THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third installment of a movie series that just keeps getting better and better. This one opens with a slightly older Harry preparing to enter his third year at Hogwarts. There is an added concern this year, as an escaped convict named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) learns that Black was responsible for his parents falling into the hands of the villainous Lord Voldemort, who then killed them. It is believed that Black will make his way to Hogwarts in order to “finish the task” by bumping off Harry.

Helping to protect him are old pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), as well as Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, taking over for the late Richard Harris) and giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). There’s also a new instructor at the school, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who takes a liking to Harry. Lupin has some vital information about how Harry can protect himself against Black, which becomes useful later on.

Of course, everyone is right and Black is making his way to Hogwarts. Eventually he and Harry confront one another and…well, if you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you already know what happens next. If not, rest assured that I have provided only the most bare-bones plot description possible. As one who has not actually read any of the books (aside from the original), I appreciated the way the story unfolded in unexpected ways. Those of you who are also being told this story only through the medium of film may share my delight in discovering that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does not have a typical revenge plot. And despite the fact that it’s clearly the darkest of the three films thus far (both thematically and visually), the whole I’ll-kill-him-before-he-kills-me plot is not quite accurate either. There are surprises within that make me eager for the next installment. Finally we are at a stage where we’re getting some answers about our hero’s mysterious past.

There are so many good elements at work here that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll start by saying that The Prisoner of Azkaban has all the imagination and wonder you would expect, perhaps more so. There’s a terrific sequence in which Harry learns to ride an unusual creature called a Hippogriff, which is kind of like a fusion between a bird and a horse. I also liked a lengthy time travel bit that figures essentially into the plot. The whole concept of characters reversing time slightly to undo an action has been done before, but this time it’s done with a great amount of cleverness. The film also contains what I think is hands-down the best scene in any of the Harry Potter films. Professor Lupin teaches his students how to conquer their darkest fears by casting a “ridiculous” spell that changes terror into humor.

I have noticed too that the young actors are getting more comfortable on screen. That makes them even more effective. It’s great to see them continue to play the roles – to age along with the characters they play. If different actors played these roles by now, a big part of our emotional investment would be lost. The consistency is important because the story is deepening. Since J.K. Rowling has already written the books, the filmmakers don’t have to stretch credibility looking for ways to etch out sequels; they can simply follow Rowling’s lead. Probably more than anything, the increasingly drama in the story is why this film series has been improving. I was mixed-to-negative on the original, but I thought the second film was a big improvement. This time, we get more and more heavily into the tragedy in Harry Potter’s past and we see how it starts to shape his being. That’s really interesting stuff in any movie, but in a family film it’s extremely rare. Now that the groundwork has been laid, the series is free to really explore some compelling themes.

It’s worth noting that Chris Columbus, the director of the first two Harry Potter films, has turned the reins over to Alfonso Cuaron this time. Cuaron, who also made the Spanish-language sensation Y Tu Mama Tambien, proves to be an excellent choice. He brings out the darker elements of the story without making them too dark for Potter’s young fans. He also exhibits what a friend of mine calls “editorial style.” Cuaron is not content to rehash the same old material, so he quickly shuttles off things we’ve already seen in the two previous movies. Yes, there’s some Quidditch, but only a little bit. We’ve no need for that, nor for the Sorting Hat or the rivalries between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Cuaron assumes that by this point the audience is familiar with Potter minutia and therefore repetition is not necessary. Consequently, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a leaner film that runs about 20 minutes shorter than its predecessors. That’s a good thing. The emphasis here is all on telling the tale, which is precisely what the series needs at this point. The difference in directors is that Columbus is capable of cranking out solid assembly line products, whereas Cuaron is a true craftsman. The adventures of Harry Potter and friends have never felt so alive as they do under Cuaron’s watchful eye.

As I said above, I didn’t much care for the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It seemed as though the series was going to be lackluster for me. Happily, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve found myself getting more and more involved with each passing film. J.K. Rowling always envisioned this saga in seven parts. Warner Bros. has reportedly committed to bringing all seven parts to the big screen. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban makes me feel really excited to see them all.

( 1/2 out of four)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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