Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (***)

Posted on June 6th, 2004 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a very solid and entertaining film, with a sort of throwaway storyline, solid acting, and some eye-poppingly amazing special effects. The three main characters (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) are getting older and entering their teen years, and the film depicts this in an understated but effective way, including the subtle touch (pointed out by Mynagirl) of having them spend much less time in wizard robes and much more time in casual, everyday garb. Some new characters are introduced, some old friends make cursory appearances, and this film property is moved safely to the next installment without any missteps.

The basic storyline is that Harry and the gang are starting another new year at Hogwart’s, which is a much grayer and more forebidding place than in previous installments. You see, a crazed, murderous, lunatic wizard (Sirius Black) has escaped from Azkaban prison and is apparently headed towards Hogwart’s to deal with unfinished business involving Harry. Black’s is the first ever successful escape from Azkaban, and he is being pursued by the creepy Dementors, who are the wraith-like creatures that serve as guards at Azkaban. The Dementors set up a perimeter around Hogwart’s, knowing that sooner or later Sirius Black will make a play for Harry. The Dementors are sort of a necessary evil, as they are not exactly good guys, and their presence around Hogwart’s places a sort of deathly pall over everything. Suffice it to say that once the stage is set and the characters are introduced, everything ends up not as it seems, which has become the expectation for Harry Potter films.

Also expected are effects that are so good that you begin to lose sight of the fact that they are effects. As usual, the broom-riding and Quidditch playing are so smooth that you forget to remember that it isn’t actually happening. But this installment also introduces the Dementors, which are sort of like these silent, flying Grim Reapers that have a tendency to start sucking the soul out of anybody who happens to cross their path, and they seem to have developed a taste for Harry’s soul, for some reason.

But the most jaw-dropping effects involve another creature that’s new to this story, named Buckbeak. Buckbeak is a hippogriff, which is a half-horse, half-bird. Picture a creature the size of a horse, with the front half being a bird (including wings) and the back half being horse and you’ll begin to get the idea. Buckbeak is animated with such smooth, realistic details and movements that he really transcends the whole “special effects” classification and begins to approach magic. Buckbeak is a bit ill-tempered, but he takes a shine to Harry and gives him quite a wild flying ride.

All-in-all this is a very entertaining movie, but it also feels very much like a middle chapter. The most important things that happen are the introductions of new, key characters, and the uncovering of their apparent motivations. Having someone new as Dumbledore (Michael Gambon takes over for the late, great Richard Harris) is a bit off-putting, but Mr. Gambon does a servicable job with a reduced role. Also reduced, role-wise, is Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, who only has one line by my count.

Still, the movie held my attention all the way through, and I appreciated the darker, more foreboding tone of this film. I can’t wait for the next installment, but I’m also curious how they’re going to keep using the same three actors for the kid’s roles, as the films are taking longer to make than the time that is elapsing in the books. Well, maybe the special-effects wizards will figure out how to do away with the actual actors and replace them with digital magic. Abracadabra.

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