Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Grade : A+ Year : 2004 Director : Alfonso Cauron Running Time : 2hr 22min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Originally Written: June 2004

Thinking about the latest “Harry Potter” movie the past few days, I’ve been trying to pin-point exactly why I’ve felt- against the grain of general critical opinion- that “Azkaban” is not as good as its’ underrated predecessors, 2001’s “Sorcerer’s Stone” and 2002’s “Chamber of Secrets.” And I’ve figured it out, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s from the longest novel brought to the screen to date…and yet the shortest movie. Well, it could be, but I haven’t read the book.

No, the reason- I’ve decided- is that “Azkaban” lacks the heart and danger of the first two…and the sense of discovery. It’s still a highly entertaining ride, and the dark and dramatic atmosphere concocted by new director-in-charge Alfonso Cauron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “A Little Princess”)- taking over for the first two’s director, Chris Columbus- is rich with texture and thrilling style that compliments the effects, which rate as knockouts (a werewolf battle rivals “Van Helsing,” the Dementors are chilling homages to Peter Jackson’s Ringwraiths in “Rings” and soultaker in “The Frighteners,” and a half-horse/half-bird creature called a Hippogriff is a creature as awe-inspiring and sympathetic as “Rings'” Treebeard). And all stand in awe of John Williams, who decidedly returns to form after two less-than-thrilling, though sometimes noteworthy sequel scores in 2002 (“Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and “Chamber of Secrets”) with arguably his best sequel effort since 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” which is debatably one of the greatest scores of all-time and Williams’ finest.

But here’s the thing about “Azkaban” that could leave some fans scratching their heads in wonder- where’s the heart? OK, there’s continued poignance as Harry continues to learn about his deceased parents through those who knew them (this time, it’s Hogwarts’ new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Professor Lupin (a superb David Thewis)), but one senses a settling-into the group of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to impress as Harry becomes older), Ron (Rupert Grint, still funny and entertaining as the sort-of junior partner), and Hermione (Emma Watson, who keeps springing suprises with the character); there’s no excitement with the group’s reunion as there was in “Secrets,” just a sort of inevitability to it. Where’s the danger? OK, the Dementors are wicked-creepy, and Ron gets hurt pretty bad, but aside from the looming potential danger of an Azkaban inmate who escapes, and may have had a hand in the death of Harry’s parents (Gary Oldman gives Sirius Black the tortured soul and gravity one expects from the great actor), there’s nothing quite as unsettling as Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, or Hermione’s bout with being petrified or Harry’s ability to speak to snakes in “Chamber of Secrets,” or the dangerous game of wizard’s chess Ron must play in “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Where’s the sense of discovery? The big revelations of “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” about Harry’s past and his powers go unmatched despite a third act rife with slyly imaginative surprises and unexpected twists that make up for a lot of the “disappointments” I’ve just listed here.

That said, nobody could say Cauron dropped the ball; it isn’t so miscalculated a shift in tone as when Joel Schumacher replaced Tim Burton in the then-thriving “Batman” series, which Warner Bros. (who also produces “Potter”) has been struggling to revive- like it’s other superhero franchise gone-awry, “Superman”- for nearly a decade now, and may be able to do so with next year’s “Batman Begins,” with a popular comic book movie scribe (“Blade’s” David S. Goyer), a gifted hot director (“Memento’s” Christopher Nolan), and an ace cast (which includes Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman). “Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban” is artistically liberating and deviously entertaining in spite of a necessary change in mood and tone that means some growing pains for the series- the characters are at the age where adolescence is at its’ worst, after all- but in the end, it’s impossible to think Harry and co. won’t be the stronger or wiser for it. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a long wait before the next installment, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” hits screens (Nov. 18 of 2005 to be exact), with a new director (“Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco’s” Mike Newell) at the helm. Yet another reason 2005 should already be called “Year of the Geeks.”

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