Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has, in a way, the
toughest challenge of any of the three Harry Potter films to
date, in trying to live up to the merits of J.K. Rowling's book. The
Sorcerer's Stone did a nice job of capturing the book's charm
while introducing us to the characters and setting of Harry Potter's
world, and The Chamber of Secrets even improved on the source
material, making a highly entertaining adaptation of the weakest of
the Harry Potter books. To me, though, The Prisoner of Azkaban
stands out as the best of Harry Potter books yet published, combining
a distinctly darker tone with a tense, tightly-plotted, often
And overall, the film rises to the challenge. The film version of
Harry Potter's third year at Hogwarts is not a totally smooth ride,
but it's one that has enough punch in its story and enough surprises
up its sleeve to more than make up for a weak opening. At this point,
audiences know the characters and setting very well, so The
Prisoner of Azkaban is able to focus on the engaging (and often
rather frightening) plot to good effect.
The film is very faithful to the original book, which ironically is
the source of the one real weakness of the film. The opening fifteen
minutes or so of The Prisoner of Azkaban aren't handled well
at all: we get what amounts to a scene of slapstick humor at the
Dursley's home, complete with obtrusive theme music that sounds like
it came out of a sitcom. While this is precisely how the book opens,
on screen it plays out badly, seeming as though the filmmakers are
deliberately catering to the youngest audience members rather than
those who have "grown up" along with Harry Potter. Harry's
eventual burst of temper and rebellion make sense in the book, since
we're privy to his thoughts, but in the film, his actions seem abrupt
and slightly out of character. All in all, it's a rather inauspicious
start for what turns out to be an excellent film.
Fortunately, however, once Harry leaves the Dursleys, the film
settles down to telling its real story, and one useful marker of how
well it succeeds is that the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film doesn't
feel nearly that long. While never feeling rushed, the story moves
along at a brisk pace, with new events always unfolding, and with
something always keeping us intrigued by what's going to happen next.
Here, the film takes a more assertive tack with adapting the original
book, to good result. For instance, the Quiddich matches that that
take up a considerable share of the book, and which would have slowed
down the film's storyline for no particularly good reason in the
film, are cut down to a single scene and altered to incorporate a
brush with the Dementors, serving to advance the plot.
All in all, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a nicely plotted film,
with the various suspenseful threads dealing with Sirius Black, the
fate of Buckbeak, and Professor Lupin unfolding in a very interesting
manner, with some solid twists and turns toward the end of the film.
As with the earlier films, we get some well-known actors in new
supporting roles, but once again it's great to see how the actors
immerse themselves in their characters. Emma Thompson is nearly
unrecognizable in an excellent small role as the professor of
Divination, and while Gary Oldman doesn't fit my own personal image
of Sirius Black, he's spot-on for the way Rowling describes the
character. Alan Rickman continues to be delightfully nasty as Snape,
and Michael Gambon steps in with an admirable performance as
Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris.
The Prisoner of Azkaban is a film that relies heavily on CGI:
there's hardly a scene that doesn't call for some sort of special
effect, however small. What's really impressive, though, is the way
that CGI seems to have grown up and taken its place as just another
tool in the filmmaker's kit. All the magical effects and fantastical
creatures in The Prisoner of Azkaban are there because the
story, setting, or mood of the scene demand their presence... not
because the filmmakers want to show off their cool CGI. The result is
a feeling of "wholeness" to the film, and a sense that
we've really stepped into Harry's world. When we meet Buckbeak, we
share Harry's awe... but most importantly, we're awed because of the
beauty and majesty of the creature in the story, rather than by the
technological wizardry that created it. When we see the Marauder's
Map, we're intrigued by its potential for mischief, not just by how
cool it looks. (Well, to be honest, I also admired the technical
wizardry behind these effects, but it's secondary and we're not drawn
out of the film to do it.)
This is a film that's going to be a favorite of young viewers as well
as adults, so I'll mention that parents will want to make sure to
watch it along with younger (under 13 kids). While it's only rated
PG, not PG-13, there are quite a few disturbing and frightening
elements in the film, from the chilling Dementors to the appearance
of a giant spider. This shift toward a darker tone is very effective
in terms of the overall story, and it is well suited to the audience
who has grown up with Harry Potter; it just means that younger
siblings might find it quite scary.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a two-disc set,
packaged in a single-wide plastic keepcase. It's a different style of
packaging than the first two films, but I'm glad to see the switch,
since the plastic case stands up better to wear and tear and is
easier to access.
I'm pleased to report that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of
Azkaban has an excellent transfer. The widescreen edition
presents the film in its original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is
The image is crisp and clean, with no noise or print flaws appearing
anywhere; it's also a nicely detailed transfer, with only a slight
amount of edge enhancement appearing in some of the more visually
demanding scenes. Colors are handled very well; everything looks
natural while also having a bright, vibrant feel. I did notice that
contrast seems to be a bit on the heavy side, but I think that we're
looking at an artistic decision to make the film, overall, look
darker; dark scenes tend to have a lot of black areas, but there's
always enough light and detail where it matters. All in all, we're
looking at a very nice transfer that will allow you to sit back and
thoroughly enjoy the ride.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is, like the video transfer, handled very
well, and it certainly adds to the enjoyment of the film.
The "meat and potatoes" of the soundtrack is taken
care of with crisp, clear dialogue and an effective balance of
voices, background music, and special effects. It's the surround
sound that gives the track its extra sparkle. Throughout the film,
the side and rear channels are used very effectively to create a
sense of immersiveness; on many occasions, the directional effects
create the impression that you're really in the middle of things,
which is particularly effective in the scarier scenes.
Dubbed Spanish 5.1 and French 5.1 tracks are also included, along
with English closed captions.
Unfortunately, my first impression of The Prisoner of Azkaban
on DVD was negative, thanks to a truly horrible menu design. The film
begins playing automatically when it's inserted in the player, which
is always annoying, but what's worse is trying to go to the main
menu. There's a long animated menu opener, which gets a failing grade
from me on two counts: 1) It contains numerous spoiler images from
the film, and 2) It is not skippable. Navigating between sub-menus is
also slowed down by the non-skippable animations.
Once you get past the menus, the bonus content is reasonable, if not
mind-blowing. Disc 1 is mainly devoted to the film; the only special
features there are a cast and crew list (just a list of characters
and names, with no additional information) and trailers for the three
Harry Potter films.
On Disc 2 we find the bulk of the special features. (Incidentally,
viewers can choose to have the menus in either English or French.) In
an example the kind of cutesy menu design that's been an affliction
of the Harry Potter DVDs so far, the features are categorized
not by their actual content, but by different areas of Hogwarts.
The most interesting material is found in the "Divination"
section. First of all, five unfinished/deleted scenes are presented
in "Trelawney's Crystal Ball," ranging from about 30
seconds to 2 minutes. They're in rough format, sometimes with
blue-screens still in evidence, but will be of mild interest to fans.
Next up in this section is "Creating the Vision," a
12-minute featurette that focuses on the overall making of the film
and its adaptation from the book; we hear from director Alfonso
Cuarón and J.K. Rowling, among others.
The most substantial single bonus feature is the "Head to
Shrunken Head" featurette in the Divination section. This is
actually a compilation of 43 minutes of interviews with cast and
crew, in which the actors and crew members discuss their experiences
with making the film. There's a "play
all" feature, or viewers can select individual interviews with
the "Heroes," "Gryffindors," "Slytherins,"
Lupin, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Hagrid, the Dursleys, and the
filmmakers (the director, the production designer, and the director
of photography.) The actors are listed by their characters' names
rather than their own, probably to help younger viewers who don't
know the actors' names.
The "Great Hall" section is, in my opinion, a great waste
of time, as all we get here are some rather lame DVD games, which
incidentally contain quite a few spoilers, so it's best to avoid them
until after seeing the film. "Catch Scabbers!" is a
puzzle-type game in which viewers "help Crookshanks catch
Scabbers," as the name implies, and "The Quest of Sir
Cadogan" also asks viewers to help the knight complete his
quest. "Choir Practice" is a rendition of the song from the
film, played to a montage of clips from the film with the lyrics
The "Defense Against the Dark Arts" section is likewise
rather pointless. "Magic You May Have Missed" is a
memory/observation game using clips from the film, and "Tour
Lupin's Classroom" is just a 360-degree rendition of the room
from the film that viewers can rotate through. The "Tour
Honeydukes" section is even more pointless, as it's nothing more
than another 360-degree room tour, this time of the sweet shop.
We finally get to some more interesting material once again in the
"Hogwarts Grounds" section. Inside "Hagrid's Hut"
there's a 5-minute featurette called "Care of Magical
Creatures," which is an intriguing look at the animal trainers
and the animal stars of the film. The 15-minute "Conjuring a
Scene" is also quite interesting, as it gives us a look at the
makeup and special effects that were used on characters like Sirius
Black and Professor Lupin. Lastly, the "Hogwarts Grounds"
section has a preview of the game based on the movie, and a link to
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a worthy installment in the
Harry Potter series of films, offering an entertaining,
well-paced story and shifting quite effectively to a darker, scarier
tone for the film. The DVD transfer is excellent, with great video
and sound quality, and while the special features fall more on the
"quantity" rather than "quality" side of the
scale, there are still several features that will be worth watching
for fans of the films. Overall, the film earns a "highly
recommended" mark from me.