WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Harry Potter’s life is menaced again, this time not by Voldemort but by one of his supporters, snarling Azkaban prison escapee Sirius Black. New Defence against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin does his best to arm Harry, but the young wizard discovers that in his third year at Hogwarts, danger lies around every corner. Just as well, then, that he has friends old and new to help him.
Although they were entertaining enough, both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were little more than note-for-note transplants from book to screen. When Columbus declined the opportunity to direct the third film, Alfonso Cuaron – Mexican director of the edgy and explicit Y Tu Mama Tambien – can hardly have been the first name on everyone’s lips; yet he was given the task of taking Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) from childhood into adolescence.
A comical opening which sees Harry’s Aunt Marge floating off into the distance suggests business as usual, but events quickly take a dark turn when Harry learns that vicious criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) – a notorious follower of Harry’s would-be killer Lord Voldemort – has escaped from Azkaban with the avowed intent of finishing Voldemort’s job for him. Arriving at Hogwarts with friends Hermione and Ron (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint), Harry is not exactly comforted to be told by Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, assuming the role following the death of Richard Harris) that the school is to be protected by ringwraiths dementors, the soul-sucking guardians of Azkaban who have a terrible effect on Harry; and despite the tuition of the school’s latest Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the young wizard struggles to evoke the happy thoughts needed to produce the vital patronus shield that offers protection. In the meantime, Ron’s brothers give Harry a magical map that allows him to visit the local village of Hogsmeade; the map also shows him that a long-thought-dead wizard is present within the grounds of the school, a discovery that brings Harry, Ron and Hermione face to face with Black, half-crazed and desperate to kill…
The first thing to note is that Prisoner of Azkaban is a film (as it was a book) whose big revelation is so central to experiencing it for the first time that I will dance around the subject for fear of spoiling anyone’s enjoyment. That said, though some Potter fans will no doubt lament the loss of many incidental details from the book (such as the origins of the map), Alfonso Cuaron does an excellent job of transferring the action to the screen, keeping the running time under two-and-a-half hours and reflecting the more serious nature of the story by darkening the colour palette, a cold, blue look keeping the viewer conscious of the presence of the dementors at all times. These scary, noiseless beings, since they trouble Harry throughout the film, present almost more of a danger to him than Sirius Black; so it is just as well that the effects that create them are excellent, as are those around the patronus shield used to fend them off.
These atmospheric scenes, together with the denouement which unknots (as it should) a satisfyingly complicated plot, are complemented by actors who put their all into the project. Gary Oldman in particular excels as Sirius, but David Thewlis, Emma Thompson (as dippy New-Age Professor Trelawny) and Timothy Spall, emerging from an unexpected place at the film’s end, are also very good. The three young leads, too, continue to develop, Watson growing less precocious and Radcliffe drawing on mentions of Harry’s parents to broaden his emotional range. Other regular members of the cast (Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith) are fine, even if their roles are truncated to save time, and although Gambon doesn’t match up to Richard Harris, he is to be commended for not attempting an impersonation. His Dumbledore here is at least more as J. K. Rowling wrote him than he would prove in Goblet of Fire.
The story is told with great flair and takes pains to emphasise themes such as darkness and light, or Harry’s search for a father [figure], but Prisoner of Azkaban, more than any other Harry Potter film, betrays its influences with a cinematic treatment. Apart from the already-hinted at inspiration for the dementors, Lupin’s condition (not very cleverly concealed within his name) has already been the subject for dozens of films, a lot of which were more convincing (though not PG-rated); and while the time-travel aspect of the story is very neat and its attendant paradoxes are lightly played on, the sequence surely owes its entire existence to Back to the Future.
Despite these quibbles and the unfortunate fact that the story can only be enjoyed as an ‘ideal’ experience once, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a distinct improvement on its predecessors, putting a more mature slant on the series and at the same time broadening both the world around Hogwarts and Harry’s circle of friends and enemies. Quite an achievement, considering that the film goes by with barely a mention of You-Know-Who’s name.