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Hermione has about had enough with the geeks
forming online petitions to get the characters
back in their "coveted" Hogwarts' robes.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Review written by: Alex Sandell

What a difference a director makes.  If another one of those poor child actors had to put on Chris Columbus's patented Home Alone look of astonishment/amazement/wonderment (mouth hanging open, eyes bulged out), their face would permanently freeze that way.  As a matter of fact, that's probably what happened to the talented Macaulay Culkin.  Columbus, who directed both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was improving.  Chamber of Secrets was a fun film that didn't quite know when to wrap things up.  Fun or not, the poor kids spent half the time with their mouths open wide enough to suck down an entire hero sandwich. 

For the third Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban, Columbus stayed on as producer, but smartly handed the directing reigns over to Alfonso Cuarón.  Cuarón is the acclaimed Mexican screenwriter and director behind the bewitching Y tu mamá también (one of my favorite films... ever).  He breathes new life into a series that Columbus would have inevitably killed.  While using the same sets, same screenwriter (Steve Kloves) and the majority of cast members from the first two films, the movie still manages to feel fresh.  Alfonso Cuarón's vision of the Potter universe is darker, faster paced and more intense than the slightly bland world Chris Columbus provided. 

Cuarón directs an angrier Potter.  Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is becoming jaded and skeptical over almost all that he's been told.  Hermione (Emma Watson) is dabbling in girl power as much as she is her studies.  The only character who hasn't really changed much is Ron (Rupert Grint); outside of some obvious adolescent type feelings toward Hermione that, while subtle, are still the closest a Potter film has come to being sexually charged. 

Cuarón, director of one of the most carnal films of the early 21st century (Y tu mamá también), can't resist giving us an awkward moment between Ron and Hermione, when the characters find themselves clumsily holding hands.  The two, both embarrassed, quickly pull away from each other, but the tension is there. 

The special effects have also matured.  After watching the hurried effects in the first Harry Potter, I wondered if they'd ever be able to get Buckbeak the Hippogriff (half-horse, half-eagle) or the soul sucking Dementors (menacing guards of the prison of Azkaban) right.  Surprisingly, they exceeded my expectations.  The Dementors give Lord of the Rings' Ring Wraiths a run for their money in the creepy department.  The darkly cloaked figures casually floating around Hogwarts, supposedly guarding the premises from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) -- the only prisoner to ever escape the confines of Azkaban -- is as frightening imagery as you're bound to see in a PG rated film.

The adolescent actors have improved along with the special effects.  You can feel the hurt and betrayal in Daniel Radcliffe's Harry. Emma Watson, still the best of the three actors, does an excellent job transforming from the bookish type to a girl able to hold her own against the bullying Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).  Rupert Grint, while not reinventing the wheel (or even Ron, for that matter) is doing better than ever at portraying Ron as the ultimate 3rd year Hogwarts' slacker. 

Where I was disappointed was with Michael Gambon's portrayal of Albus Dumbledore.  Richard Harris, who died before completion of the last Potter film, brought fatherly warmth to Dumbledore that Gambon lacks.  I hope Gambon, who proved to be one of the world's most compelling actors in the television series of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, warms up to the role of the dignified wizard by the fifth Potter movie, where he becomes an integral and active part of the story.

But most adult performers are as good as they've ever been.  Alan Rickman's portrayal of Professor Severus Snape is nastier than it was in the first two films, if that's possible.  Maggie Smith does wonderful as Professor Minerva McGonagall -- sadly she's relegated to a glorified cameo.  Robbie Coltrane takes the character of Hagrid into a more somber direction without missing a beat.  You really feel for the big guy when he's about to lose his beloved Buckbeak. 

The new actors, Michael Gambon aside, prove the casting director wasn't slacking.  Emma Thompson is Professor Sibyll Trelawney.  The absent-minded professor of Divination she brings to the screen is ripped straight from the pages of the novel.  David Thewlis makes Professor Lupin the teacher you'd love to have instructing you in the Defense Against the Dark Arts.  He obviously cares for his students and understands them in a way that Professor Snape could only dream of.  Was there ever any doubt that Gary Oldman would be perfect as Sirius Black?  Black only appears in "Wanted" ads for the majority of the film, but his screaming face in the picture sends chills down your spine -- even if you have read the book and know exactly what to expect from the character. 

If you haven't read the book, I'd recommend waiting until after seeing the film.  More than the first two, the suspense hangs on one secret that, if known, will more than likely take away from your enjoyment of the film.  Numerous times I found myself wishing that I had resisted the temptation to read the novel before watching the movie.  But even knowing exactly what to expect, I was thrilled with what I was given. 

Alfonso Cuarón has figured out how to successfully bring a Harry Potter book to the silver screen without losing the magic that made the series an international phenomenon.  Rather than creating a Cliff Notes version of the novel, which is largely what Columbus did with the first two films, Cuarón provides a distinctly cinematic take on the series.  The only time his rapid-fire approach to directing takes away from the book is in his all too brief look at Hogsmeade.  In the novel, this is a magical place with the gooiest, tastiest candies available to the young witches and wizards (who have obviously never heard of the muggles' Atkins' Diet).  The movie never properly shows how much it hurts Harry not to be able to go with his friends to the mystical village of Hogsmeade. 

Cuarón makes up for this deficiency with his excellent realization of the werewolf, which goes above and beyond the beast described in the book.  He also makes the Dementors scarier than the book ever did.  The scene of Harry's flight into the sky during a Quidditch match, only to meet up with a wicked Dementor, is chilling.  Hermione and Harry's battle with the Whomping Willow is more action-packed than anything featured in the novel.  The triple-decker bus is as fast and frantic as you imagined it would be when reading the book.  And not many directors could pull off the complex scenes involving Hermione's Time-Turner.  Cuarón's skill behind the camera turns the most annoying plot device in the first five Harry Potter novels into the best part of the third film.  Last but not least, Cuarón knows when enough's enough. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban closes on just the right note.  Cuarón leaves the audience wanting more, not wanting to leave the theater.  Think what Alfonso Cuarón could have done with the fourth film.  Too bad he wasn't asked back (or declined the offer).  I pray the next director has the talent and balls to make Harry Potter his own, in the same way Cuarón dared to reinvent the series with The Prisoner of Azkaban

Endnote:  Please, for the love of God, Warner Bros., do NOT hire new actors to replace Radcliffe, Watson and Grint.  Let these kids stay in for all seven pictures.  Getting new actors would be committing commercial suicide.  These characters are Harry, Hermione and Ron to hundreds of millions of people across the world.  Keep it that way.

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Agree? Disagree? Feeling bored and wanna write a letter that you'll probably never get a response to?  Email me at alex@juicycerebellum.com

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