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"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
Written by Steven Kloves.  Based on the book by J.K. Rowling.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Gary Oldman.
Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  6/7/04

(Note:  There are a number of spoilers criticized below, so read this after you have seen the film, or read the book, or...whatever.)


There’s a scene in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” where Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are laying on a couple of diving boards over a pool, masturbating to the image of a particularly hot Latina named Salma Hayek.

Of course, there are plenty of other R-rated (or unrated) things happening in that flick, my favorite film from two years ago.  You can imagine, then, my surprise when I learned that Chris Columbus (producer and director of the first two “Harry Potter” films) had tapped Alfonso Cuarón, the director of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, to direct the third film based on the books by J.K. Rowling.


What isn’t shocking is that “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is a more adult film than the first two flicks, which I understand is quite like the third book, which I understand is the best of the five books so far.  This time around, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his buddies Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head back to that crazy wizard school only to find that some crazy guy named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped a prison for crazy people and is—crazily—trying to get to Hogwarts to kill off Potter.  Meanwhile, we get the inner struggle of Harry as he deals with his emotions surrounding the death of his parents years ago, since this guy Sirius may have had something to do with their demise.

And, there’s a bunch of other stuff, like quidditch, and wolves, and a Capricorn-looking flying hybrid animal that likes Harry.

After seeing my third “Potter” film, here’s what it is for me:  either you love this stuff, or you think it’s okay.  You never come away thinking that these movies suck; the films have generally been well made, the acting by both the kids and the adults is quite strong, and the story really does feel like it’s got that “something”, even if I can’t place my finger on what it is.  But, now that I have seen this film, without reading the books, I will never be caught up in the magic that is the “Potter” series.

Clearly, you can’t throw 450 pages in a 140-minute film (and this is the SHORTEST of the three films, all of which have felt too long), and as such I was left on empty in a number of places in “Azkaban.”  The single biggest reason I was excited to watch this film was Oldman, one of my favorite character actors and a man that I will watch incessantly for any reason at any time but who hasn’t worked regularly in a few years.  Imagine my anger, then, as we get none of the Black character until, well, damn near the end of the film.  I have been lectured that this is the case in the book as well, but for me, I didn’t really connect with this character at all and it left a big hole for me in terms of story development.  Even if we didn’t get him in the book, I would have loved a sequence where Black breaks out of Azkaban, or eludes the authorities, or where he is taking a break at a local inn, fuming over how much he hates Potter, or just anything…as it is, we get Black at what seems at first like the end of the film, only to have it go on for a little while longer, dampening the effect Oldman’s extended cameo has on the film’s final half-hour.

Further upsetting to me?  If you know me, you know one of my least favorite devices in film (or any medium, for that matter) is time travel, because NO ONE EVER GETS IT RIGHT.  Each time we get time travel in film, it seems like the logic gets twisted just right to make a story work out, and in “Azkaban”, the time travel device used at the end of the film—ESPECIALLY when Harry and Hermione come back to the present—made me literally raise my arms in the theater.  So, when you come back to the present, your alternate selves just go poof?  Come on.  I’ll admit, I enjoyed the explanation behind how the time travel bit got set up and how Hermione plants little clues to herself that something’s going on, but while I’m cool with magic, I’m not cool with time travel.

The performances and the look of the third “Potter” film are very strong.  The evolution of the acting by Watson, Radcliffe and especially Grint has been fun to watch; Grint, in particular, does good work in the third film mostly because he is not overdoing it every time he is on camera.  Seriously, Grint’s work in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” was so hilariously hammy that I thought Grint would become the greatest scared child actor of all time.  In “Azkaban”, he saves those looks for when he really is in life-threatening danger, not every time he, say, bites into some old okra.

Alan Rickman, David Thewlis (as Harry’s newest professor, Lupin), Maggie Smith, and Robbie Coltrane all do admirable work as school faculty, and Michael Gambon fills the shoes of Richard Harris quite nicely as Dumbledore.  The dark sets, even the rain-filled quidditch match, really do set the darker tone quite nicely as every single thing about the third “Potter” outing takes a turn for the mature.  The special effects, naturally, are outstanding, from Harry’s invisible cloak to a super-cool magical map that highlights where everyone in Hogwarts is currently standing.

After it was all done, I was happy with the result but nothing about “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” made me say wow or, more importantly, made me say “I really need to see that one again.”  For $6, this is good times, but without reading the books or being caught up in Pottermania, this is just about as good as it gets for me.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09