Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban proved to be an intriguing film for a couple of reasons. First, after putting their collective heads down and making the first two films in the Harry Potter franchise (Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets) in rapid succession. The cast and crew involved with the films got a chance to take a mini-break of sorts before heading back into the subsequent films. And while writer Steve Kloves and many other key crewmembers returned the director of the first two Potter films (Chris Columbus) stepped aside to let another director take the reins, namely Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men). Cuaron's selection was a curious one but working with what at the time could be considered a darker film, seemed to be a good choice in retrospect.
The third of J.K. Rowling's novels finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) back at Hogwarts for another term. There is a new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher in Professor Lupin (David Thewlis, The New World), and the school's groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) has been promoted to staff. Harry continues to be tweaked by a rival in school, namely Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), but Harry has other problems that grow in nature. A man in Azkaban prison named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, Planet 51), known as a supporter of Lord Voldemort, has escaped, and is supposedly out to kill Harry. He even goes so far as to impede on Hogwarts' grounds to try to accomplish this.
The kids take some of their first steps into a perhaps more desolate or even depressing world (steps that would become more noticeable in the fourth film, Goblet of Fire), but their steps into adulthood are subtle yet noticeable. Radcliffe and Watson show more emotional range in this film compared to others, and when given a chance to play against the galaxy of British actors that serve as Hogwarts' faculty, they hold their own which, considering their age is commendable. And with those actors, particularly the new ones, Oldman's casting turns out to be a good swerve if you're unfamiliar with the franchise as I was.
The story does not provide as many new thrills or introductory moments of wonder that the first two films did, but then one remembers that it's not supposed to as much. Rowling and Kloves have moved on from these matters, and are looking forward to frying bigger fish. Cuaron seems to recognize this and tries to show more of the kids' transitions to a young adult stage. Nevertheless, in looking at the larger picture, the smaller story within Azkaban feels a little lost. The story mechanisms to get the kids to where they do in the third act are a little convenient, and the ultimate resolution leans a little too much on the deus ex machina side of things
Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a mixed bag of sorts, and that hampers the enjoyment of this film not only compared to other Potter installments, but in and of itself. But as a transition piece to larger parts of the story, that bar appears to be cleared with room to spare. I guess the filmmakers chose...wisely.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 2.40:1 high-definition widescreen using the VC-1 codec, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a solid Blu-ray release. The film's palette includes more blues and grays even in the exterior shots, but those shots (along with the flat out darkness) avail themselves fairly well. There are moments of pixilation in one or two of the Hogwarts sequences, but flesh tones are reproduced accurately, image detail in the foreground and background isn't bad, and there's a multidimensional feel to the image at times. It's not the best looking Harry Potter film of the bunch, but it's not bad either.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack is understated but powerful when it wants to be. Heavy doors close shut with a low-end punch to them, and when Harry rides the XXXXX for the first time, the beast dipping its toe into the water midflight can be heard easily and with surprising clarity. The dialogue as a whole is clear for that matter, staying strong in the center channel without concern. Speaker panning and directional effects are both present during the feature, and each are done without distortion and effectively, and there's a fair level of immersion in the exterior sequences to boot. The lossless track given to Azkaban is quality listening.
There's some new wrinkles here, so bear with me. Warner has made some slight changes to the packaging and its contents for the Ultimate Edition of Azkaban. The cardboard outer sleeve in previous editions has been replaced by one with a lenticular cover, giving the buyer a "book from a bookshelf" feeling when pulling out the discs. Additionally the magnet that held the disc packaging/book securely is gone too. In addition to that, the physical disc that houses the film's digital copy has been replaced with instructions to download the copy from a Warner link. The character cards and photo book remain. Altogether the changes are a distraction, though not too noticeable. A note as it relates to the labeling of discs for Azkaban; the SD extras disc is listed as Disc Two in the main menu (at least on my player), but is listed as Disc Three on the packaging. Got it? Good.
And as is the case in previous editions, the bonus material from earlier versions of the film have been carried over here and new material has been introduced. The new material starts with Part 3 of the "Creating the World of Harry Potter" making-of featurettes (the previous two have been on the Ultimate Editions of the first two films), with this one focusing on the creatures that were made for the franchise (1:03:22). Various members of the cast and crew talk about the creatures and their importance to the story, and Rowling and the directors of the films discuss their particular relevance in this film as well. The visual effects department touches base with how they approach any new monsters created for the film, and there are scene breakdowns with them that highlight some of the more memorable monster sequences. There are some practically made robotic monsters and the task of building them is touched upon, and the cast discusses their respective thoughts on some of the monsters through all the films. There's even an interview segment with Toby Jones (W.), as he talks about his time doing voiceover work as the lovable house elf Dobby. All in all it's another extensive and entertaining look at a key aspect within the franchise.
Moving to the rest of the material, "Inside the Creature Shop" (8:27) shows Makeup Effects Designer Nick Dudman's workspace, full of old statues and molds from previous films and his recollection of some of the efforts put into them. He also talks about the work put into some of the robotics used and the challenge of casting and re-casting molds for the younger cast members. "The Magic Touch of Harry Potter" (42:28) is the first of three making-of specials that use vintage interview footage with the cast and filmmakers. Narrated by Jeremy Piven, this touches upon the success of the first two films and how everyone approached the third, and Rowling talks about writing the books and some of the background inspirations for some of the arcs and characters. There are loads of recollections from the cast as to how they got the roles and how things over the first two films changed from them and their families, and the grown-ups share the same general memories to boot. "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (13:02) is more along the lines of your EPK as the cast talks about how important this story is and the new cast members share their feelings on the roles they have. Cuaron informs us how he wanted to approach the story and how he instructed the child actors to do so, along with any of the relevant new developments in the story. "The Making of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" shows us just that, or at least as much of it that ten minutes will allow, and an interview with Cuaron for Spanish television lets us in on the work he put into the film and his thoughts on the production and those involved in it (8:15). Five deleted scenes follow (4:54), but they don't really add much to the film and in fact, are duplicates from the SD extras disc. A teaser, two trailers, an ad for an iPhone app and two different books close the disc out.
Moving onto the SD extras disc, "Creating the Vision" (11:43) is where Rowlings' involvement in the film is talked about, and Kloves discusses how she helped him with the screenplay. Both Cuaron and Rowling talk about the challenges within the story and his intent in pulling them off, and Rowling seems to give her seal of approval here. The cast and crew also share their mindgrapes on Cuaron's work in the production. "Head to Shrunken Head" is a series of interviews with the cast and crew where a British host named Johnny Vaughan and the Jamaican head that was on the bus Harry got on grill the subjects, with the shrunken head getting in a "Baba Booey"-esque question here and there to any willing recipient. "Conjuring a Scene" (15:35) shows the characters and scenes getting prepared for shooting, and some test footage of Oldman and Thewlis are covered. The hair and makeup for some of the characters is recalled here as well. The creatures are shown and discussed some more, along with some animatics and various effect pass-through footage being included. The Scottish location where Hogwarts sits is also given some love and affection. "Care of Magical Creatures" (4:44) is a chance for the animal trainers to talk about how they prepared various owls, hounds and cats for their moments in the spotlight of the filming. Guided tours of Moneydukes and Lupin's lab can be accessed, and three set top games ("Catch Scabbers!" "Choir Practice" and "Quest of Sir Cadogan") are also here. There is also a preview for a game produced by EA (1:02) and the disc also has some DVD-ROM content for downloading too.
I'm guessing that this Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Ultimate Edition means that there isn't going to be any other editions and if that's the case, I'm left saying "Is that it?" The video could use a little bit of work and is lacking on bonus materials compared to the other editions, but if you're buying them to get them all, go for it if you're going by the rule of "Every Franchise is going to have a Dud."