Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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As Stevie Nicks once wrote "Time makes you bolder, children grow older", this came to mind while watching the latest J.K. Rowlings novel come to the screen, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The plot is darker, the children now growing into their early teens and the studio realizes yet another installment once of the most popular film franchises ever. As with all of the Potter books, and films, there is a rich tapestry of plots, some resolved within the episode, others spanning the entire set. Here we are introduced to a truly heinous villain, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Convicted by a trial of Wizards for his complicity with the dreaded Voldemort in the plot to murder Harry’s parents, Black is now on the loose and more determined than ever to finish the job by killing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). For protection the dark, magical guards of Azkaban, Dementors, are stationed all over Hogswarts to deter Black’s plan. Each year at Hogwarts brings Harry and his trusty friends into deeper and deeper danger but Harry is capable and rises to the constant challenge. True there are some lighthearted moments such as when Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) introduces Harry to a hippogriff named Buckbeak. This half horse, half bird provides not only the required relief from the heavier aspects of the plot but affords the folks at the CGI computers a chance to really show how sophisticated computer graphics have become.

This film would have been successful with only the Sirius Black segments but what sets it apart is the deeper, underlying themes found in coming of age films. The genius of Rowling’s work is each book is set in sequential years; the characters are one year older in each book and film, as the characters mature so does the target audience, affording the employment of more serious elements in the plots. The main characters are no longer the wide-eyed children that started the series, they are now entering the tumultuous teen years, difficult enough for us Muggles (people devoid of magic) but for young wizards they have to content not only with growing hormones but the maturity of their powers as well. There is also a look at cliques and prejudice at Hogswarts. Hermione (Emma Watson) is a mudblood, a person with mixed muggle and wizard parentage. Mudbloods are looked down on pure bloods like Draco Mafoy (Tom Felton). Of course making fun a girl with a superior command of magic can be a wee bit dangerous as Malfoy discovers in this film. There are the usual Junior High and High School cliques magnified by the British tradition of fraternal houses that divides each class. Perhaps one appealing factor in the Harry Potter stories is they provide a microcosm for the audience, these kids experience things we adults have lived through and the kids watching are experiencing.

I really hope the studio decides to stay with this cast despite the fact that they are aging, so are the characters they play. The main cast has developed a real chemistry with each other, a natural reflection of the characters they play. Daniel Radcliffe owns this role. He now is given the opportunity to show the growing emotional conflicts that reside in Harry. He gets to finally lash out against his abusive guardians and begins to se the real potential he has as a wizard. Rupert Grint as Ron Weasly displays amazing growth in this installment. The shy young wizard, always unsure of himself begins to mature as he gains some confidence in his abilities and himself. He also begins to see potential with his crush on Hermione. Emma Watson is more than up to her growing role. She opens up to her friends about being a mudblood and feels that she always has to be the best to prove the truebloods that are against her wrong. As for the adults in the cast no one plays the over the top villain better than Gary Oldman. He brings psychopathic killer to new heights every time he gets a chance to portray such a character. Michael Gambon has the regrettable task of replacing the late Richard Harris as the headmaster Dumbledore. While he does not have the same approach to the role I look forward to his further contributions to the up coming films.

Although Chris Columbus has remained a producer for this film he has stepped down as the director. That position is now filled by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. This is first time at the helm of a major, CGI driven film. According the interviews and behind the scenes material he wisely relied heavily on the suggestions to others, including considering the input from the more youthful cast members. The result is a film that pushes the PG rating to its limit but never fails to hold your attention. Cuarón balances the darker themes with pure flights of fancy and imagination. While too intense and dense with expository material for younger audiences this film will delight older children and their parents. Cuarón builds each scene expertly; he uses the camera as an all seeing eye that provides the viewer with an intimate feel for the story. Since he is used to a much older target audience he never talks down to us, he expects the young fans to know the story and be able to follow along.

Like the previous two DVD releases of this series Warner Brother scores nothing less than a grand slam with this release. The Dolby 5.1 audio is perfection; this is the new film to show your neighbors your home theater set up. The sound stage enfolds the audience; each speaker gets a complete workout. The sub woofer booms out with the special effects while the rear pair provides a rich ambience. The anamorphic video is spectacular, even in scenes that transition from dark to light the blacks remains deep while the colors retain a vibrant palette. This DVD is full of extras that will keep audiences of all ages entertained for hours after the movie is over. The interviews are imaginative and include a talk with Rowlings while another chats with a shrunken head. There are detailed looks at how key scenes were made and a magic quiz for the kids. This is not only worth while for die hard fans but will grace any film collection.

Posted 10/10/04

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