Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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Beginning his third year at Hogwarts School of magic, the young wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) learns that a dangerous accomplice of Voldemort, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison and may want to kill him.

Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the most visually interesting of the Harry Potter films but is, perhaps, the least satisfying.

Much of the movie consists of depictions of Harry's daily life at Hogwarts, but Cuarón proves himself to be as adept at imbuing these with interest as was Chris Columbus, the director of the first two Harry Potter films. He fills the movie with numerous spells and enchanted artifacts, a studious doppleganger, various magical beasts, including a hippogriff and a werewolf, a visit to a strange town near the school, a haunted house, fearful, wraithlike guardians from Azkaban searching for Sirius Black, distortions of time, and many more fanciful and captivating elements in addition to these. The film is, as a consequence, so lively and exciting that there is hardly a dull moment in it.

What is more, Cuarón has infused the movie with such an appealing visual style that he is sure to fascinate the viewer and draw him into the fictional world with which he is being presented. Most obviously, the director has significantly altered the geography of Hogwarts from what it had been in the first two films and made it a stranger, more dreamlike, and, sometimes, more nightmarish place. In fact, the whole movie has a darker look than do its predecessors, which considerably helps to emphasize its generally darker narrative. Because of its frequently sinister intensity, The Prisoner of Azkaban, while often light-hearted, and always fun, is surprisingly engaging and wonderfully exhilarating.

Even though Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is better directed than its predecessors, I must, nonetheless, concede that its narrative is less satisfying than are those of either of the first two films. The movie is exciting throughout and the story is inventive, but the ending is so sudden that the film does not so much arrive at a denouement as simply stop. I personally was left somewhat dissatisfied with the movie as a consequence of its sudden conclusion. Because Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban feels incomplete, what could have been the best of the series to date became, instead, the first to disappoint me. Of course, any film that disappoints only because it is not longer can hardly be considered a failure.

Finally, I should add that the movie is far more focused on its young protagonists than are the earlier films. The most important adult characters here are Sirius Black and the school's new teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), but even these two are no more than supporting players. Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) does, however, show some of the complexity he had in the first film, although his importance in this adventure is considerably diminished from what it had been in that movie.

Despite the flaws of the story, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, thanks to Cuarón's skilful directing, every bit as entertaining as are its predecessors.

Review by Keith Allen

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