displays quiet the temper, not at all like the same smiling child of the first two movies. It’s also worth mentioning that the trio is in the exact opposite position of the last movie “Chamber of Secrets”. That film was more like a buddy adventure for Harry and Ron, leaving Hermione with a lot less to do. Now it’s reversed in this film because Hermione is the one who shares the adventure with Harry, leaving Ron with less screen time. According to many fans, this is the film in which Hermione really started to look attractive, and I really can’t argue with that statement. This is also the first Harry Potter movie to feature Dumbledore played by Michael Gambon, after the unfortunate passing of Sir Richard Harris. I’ll save my really big complaints about this for the next review but for now I’ll just say that most of the magic and charm of the previous Dumbledore seemed to be missing. 

       As usual, we get a cast of colorful new characters to join the adventure. Emma Thompson plays a new Divination teacher named professor Trelawney. She’s kind of like the Dock Brown of Hogwarts teachers, with a really hyper personality, some really big expressions and an over the top costume design but Thompson does the character justice. Garry Oldman is outstanding as Sirius Black, this was always my favorite character from the book series and I was very satisfied with this films interpretation of him. This is a character that struggles through so many hardships and traumatizing experiences, yet he still has so much enthusiasm and joy for life. However, he isn’t in this movie for long and it isn’t until “Order of the Phoenix” that he really shines as one of my favorite characters in the series. 

      Just like with “Chamber of Secrets”, my favorite character in this film is the new defense against the dark arts teacher named Professor Lupin. He’s played by David Thewlis (who previously auditioned to play Voldemort) and he just nails this character. Much like the first two defense against the dark arts teachers, this professor also has a dark secret that he’s hiding from everyone. However, the big difference between Professor Lupin and the other two is that he has no personal scheme in mind, and he’s the first teacher to talk to Harry as both an educator and as a father figure. All the other Hogwarts teachers (not including Hagrid) have only been informal educators. But when Lupin talks to Harry, he expresses just enough care and understanding towed him without becoming too preachy with his words of wisdom. It’s really like someone talking to a member of the family and it’s so sweet to see Harry have this kind of bonding with one of the teachers. Actually, the simple conversations between Harry and Lupin are some of the best scenes in the film. There never overly emotional, instead it’s all kept simple, humble and sincere. 

      This film also introduces us to a wide collection of new magical creatures that are some of the best that these films have to offer. There’s the sinister Dementors that are very similar in appearance to the grim reaper, with black clocks and a death like form. These creatures are the primary threat of the film and will be featured in other HP movies. There’s also a mysterious creature in a cupboard that can only take the form of what an individual fears, this leads to some cool imagery and even some comedy. My favorite creature is a Hippogriff by the name of Buckbeak, which is a creature that’s half bird and half horse. I’ve mentioned before that every Harry Potter movie features its own unique flying sequence, sometimes it will involve the characters flying on brooms, other times it’s a flying car and in later films we see the characters flying dragons. But my favorite flight scenes of the series are in this film involving Buckbeak. The shots, the cinematography, the music, the locations, it’s just a spectacle that takes my breath away every time.   

      This is also the first of the Harry Potter movies to get a new director, enter Alfonso Cuaron who’s best known for mixing some incredibly dark themes with a rather artsy direction. This is evident in many of the movies that Alfonso Cuaron was involved in including “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Children of men” and even in the 1995 motion picture “A Little Princes”, which was a relatively magical experience for kids but with some legitimate drama and dark elements to boot. While I don’t think Alfonso is the absolute best director for this series, he’s certainly the most artistic and stylized. This guy knows how to blend complex story telling with technical wizardry and every shot is so detailed that it takes multiple viewings to see everything. The environments are so lively and magical that I frequently find myself discovering something new in the background or even the foreground. This is also the first film in the series to use the iconic Warner Brothers shield in a rather artsy, yet epic fashion in the opening of the movie, a tradition for the fallowing movies to try to duplicate. Heck, this is the only installment in the series to feature an artsy end credit sequence. Seriously, the way this film presents its closing credits on a giant CGI map is awesome, much better than that dull black backdrop in all the other films. I especially love how this movie makes its transitions, the best example is when the movie cuts to a giant tree on the castle grounds that changes during each season, it’s just a really cool way to see how time passes in the film. 

     The Music in this movie is fantastic, I mean John Williams music has always been a staple of the franchise but this time he really out dose himself, providing the best instrumental sound track of the entire series and personally, one of my favorite motion picture soundtracks of all time. This films music has very distinct medieval influences in the instrumentation and it fits the setting beautifully. It’s a shame that this is the final movie of the franchise to have music composed and conducted by John Williams because he can hit it out of the park with a movie’s main musical theme and even the smaller, individual scores of the film. Buckbeak’s flight music is a particular favorite score of mine, the climactic battle with the Dementors features some especially exhilarating instrumentation, and the films triumphant finally music, which will later be played in the trailer of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”, is downright sensational. There’s also a song number in the film titled “Double Trouble”, which is another small highlight in the film. This song was also played in the “Prisoner of Azkaban” trailer and while it’s time in the actual movie is brief, it’s still one of my favorite moments in the series. The lyrics are great, the sound effects are awesome, especially the low drum in the background, and it helps gives the movie a foreboding, yet lively atmosphere.   

       One thing that will either annoy or amuse audiences is the films cartoony sense of humor. Now all the Harry Potter movies have funny moments but the comedy in this film really makes it feel like a live action cartoon. Personally, I love the comedy in this film, there’s an especially fun scene in the beginning of the movie involving Harries wicked aunt getting blown up like a balloon, which almost reminds me of the blueberry girl from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory”, except this is so much funnier. The slapstick in this scene is non-stop, the environment gets extremely active with cuckoo clocks going off, a dog attacking deadbeat relatives, and it’s just a fun way to start the film. Another really fun scene involves Harry taking a night ride on a giant city bus. The things the filmmakers pull off with this are very imaginative, the physical comedy is good and to put the icing on the cake, there’s an amusing little shrunken Jamaican head that cracks a lot of silly one-liners.     


         While the movie as a whole is great, it’s the third and final act of the film that makes it a killer flick. Harry confronts Sirius Black, learns that he was innocent and meets the man who was really responsible for the death of his family. Then, all kinds of crazy things happen, they get attacked by werewolves, there’s lots of creature battles, Harry takes on an army of Dementors, the characters travel through time and it all ends with the most epic magical spell ever. All the spells in the Harry Potter universe are cool but this one called the PETRONAS is the most spectacular by far. The final scene with Harry finding the strength within himself to conjure this massive PETRONAS shock wave to take out the Dementor army is arguably one of the biggest, powerhouse moments of the entire series.

       My only really complaint about this film is in the delivery of its message, assuming it even has a specific message. As I’ve stated in my two previous reviews, each Harry Potter movie has some kind of moral theme. The first movie was all about selfless ambition and the courage of the heart. The second movie was about the choices we make and how our actions define us as individuals. The third movie doesn’t have a clear moral theme like the other two films do and I think it’s the movies only real short coming. The story is mostly themed around revenge, we see Harry blindly determined to kill the man responsible for the death of his parents and we see just as much vengeful determination in his falsely accused Godfather Sirius Black. This would have been the perfect opportunity for these two characters to bond, but unfortunately, neither of them have any deep self realization that revenge isn’t the right action to take. There’s an incredibly brief moment when Harry stops his god father from killing the real villain responsible but Harry has very little to say and even states that he doesn’t mind seeing the man die, as long as it’s done by someone else. I just feel like there’s something really important missing here that prevents this from being as emotional as it should be. Harry and his Godfather do eventually have some bonding scenes near the end, which are done very well, but the stuff they discus seem to be off point from what the movie was originally trying to convey.  

      Despite that little problem, I still love this film and consider it to be one of the better entries in the series. It succeeds as a mature progression in both storytelling and character development. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun to watch, the films magical universe has never been livelier, the music has never been more pleasing, and of cores the third act of the film is just a tone of fun. I honestly feel that after this movie most of the Harry Potter films got less good, so it’s a fitting send off to the first three movies that I still consider the classic installments in the series.

                          I give “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” 4 ½ stars out of 5.     

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