I often like to watch movies made from books before reading their literary counterparts so that I can fully enjoy it without constant comparison. But if you try to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without a pretty thorough background, you'll be quite lost. Nevertheless, Potter fans will surely enjoy this latest frolic through the world of magic. All the elements are there, even if there is a twinge of disappointment and some of the real emotion lost to time constraints and making sure all the relevant plot twists were covered.
The Prisoner of Azkaban begins the summer before the kids' third year at Hogwarts. And, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now a teenager, his poltergeist-like tendencies pop up as he accidentally blows up his aunt at the dinner table. When he flees to The Leaky Cauldron, instead of the reprimand he expects, he is greeted with a message of caution from the Minister of Magic (Robert Hardy). Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), madman, murderer, and betrayer of Harry's parents, is on the loose and out to kill him. Dementors, the soul-sucking, evil guardians of the wizard prison Azkaban, are sent to guard Hogwarts, despite Headmaster Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) protestations that dementors are no protectors at all. And several times, Harry is endangered by these beasts that are there, presumably, to keep him safe. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) is well liked by the students, and helps Harry with some advance anti-dementor spells. Harry comes into possession of a couple new fun and useful magic toys and learns more about the people and mysteries surrounding his parents.
Make no mistake about it; the plot of Prisoner of Azkaban is very complicated. You may want to bring a cheat sheet and some paper for note-taking. But don't keep your eyes off the screen for too long lest you miss a key plot detail or a funny character building moment. And these 3 young, but quickly growing actors, excel at these. Their performances carry the very real awkwardness and hyper-emotion of being 13 (and magic). 2 scenes in particular highlighted their diverse abilities. A distraught but tough Hermione (Emma Watson) knocks a sniveling Draco (Tom Felton) to the ground in a moment that is both frustrating and triumphant. The other shows the Gryffindor boys in a moment of male bonding as they huddle around a bag of sound-producing candies. A very "boy will be boys" scene while still quite original, I found it very endearing. Even Ron (Rupert Grint) is beginning to come into his own and filling out a bit, though he is still quite bumbling at times.
The collaboration with director Alfonso Cuarón (of Y tu mamá también fame) was also engaging and productive. His occasional teetering on the edge of PG made plenty of amusing moments for adults and teens while going over the heads of the kids. It also made for convincing adolescent interactions. The supporting cast was also quite colorful. Gary Oldman as Sirius Black is both scary and intense, with enough mystery in his rabid eyes to know that something serious (no pun intended) is going on behind them. Flighty Professor Trelawney is played to perfection by the hugely bespectacled Emma Thompson; Dawn French is perfect as the "fat lady" portrait; and Alan Rickman continues to be the quintessential unforgiving and slightly skeevy Professor Snape.
While these recognizable and sincere characters keep the film very down to earth, magic continues to reign supreme in the world of Harry Potter. The screen is dominated by the awe of flying mythical animals, werewolf metamorphoses, and dark weightless dementors. If you happen to get lost in terms of the storyline, the atmosphere should be enough to keep you aloft. The music was subtle and complimentary and while Rowling's original story may be sentimental itself, the film never took it any farther over the top.
Unlike the first 2 installments, which are really whole stories unto themselves, Prisoner of Azkaban merely begins the tale of Harry's journey into adulthood, and the inevitable and continuous battles he must fight for the rest of the series. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban introduces a multitude of elements that will reappear in the films to come. It is here that the series begins to take on its true weight. It also leaves you wanting more. Once you've seen Prisoner of Azkaban you've become invested in seeing it through. For any Harry Potter fan it's a must see, but if you're not already interested, it might be a slightly confusing romp through the magic of special effects.