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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

(2004) *** 1/2 Pg
141 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Cast: Matthew Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman.

With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—the third film in the Harry Potter film franchise—fresh director Alfonso Cuarón dueled me to a draw. The more artful nature of this third film (compared to producer Chris Columbus' first two films) is immediately apparent, while Cuarón happily trades away those films' delight in childlike whimsy for a far more chilling and baroque sensibility in keeping with the maturation of Potter found in J.K. Rowling's novel.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had director Columbus' Spielberg-light buoyancy (at which many critics gleefully sniped), but those films are as sturdily executed as they are safe. If not quite slam dunks, Columbus' films had magic, clarity, and established a rich universe of settings, characters, talismans, and history: for my money, the first two Harry Potters will sit comfortably among the best children's fantasy movies.

That Cuarón's take on the inherently darker third novel is more of a film than a movie is a double-edged sword for this children's entertainment. A large percentage of the young audience will have read the source material, and will grit their teeth at times during this more free adaptation by Cuarón and three-time Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves (necessitated by a longer novel to adapt). Those same youngsters—many of whom have physically if not emotionally outgrown the stories—will no doubt take in stride the film's more deliberate, moodier tone and grittier visual imagery, and the rest may be pleasantly challenged by the film's resistance to easy comfort. Cuarón's one concession to magical uplift, Harry's Hippogryph ride, contrasts sharply to the stormy nightmares which are this film's Qudditch match (compare this lightning-struck, grey nightmare to Columbus' blue skies and green lawns) and the emotionally charged (and forseeable) climax.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban picks up Potter's story in Year Three of his education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This time, the now-teenage Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) refuses to suffer his aunt and uncle. After a bit of bad-tempered magic seemingly torn from the pages of Roald Dahl, Potter runs away from home only to be picked up by the Knight Bus, a scarily efficient public transport exclusive to wizards. The crazy speed and dissonant music of the wild bus ride announce definitively that this is not your producer's Harry Potter (John Williams returns to score, with admirable lack of adherence to convention and a minimum of reprises of the Potter theme).

Potter's new misadventures at Hogwarts mostly revolve around his dodging of men from his father's past, particularly the escaped prisoner of the title: Gary Oldman's fiercely unpredictable Sirius Black. Recognizing that Black is most likely after his blood, Harry resolves to protect himself and—with friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint)—weave together the ever-unraveling mystery of his past. The episodic structure of the 141-minute film can become wearing, especially in the complex details of the Potter mythology, which read compellingly but hardly trip off the tongue as the characters hurriedly sort out the details in static dialogue scenes.

Within those considerable limitations, Cuarón filigrees his film with brilliantly outsized projections of Harry's fears and underlying realities. From the cuckoo clock which punctuates Harry's illict magic at home to the giant pendulum which suddenly inhabits Hogwarts' main foyer, Cuarón constantly reminds us of time's impact on the characters: indeed, time moves from subtext to text in the film's climax. Cuarón's sense of dread is finely tuned, with the terrifying Dementors (prison guards from Azkaban) and a gleeful appropriation of the witches' chant from Macbeth as a Hogwarts' choir number.

The acting remains nimble in both camps: the burgeoning young adults (now outfitted in Cuarón-friendly fashions) and the seasoned veterans. David Thewlis proves a casting coup as Dark Arts professor Lupin, and Cuarón deftly handles delightfully precocious performances from a ridiculously accomplished cast: Emma Thompson, Robert Hardy, Timothy Spall, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith (underused), Oldman, and Michael Gambon, who steps in for the late Richard Harris in the role of headmaster Dumbledore. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban's stronger sense of reality reflects Rowling's growth along with her characters, and Cuarón maintains a streak of humor to leaven the proceedings. A Muggle audience's hunger for more coherency and context may send them running for Rowling; if the film is the visual equivalent of an abridged audiobook, audiences can still be very grateful for Cuarón's "small" favors.

NOTE:Warner has partnered with IMAX theatres to super-size Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If it is within your ability to see the film on an IMAX screen (a flat screen, not a dome), I unreservedly recommend it. The giant-size clarity and unparalleled sound quality present the film in the best possible light.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 10/19/2010

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner's Ultimate Edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban comes in a deluxe package to match those for "Year 1" and "Year 2." A durable box with a magnetic clasp contains the three discs (two Blu-rays and a DVD), two collector's cards and a lavishly illustrated forty-eight-page hardcover book on the set's theme of creatures. Sprucing up Years 3 and 4 are lenticular cards slotted into the covers. The HD transfer from 2007 returns here, and it remains impressive. The Harry Potter films tend to muted but rich hues, accurately represented here, along with fine contrast; detail and textures are excellent, and the crucial black level holds solid for most of the picture, flagging just a bit at the end. Aside from a few fleeting distractions (the odd bit of ringing, say), this is a sterling transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix plays with power: awesome effects abound, with wraparound immersion that puts the audience squarely into Harry's world. Dialogue stays above the fray, with crisp clarity.

The showcase bonus feature for this set is the wonderful new doc "Creating the World of Harry Potter Part 3: Creatures" (1:03:22, HD), which shows off pre-production art and early-stage effects, modelwork, CGI tests and a full compliment of behind-the-scenes interviews. Also a selling point: "Inside the Creature Shop" (8:27, HD), in which special makeup effects designer Nick Dudman leads a tour of his creature shop.

Also included are the three television promos "The Magic Touch of Harry Potter" (42:28, SD), "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (13:02, SD), and "The Making of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (10:02, SD).

The all-too-short "An Interview with Alfonso Cuaron" (8:15, SD) gives some insight into the director's experience and intentions.

From the rough cut come five "Deleted Scenes" (4:53, HD): "Night Bus," "Birdie," "Great Hall," "Cadagon" and "McGonogall And The Password."

Next up are three "Theatrical Trailers" (5:16, HD), and trailers for iPod app "Harry Potter: Spells" (:45, SD), "Harry Potter: A Pop-Up Book" (1:49, HD) and the book "Harry Potter: Film Wizardry"(2:31, HD).

The original DVD special features return on Disc Three. Divination Class kicks off with Trelawney's Crystal Ball, comprising the five deleted scenes, and the "Creating The Vision" featurette (11:45, SD). Head To Shirlinken Head includes "Introduction With The Shrunken Head" (0:43) and a collection of "Interviews" (43:04, SD) with "The Heroes," "The Gryffindors," "The Slytherins," "Professor Lupin And Sirius Black," "Professor Dumbledore And Rubeus Hagrid," "The Dursleys" and "The Filmmakers." Great Hall houses the Catch Scabbers Interactive Challenge, "Choir Practice (Sing-Along)" (1:41, SD), The Quest Of Sir Cadogan Interactive Challenge, and a Self-Guided Interactive Tour of Honeydukes. Defense Against The Dark Arts includes Magic You May Have Missed Interactive Challenge, and Self-Guided Interactive Tour of Lupin's Classroom. Hagrid's Hut contains the featurettes "Care Of Magical Creatures" (4:46, SD) and "Conjuring A Scene" (15:37, SD), along with a "Game Preview" (1:02, SD).

Fans will find this is the best-available edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in its fine HD presentation and definitive collection of bonus features to date.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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