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Arts & Culture

Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we find thirteen year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finishing out another miserable summer with the Dursleys, his less than hospitable relatives, and eagerly looking forward to his return to Hogwarts. Hes managed to behave himself all summer, refraining from any use of magic. But his restraint is put to the test by a visit from Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris), who insists on insulting Harrys late parents. Unable to control either his emotions or his magic, Harry accidentally inflates his hideous aunt and makes her float away. The wonderfully absurd scene plays out like a surreal moment from a Roald Dahl novel.

Fearing repercussions from his Aunt and Uncle as well as Hogwarts Ministry of Magic (that strictly forbids using magic in the non-magic world), Harry flees into the night. Hes picked up by the Knight Bus, and is eventually brought back to Hogwarts where he meets up with his pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). But darkness hangs over the trios third year of studies. A dangerous and enigmatic wizard named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped Azkaban prison. According to rumor, Black was responsible for leading Lord Voldemort to Harrys parents, which ultimately resulted in their deaths. Now the fear is that Black will come after Harry as well. Because of these concerns, Azkaban guards called Dementors have been stationed at the school. The creepy Dementors (which look like the Ring Wraiths of Lord of the Rings) can suck the souls from their victims. And the creatures have an unnerving effect on Harry. Only Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, seems able to help Harry counteract the Dementors powers. But Professor Lupin as a few dark secrets of his own that the trio of friends will have to uncover. Everything, though, is leading to an inevitable showdown between Harry and the mysterious and menacing Sirius Black. Harry must depend on his friends, his magic, and the school staff to help him find the truth about Black and his own obscure past.

Once again, the strength of the latest Harry Potter film lies in its exceptional cast. The trio of young leadsRadcliffe, Watson and Grintdoes seem to be aging a little faster then their onscreen characters should be (Grint in particular seems to have shot up and is coping with a voice thats breaking). But the three are highly appealing, and well at ease with their characters and each other. The film also has an embarrassing wealth of talent in supporting roles. Dame Maggie Smith returns for barely a cameo as Professor McGonagall. And Julie Christie, Emma Thompson and Timothy Spall all play new characters that are barely onscreen for more than a scene. Figuring more prominently into the story are Gary Oldmans Black and David Twelis Lupin. Both actors are supremely gifted, and they elicit both chills and sympathy with their roles. Alan Rickman is back again as Professor Snape and delivers another delicious yet far too short a performance. He may be the only actor who can make the simple request of turn to page 394 sound so menacing. Hes a delight and I wish the films would make better use of him.

Cuaron invests this latest edition of Potter with more maturity and darkness than its predecessors, and that reflects how the novels have progressed as well. Cuaron also makes the story more emotionally engaging than Columbus has done in the previous two outings. Columbus is more of a showman and his films highlighted the effects and the production design. With Cuaron, we feel like we are getting to know the characters better, and the effects and production design feel better integrated into the story. Yet Prisoner of Azkaban is designed for people who are already familiar with the Potter books or films. As with The Lord of the Rings, it offers no summary of the story so far to help anyone new to the series understand whats going on or how people are related. The film also suffers from a certain disjointedness that keeps the plot from flowing smoothly. But all in all, Cuaron has improved the quality of the series.

Some have complained about the elements of wizardry and fantasy in the films and the books, but these criticisms seem unfair. First of all, any work that can encourage young children to devour 500 page books and eagerly wait in lines at bookstores at midnight for the next edition should be applauded. Capturing a childs imagination is not easy and books and films that can do that are good. In addition, the magical world is merely a backdrop for a story that deals with very universal, very real and very important issues for kids. Rowling raises themes of identity, prejudice, social class, injustice and the rite of passage from childhood to being a teenager. When Harry has to face the Dementors, Professor Lupin may be teaching him to cast a spell but he is also teaching him a simple lesson in how to face down your fears with humor and trying to turn the terrifying into something ridiculous that can be dismissed.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (rated PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language) is dramatically the most effective film of the series so far. It is definitely darker than the others and may be too frightening for younger viewers. But older kids and adults may welcome the more mature tone. -----