Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis
The third instalment in the magical adventure series hits the screens with grand expectations, seeing as it comes from the most gripping and imaginative JKRowling book of the set so far. In this respect, it does not disappoint, it stakes its claim easily as the best of the three adaptations. Harry returns for his third year at Hogwarts school of Wizardry and Witchcraft in confusion over his lenient treatment having blown up his Aunt Marge (fantastically portrayed by Pam Ferris) into a balloon. All becomes clear when Harry learns that Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban prison and the killer's connections to Harry himself are revealed. The third year is made even more eventful what with Hagrid's hippogriff, Hermione's manic time-table and manic new pet cat, and lessons with new defence against the dark arts teacher - the fatherly Professor Lupin.
There are far too many incredible performances to comment on from the all-star cast. Most notably, though, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have all grown into their acting roles as well as in stature and are far more convincing; commendable in their most recent turns as the three famous friends. Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and Dame Maggie Smith reprise their Hogwarts teachers roles, providing continuing friendship, hatred and authority for Harry and co. respectively. However, of notable absence are Zoe Wannamaker and John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick, which is a great shame and detracts from the film's brilliance compared to the first two.
New additions to the school arena include David Thewlis, Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon. At first I was dubious seeing Thewlis as Professor Lupin. He wouldn't have been my first choice for one of the most intriguing, lovely roles in the series, but after a while I was suitably impressed, as he carried off the friendly complex relationship with Harry admirably well and I retracted my disapproval. Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney also shocked me, but unlike with Lupin, I did not come to terms with the casting choice despite her addition of a certain zest and humour to the character which has passed me by in the books. Michael Gambon bravely took up the gauntlet of Dumbledore after the sad death of Richard Harris; and after some contemplation I acknowledge his attempt at making the role his own. Initially the lilting accent annoyed me, I wondered if children might be confused at the change, but the very character of Dumbledore makes him likeable and heroic whoever played by.
Gary Oldman as Sirius Black is, again, not as I anticipated the character to be, but he takes the part and moulds it to fit his looks and skills. While neither of the characters Lupin and Sirius were as attractive as I had them in my mind, they work well for the story after challenging initial notions. The hilarious cameos of Dawn French and Lenny Henry also deserve a special mention, although Timothy Spall's inclusion I do not whole-heartedly agree with, he hardly strikes fear and hatred into the heart does he?
The stars of this show overall are the graphics department designers. All of the creatures and special effects are done to a T with the most fantastic achievement being Buckbeak the hippogriff, who is the most believable wondrous feat of CGI technology I think I have ever seen. The second Harry Potter film was a sore disappointment to me due to the combined over-effort and under-effort of the CGI section, with a non-scary fluffy Muppet evil spider and a ridiculously mis-proportioned Basilisk which made the entire display laughable. Considering this, I was dreading the attempts to ruin film three but I was pleased to find I had misplaced doubts.
All in all Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a veritable visual feast with additional benefits from amazing acting talents and a superb storyline. Which only leaves me to complain bitterly about the missing bits of essential plot and the traumatic change of setting. Most irritating of all is the lack of explanation of Padfoot, Moony, Wormtail and Prongs; the reasons for their names, their connection to the Marauder's Map and the emotionally jarring connection of Prongs to Harry's Patronus. Second most irritating is the Dementors - Who picked up the ringwraiths from the Fellowship and plonked them down in Harry Potter? Since when do Dementors fly? Grr. They were scary enough but I don't think the full scope of the original horror of these creatures is elaborated sufficiently by either the dialogue or their visual effect.
Finally, although I think everyone agrees Alfonso Cuaron has done a terrific job with the film as a whole, I hold a grudge for his seemingly irrational decision to transport Hogwarts into the middle of the mountains and give up on all pretence of keeping the same building. There is no way anyone can believe Hogwarts is the same as in the previous two films. I just cannot understand moving all filming, after two successful movies based at Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle, into Scotland, giving Hogwarts grounds a distinctly inclined new look!
Prisoner of Azkaban is still the most effective and entertaining of the three Harry Potter films, despite its evident flaws to fans of the books, and I challenge anyone not to enjoy the mystery and magic in this latest instalment.