NOW PLAYING: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Posted: Monday, June 07, 2004

It's been more than once that I've heard Harry Potter referred to as the exception to the rule. It's a seasonal blockbuster with real heart and actual characterizations. It's an FX-heavy film driven by, gasp, the story, and not the eye candy. And, as evidenced by this third installment, a sequel can match up to, and even surpass the joy of the original.

You may not have read the books, but there is no doubt that you have heard of Harry Potter by this time. By far the most successful children's literature series of all time, the Harry Potter films have been equally well received by both critics and audiences alike, the combined windfall of which has made creator J.K. Rowling one of the richest women in the world. A marketing juggernaut or no, Potter is no mere advertising ploy, plundering Mom and Dad's bank account so that junior can have the next big thing. No, the world and characters that Rowling created are wholly positive, nearly singlehandedly making reading cool again, while promoting such worthy themes as honor, loyalty, and tolerance. And, if you do end up with a Harry Potter Beach Towel or a Hedwig backpack, where's the harm?

The third installment, The Prisoner of Azkaban, begins much as the previous two do, with Harry at his Aunt and Uncle's home, again suffering the indignities of a truly awful family. Soon, however, Harry is back at school with friends Hermione and Ron, as well as a whole host of returning characters, and all seems fine. Fine until, that is, it is revealed that Sirius Black, a dangerous wizard who played a part in the death of Harry's parents, has escaped from the dreaded Azkaban prison. When it is rumored that Black may be after Harry to finish the job, the Ministry of Magic dispatches the Dementors, terrifying guards of Azkaban, to Hogwarts to watch and wait. The Dementors, however, also have an interest in Harry, who spends the film trying to stay one step ahead of an escaped murderer, his horrible jailers, and a bevy of other trials and tribulations. All of the actors are in fine form, and a few notable additions work out well. Professor Dumbledor, so perfectly played by legend Richard Harris who died last year has been replaced by veteran British actor Michael Gambon, who handles the character with charm and grace. David Thewlis is well cast as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and Emma Thompson is a hoot as a professor of parlor-telepathy. The real stars, however, are leads Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, who do a superb job of keeping their characters believable and consistent, film after film.

It's no surprise that these actors are getting older. It just happens; every day, in fact. However, it's their consistency of performance that help to tie the films together so well. The characters age as they should, without any jarring leaps or differences from film to film. The characters experience subtle changes, just like the rest of us. The upshot of this is that critics are calling this film dark - moody. I think that's a misnomer. Yes, there are scary parts in this movie, but no scarier than the giant snake from part two. Azkaban isn't necessarily dark, as much as it is somewhat grown-up. Harry is now a teenager, thus, the problems that arise are those that might affect a thirteen year old. There is more angst, a little more anger, but overall, the movie is not exceedingly different from its predecessors.

One of the biggest pluses to the whole Harry Potter universe is a sense of timelessness that the films and books portray. This characteristic is a sure sign of success. For example, we know that Harry spends his summers in modern-day England, but the scene is not complicated by a jangle of modern references like cell phones, the internet, and Britney Spears. Harry and crew exist in that special realm outside of time, ensuring that future generations will be equally as able to enjoy their exploits. For the third film in the series, Azkaban matches up to the last films with a great story, ideal actors, and beautiful special effects that enhance rather than drive the story. This film definitely cast a spell on me. Grade: A

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated PG for monsters, and cartoon violence.

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