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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban DVD Review

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

June 14, 2005

Director: Alfonso Cuarón,
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, ,

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DVD Review

At first, it seems like rather an odd choice picking the director of the racy, coming-of-age road movie, Y tu mamá también (2001), to direct the latest Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Studios are notoriously protective of their cash cow franchises—especially ones targeted at a young audience demographic. But, in a way, it makes sense that Cuarón was chosen. Both movies are coming-of-age tales documenting the awkward growing pains of their respective protagonists. It is a fascinating blend of big budget pyrotechnics with a director who has a particular vision.

It is year three for the students at Hogwarts and Harry (Radcliffe) has gotten bolder now that he’s entered his teen years. He no longer stands for the humiliation that his step-parents dish out. In an impulsive moment he inflates one relative into a literal human balloon. It’s an act of teenage rebellion and one that lands young Harry in a lot of trouble because he has exposed his magical abilities to the public at large. However, he soon finds that this is the least of his problems as he learns that murderous magician Sirius Black (Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison. It is rumoured that Black intends to find Harry and kill him into order to bring Voldemort back into power. The hunt is on for Black and the school is disrupted by the presence of the Dementors, wraith-like beings who hunt for the renegade magician and anyone who gets in their way.

Right from the start this movie has much more snap and pop to it. For the first time in the series there is a director with a distinctive style behind the camera. Cuarón instills each frame of this movie with infectious energy. He presents a wonderfully magical world filled with books with snapping teeth and a triple-decker bus that can make it thin and squeeze between two other buses at will. Every scene seems to move and there is a layering of styles. Every shot is drenched in atmosphere. The more multi-dimensional a film is, the easier it is to get pulled into it. The first two films felt like two-dimensional pictures trying to be three-dimensional. It took someone like Cuarón to bring this franchise alive and he does it within the first ten minutes.

Every film has wisely surrounded its young cast with experienced British actors and this installment is no different. This is a powerhouse supporting cast with the likes of Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Emma Thompson providing many moments for the adults to enjoy. Even veteran comedian Dawn French (Vicar of Dibley) gets to vamp it up as one of the living paintings decorating a hallway in Hogwarts.

This is also the first Harry Potter film that doesn’t feel like it was shot on a series of soundstages. Cuarón made the conscious decision to shoot much of the outdoor scenes in Scotland and this really gives the film texture, losing the sterile CGI feel of the first two movies. For example, there is a scene where Harry and Professor Lupin (Thewlis) talk on a bridge with an expansive, hilly landscape behind them. It is a nice, little touch that enhances the scene and gives the film more visual depth.

Special Features:

On the first disc there are trailers for all three Harry Potter movies.

The second disc contains the rest of the extra material which is a nice mix of behind-the-scenes featurettes and interactive games. Even the animated menus are done in a way that keeps in spirit with the movie, which is a nice touch.

“Trelawney’s Crystal Ball” features five deleted or unfinished scenes, including more with Harry on the bus and a new (and foolish) portrait that guards the boys’ dorm room.

The most substantive extra on this disc is “Creating the Vision,” a 12-minute look at the making of the movie with Cuarón and author J.K. Rowling. They talk about adapting her novel and Cuarón talks about dealing with the abstraction of time travel. Rowling mentions that she was a fan of Y tu mamá también and wanted Cuarón to direct this installment of Harry Potter.

“Head to Shrunken Head” is the most entertaining extra and features a series of interviews with the cast and crew of the movie. Our three heroes (Radcliffe, Grint and Watson) talk about how Cuarón asked them to write a page essay about their characters (Watson wrote 16 pages!) and how they are dealing with the overwhelming fame garnered from these movies. For the adults, the interview with Gary Oldman and David Thewlis is a real treat as the two veteran actors tease each other and talk about how much their kids were thrilled that they appeared in this movie. Cuarón talks briefly about moving the production to Scotland to shoot the outdoor scenes.

“Catch Scabbers!” is a game where you have to catch Ron’s pet mouse, Scabbers, with three increasingly difficult levels of play. This takes some deft maneuvering with your DVD remote.

“Choir Practice” is a karaoke sing-a-long for the “Double Trouble” song from the movie.

“The Quest of Sir Cadogan” allows you to step into the armor of this clumsy knight and perform a series of tasks that involve a mix of memory games and quick navigation skills. Again, this is another one that requires you to be quick with your DVD remote.

“Hagrid’s Hut” is a substantial Making Of featurette that starts with a look at how some of the real animals in the film were trained. Also included is a look at how Oldman was transformed into Sirius Black and how they did Thewlis’ werewolf transformation (a clever mix of prosthetics and CGI). We also get a glimpse of how the creatures were designed and created. Cuarón preferred old school effects to that of CGI but in some cases using computers was unavoidable.

“Tour of Honeydukes” is a really cool 360 degree tour of the candy store that makes you feel as if you are really there.

“Magic You May Have Missed” tests your memory as you must spot something specific that stands out or is missing from a scene.

Finally, there is another 360 degree virtual tour, this time of Professor Lupin’s classroom. This is a really nice looking extra that makes one feel as if they are in the movie.

With Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón joins the ranks of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson as a filmmaker capable of creating textured fantasy films that don’t talk down to kids and still appeals to adults. The characters have layers of grey areas—they aren’t purely good or evil. Cuarón has made one of the most enjoyable sequels in a year filled with strong sequels (Spider-Man 2, The Bourne Supremacy, and Before Sunset) and easily the best Harry Potter film to date.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 94%

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