Ah, the students of Hogwarts. Back for another year and another adventure. Older, yes. More mature, hardly so. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) still bullies the increasingly popular Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) still get embarrassed when they bump hands. Hey Ron, wake-up, you’ve got a total babe on your hands! Better get on it before Harry runs out of villains to fight and starts looking for love.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third film of the franchise, is the best one so far. Of the second film “Chamber of Secrets,” I wrote: “(the film) is much more tenebrous than “The Sorcerer's Stone.” Several scenes of suspense will possibly end with you and the young ones jumping out of your seats, which may prove to be too intense for a PG-rated movie. I heard it almost received a PG-13 certificate, and I wouldn't have been surprised if it did. Creepy voices which loom through the dreary hallways don't lighten things up, and neither does a ghost that haunts the girls bathroom.”
The third film is even darker, as the story is about a convicted murderer named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the first prisoner to ever escape from Azkaban Prison. He was part of the a plot to murder Harry's parents and has now returned to Hogwarts to kill Harry. Concerned for the safety of the students, the school adheres to the advice from the elder counsel and permits the arrival of Dementors, ghastly spirits employed by Azkaban to find Sirius. The Dementors loom above their targets and suck their souls right out of their faces. Even more menacing, says Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), “they don’t distinguish what they’re looking for from what gets in their way.” One might wonder why the school permits Dementors but sentences Buckbeak, a half bird (beak) half horse (buck) hippogriff, to death for almost killing Malfoy, the instigator of his own attack.
Buckbeak is introduced to Harry’s class by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the animal-keeper who for the first time has teaching privileges. Buckbeak instantly takes to Harry and gives him a quick joyride past the forest teaching grounds; swooping above the trees and gliding over the lake, which is perhaps why the envious Malfoy nearly killed himself by antagonizing the hotheaded creature upon their return.
New on the staff roster this year are Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who teaches Harry a few new tricks and spells, and Professor Sybil Trelawney ( a forgettable Emma Thompson), a fortuneteller who predicts the fate of her students by looking at their tea leaves. The teachers, for the most part keep quiet in this installment, talking amongst themselves leaving Potter to wonder how and why he’s connected to the much feared Sirius Black. When he gets no answers from the staff, he and his friends take it upon themselves to uncover the mystery behind the escaped prisoner.
Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films and produces this one, is replaced by Alfonso Cuaron, which I speculated in my “Chamber of Secrets” review. Cuaron steps it up a little as much as Columbus did with the second film from the first. The tone has gotten darker in linear progression, and one must wonder how long the Potter films can continue this trend with a PG rating. Even the usual fun game of Quiddich is played in a thunderous rainstorm this time.
Like its predecessor, “Azkaban” unravels in the final scenes when it realizes it’s been two hours and much information about the plot still needs to be explained. A new character, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), is rushed into the story and turns out to be one of the most important characters but isn’t given enough elaboration. A late scene is the stage for a dialogue between Peter, Professor Lupin and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), and it plays out like a thriller movie at that point when the characters start spitting out facts, making revelations, and begin untwisting the plot for the sake of the audience, as well as the clock which has this film timed at almost two and a half hours.
With that being said, everything else about the movie is enjoyable. The CGI and special effects are good enough even if far from revolutionary. A fight between a werewolf and Buckbeak isn’t that impressive to the teen and older crowds, but minors will dig every second of it. To be sure, my favorite part of the film requires special effects, but not necessarily the computer generated trickery we’ve all come to expect. Segueing into the climax, Harry and Hermione go back through time to change events and patiently hide from others as they wait in real time. It’s through scenes we’ve seen already but with the missing facts and from different camera angles and perspectives. Paradoxes-galore filled my head but I knew the targeted audience wouldn’t put a second’s thought into it so neither would I. Harry and Hermione confront themselves at one point because they must aid themselves-from-the-past to ensure any future at all.
Smarter, faster, and darker thanks to the Dementors which look and sound exactly like the nazgűls from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; “Prisoner of Azkaban” surpasses the previous two films and should easily knock “Shrek 2” off its two week holding from the top spot at the box office.