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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Previous franchises being taken over by a new director have brought us such wonderful moments as nipples on batsuits, and overused phosphorescent paint. However, the director of the first two Harry Potter movies came under fire for making his films too stale. Is a new director for the franchise just what the wizard conjured? Before I start talking about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban let me be straightforward about a few things. First, I am a big Harry Potter fan. This is completely the fault of the movies. I had no interest in the books until a movie was being made from them, at which point I felt the need to read the first book to better prepare myself for the movie. Secondly, the third book in the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the books. What this means is I’m a critical fan of the movies, and I’m especially critical of this movie, since it is the adaptation of my favorite book in the series. Those reading forward from here have been forewarned.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban continues the adventures of young Harry Potter and his friends as they enter their third year at Hogwarts, the school for wizards. The third year doesn’t begin so well for Harry, who, in a moment of anger, inflates his visiting aunt and flees his family’s house, afraid of being expelled for using magic outside the school grounds. Instead he gets off with barely a slap on the wrist. Rather than the punishment he was expecting, everyone is being exceptionally nice to Harry, and he soon finds out why. The recently escaped prisoner Sirius Black was responsible for the death of Harry’s parents, and may be on his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry as well. As Harry learns more details about his parent’s death and Sirius’s part in it, he thirsts for vengeance, swearing that if the escaped maniac finds him, Harry will kill Sirius... assuming it doesn’t happen in the middle of his wizard classes.

Prisoner of Azkaban takes most of what we’ve learned about Harry’s history and starts putting it all together. This story is where the major arc of Harry’s tale really switches into high gear, although for the first time the fallen Lord Voldemort isn’t the villain, leaving that task to one of his former followers. We learn more about Harry’s parents, and not everything is wrapped up by the end of the story, leaving threads for the future books and movies to build on.

Franchise newcomer Alfonso Cuarón breathes a much needed breath of fresh air into the universe of Harry Potter. Under his direction, Hogwarts truly comes alive, for the first time resembling what I’d always expected from the books. Ghosts roam the halls playfully, almost unaware of the breathing inhabitants around them. The images in paintings move from picture to picture and interact with each other and the humans. In Hogsmead and Diagon Alley, wizards use magic with such frequency it’s mundane to them, and one could spend hours rewatching scenes and catching all the little magical tricks the camera doesn’t focus on. Cuarón’s takes everything Chris Columbus did in the previous two films to the next level, making his world for Harry the place of wonder it should have been in these films from day one.

All the usual faces return for the third film, minus the late Richard Harris. Taking over the role of Albus Dumbledore is Michael Gambon, who also takes this movie where it should have been originally with his portrayal of the school’s headmaster. With all due respect to Harris, Dumbledore always seems to have a playful spirit that bleeds through the pages of the books, and you can always tell he knows more than he’s letting on. Harris never really captured that element of Dumbledore, where Gambon has that type of charisma from the moment he first appears on screen. Other school faculty members Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) also return, although in largely diminished roles from the previous films. Instead the movie focuses more on the student’s new teachers: the clueless Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson) and this year’s Defense of the Dark Arts instructor, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis).

Also returning are the three main cast members: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, all three looking older and perhaps a bit wiser. For the first time in the Harry Potter films there is some real tangible emotion behind the lines of the main characters, showing that they’ve not only physically grown, but also are growing as actors. You don’t get the feeling of children delivering lines from a script, but instead that the actors have worked out emotion and thought processes behind those lines. It’s another nice touch that can be credited to Cuarón’s direction.

Azkaban's visual effects also show a marked improvement. Long gone are the clumsy CGI characters flopping around as a troll swings them. The actors interact with Buckbeak the hippogriff and Dementors (the evil looking guardians of Azkaban prison) as fluidly and easily as they interact with real beings. There are still a few CGI anomalies here and there, but for the most part the effects stop detracting from the movie, and instead add to it. Actually, it goes beyond just the visual effects. The cinematography as a whole is vastly improved from the previous movies, combining with the visual effects and acting to truly show off Cuarón’s world of wonder.

With all of that said, there’s one thing the addition of Cuarón didn’t help: the story itself. While the book is a devilishly fun tale of suspense and wonder, the movie comes across as choppy and flat. Scenes transition with no real flow between them. Important information that builds on the main story of Sirius Black is revealed, and suddenly we’re in class, or focusing on a subplot. Because of this poor flow, the movie fails to capture the suspense of the novel, and the audience isn’t drawn into the film nearly as much as they should be. As a fan of the books, I could also go into depth about the mistakes I think they made adapting the novel - what they should have left out, and what was a mistake to not include. However, I find everyone has their own opinion on this, and it really isn't crucial to reviewing the movie that was made.

With Prisoner of Azkaban being my favorite story in the Harry Potter series to date, I went in with high expectations. I came out of the theater very disappointed in the movie. Even though I recognized how much its direction had improved and very much approved of the direction Cuarón was taking the franchise, it just didn’t live up to my expectations. This second viewing on DVD was met with the same disappointment, although I will say I did enjoy the film a bit more this time than the first. Still, it shouldn’t take multiple viewings of a movie I already know the story of in order for me to enjoy it more. As the third Harry Potter film, Warner Brothers has pretty much gotten the DVD release down to a science: Separate widescreen and full screen versions, each with two discs. The first disc contains the movie, the second disc holds the extras. Even with what is a pretty much standard release (for a Harry Potter movie), this DVD excels in some areas, and comes up short in others.

The first item of note is the theatrical trailer. You have to give credit where credit is due: not only is the theatrical trailer for Azkaban included, but the trailers for the first two movies are here as well. In a day and age where some releases aren’t including any trailers, this is a really wise choice and sure to please DVD lovers.

One of my biggest complaints of previous Harry Potter releases has been the somewhat difficult to navigate menus. While we’ve come a long way from the “solve games to get to deleted scenes” days of the first film, the menus could still be laid out a bit better. The extras disc of this set is set up as the Marauder’s Map, divided into sections: Divination Class, Defense Against the Dark Arts, The Great Hall, Honeydukes, and the Hogwart Grounds. Each section holds bonus material that is related to the area... kind of. For instance, would you guess off of the top of your head that the deleted scenes were in the Divination area? While I appreciate the effort to theme the menu for the movie, I still don’t think the Harry Potter DVDs have gotten the menus right quite yet.

There are a grand total of five deleted scenes included, a significant fall from the numbers of the first two movies. I don’t know if maybe Cuarón just shot less footage, or the material just wasn’t included. Either way, it’s a shame. The deleted footage has typically been made up of scenes that didn’t add to the film, but made sense to fans of the books, allowing a glimpse at what might have been done if the movies were 100% faithful to the book. Only including five deleted scenes, two of which aren’t hugely different from what ended up in the film, is embarrassing. Truth be told, the Harry Potter franchise is about the only other set of movies out there that could get away with the Lord of the Rings style “Extended Editions”, releasing a DVD version of the movie more true to the books. Five deleted scenes just doesn’t cut it.

For the younger Potter fans, there are three games included on the discs, as well as the ability to tour around the sets of two of the film’s locations: the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom, and Honeyduke’s Candy Shop. Two of the games, Catch Scabbers, and The Quest of Sir Cadogan take you through an obstacle course and rely on your ability to press the right button to move past anything that might block your path. As is usual for these types of games, the interface is sloppy, and half a second delay will cause you to fail. The third game is Magic You May Have Missed which, after presenting a clip from the movie asks questions to test your memory about that scene. The games and tours are definitely targeting the younger crowd, and really won’t be worth more then a glance or two before they become boring.

The rest of the extras are pretty much behind the scenes material. Creating the Vision is a short interview with the filmmakers (primarily Cuarón) and J.K. Rowling. The entire thing seems to reinforce Rowling’s creative control over the property, and her delight with what’s been done. Conjuring a Scene goes into more depth on some of the special effects from the film, particularly what Cuarón originally wanted from the Dementors, and the development of Buckbeak and the Knight Bus. There is also a third short that focuses on the animal handlers for the cats, dogs, birds, and bats used in the movie.

Finally come interviews with the cast and crew, conducted by the BBC’s Johnny Vaughan and the shrunken head from the knight bus. No, you’re not under the influence of some magical spell, you read that right - the shrunken head from the knight bus (or Dre’head as he seems to be referred to by Vaughan). The cast is broken into themed groups - The Heroes, The Griffindors, The Slytherins, etc. From there Vaughan asks them some pretty good questions and is occasionally interrupted by Dre’head. As the interviews move to the adult actors, Dre’head interrupts much less frequently, and is inserted into shots in such a fashion to make one wonder if the cast was really in on this. Only Vaughn really interacts with Dre’head, which is fine because by the last interview he’s become nothing more than an overused gimmick and an excuse to use every bad “head” pun out there.

Once the good and the bad balance out, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is no better or worse than any of the other Harry Potter DVDs thus far. Because I’m a Potter fan, I’ve added this movie to my collection, as will most other fans out there. It would be nice to see something with more real concrete bonus material for future releases though.