Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban

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Michael Rechtshaffen
This review was written for the theatrical release of "Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban."

The third time's definitely the charm for the highly successful "Harry Potter" film franchise.

Thanks to the revitalizing imprint of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" director Alfonso Cuaron, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is a deeper, darker, visually arresting and more emotionally satisfying adaptation of the J.K. Rowling literary phenomenon, achieving the neat trick of remaining faithful to the spirit of the book while at the same time being true to its cinematic self.

Where the first two "Potters" were efficiently if uninspiredly directed by an eager-to-please Chris Columbus, Cuaron has crafted a rich, atmospheric stand-alone motion picture rather than simply a filmed adaptation.

Rising to the occasion is series screenwriter Steven Kloves, who hasn't yielded to the book's murkier impulses, and its resident ensemble, which has been joined this time around by Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall and, smoothly assuming the role originated by the late Richard Harris, Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore.

You don't need to be a wizard to predict huge numbers for the Warner Bros. picture, which will be given an added boost with a simultaneous release in Imax theaters.

While Cuaron may at first seem an odd choice, the third "Potter" actually shares a few things in common with the racy "Y Tu Mama," most notably -- given its rapidly maturing young cast -- a prevailing rites of passage theme, not to mention personal identity issues.

Moreover, Cuaron also directed 1995's "A Little Princess," a highly regarded adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel (also set in a boarding school), which just happened to be one of Rowling's favorite films.

At 13, Daniel Radcliffe's Harry has become a more assertive, angrier young man whose bouts of unmistakably adolescent indignation are very much in evidence here, Hogwarts and all.

Despite promising not to perform any wizardry while spending another summer with the Dursleys, Harry breaks down and, in a fit of annoyance, turns his obnoxious Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) into a literal airbag, her grotesquely inflated form sent drifting into the night skies.

Fearing reprimands from his relatives, as well as from Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic, Harry runs off but doesn't get too far before he's picked up by the very purple, triple-decker Knight Bus, which takes him on a wild trip that recalls Terry Gilliam's wacky animated sequences from his "Monty Python" days.

It turns out that Harry isn't punished for the deed, but he faces more dire consequences with news that Sirius Black (Oldman), a particularly dangerous wizard believed to be indirectly responsible for the death of Potter's parents, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is headed Harry's way.

That ominous threat puts a damper on his Hogwarts reunion with Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), but Harry also forms a bond with Professor Lupin (Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who helps him confront his fears.

But, more than ever before, there are shades of gray in both the seemingly good and seemingly bad guys, lending "Azkaban" a greater, layered complexity than the earlier installments.

Despite the darker tone, Cuaron has found room for a great deal of humor, provided in part by an assortment of fresh characters including Thompson as Professor of Divination Sibyll Trelawney, a frightfully nearsighted seer.

Tech specs are uniformly impressive, from the artful compositions provided by incoming cinematographer and longtime Alan Parker collaborator Michael Seresin to Stuart Craig's always inventive production design to Tim Burke and Roger Guyett's magical visual effects (enter the Hippogriff) to John Williams' far moodier score.

And, speaking of uniform, costume designer Jany Temime, has effectively managed to take a little of the starch out of those proper Hogwarts outfits, sneaking in a casually contemporary flair more suited to the teen characters' budding sense of rebelliousness.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presents
A Heyday Films/1492 Pictures production
An Alfonso Cuaron film
Credits:
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Producers: David Heyman, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe
Screenwriter: Steve Kloves
Based on the novel by: J.K. Rowling
Executive producers: Michael Barnathan, Callum McDougall, Tanya Seghatchian
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Editor: Steven Weisberg
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Visual effects supervisors: Roger Guyett, Tim Burke
Music: John Williams
Casting: Jina Jay
Cast:
Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Draco Malfoy: Tom Felton
Rubeus Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane
Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Vernon Dursley: Richard Griffiths
Sirius Black: Gary Oldman
Professor Snape: Alan Rickman
Petunia Dursley: Fiona Shaw
Professor McGonagall: Dame Maggie Smith
Peter Pettigrew: Timothy Spall
Professor Lupin: David Thewlis
Professor Trelawney: Emma Thompson
Mrs. Weasley: Julie Walters
Aunt Marge: Pam Ferris
MPAA Rating PG
Running time -- 141 minutes