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'Prisoner' a 'must-see' for Potter uninitiates
By M.V. Moorhead

November 5, 2005

If you’re a serious Harry Potter buff you already know that the new entry in the film series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is set to open Nov. 18.

But if, like me, you know the series mainly through the enthusiasm of friends, you may have missed last year’s film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

If so, it’s a good idea to catch it on DVD before your friend drags you to the new movie. Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Potter films so far. Thanks to Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican filmmaker who has taken the helm from Chris Columbus, director of the first two entries, Prisoner of Azkaban feels more spontaneous, less slick, more emotionally alive.

The first two films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were both competent exercises in big-budget moviemaking, and their high level of craft made them reasonably interesting to watch.

But for me, their lack of complex characterization, their dramatic muddiness, and their overeager crowd-pleasing made them slip from the mind soon after they were over. Prisoner, like its predecessors, is overlong, but it has a simplicity of structure, and a commitment to the dark side of its subject matter, that makes it stick with you.

In case you don’t know the set-up: Harry Potter, still played by the all-but-doddering Daniel Radcliffe, is a bespectacled orphan boy with magical powers who attends a school of benign wizardry called Hogwart’s. The other title character in this adventure is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who was incarcerated in the supposedly inescapable facility because of his connection to the death of Harry’s parents.

As the story begins, Black has crashed out of Azkaban, and is on the run. The corrections officials of the magical world, chilling hooded specters called Dementors, are hunting the fugitive. Meanwhile, Harry and pals Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) become acquainted with a genial new professor (David Thewlis), and also with Buckbeak the Hippogryph, the half-eagle/half-horse pet of their shaggy groundskeeper friend Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane).

All this and more comes together in an ingenious finale involving time travel, lycanthropy, a magical map and the unnerving “Shrieking Shack” near the Hogwart’s grounds. The overall tone is dark, but except for the Dementors the film isn’t grim or nightmarish. The spookiness has the exhilaration of Victorian fairy tale illustration. As for the acting, the kids remain charming even though they’re racing the clock—the upcoming film could legitimately have been titled Harry Potter and the Lengthening Tooth.

The DVD: The Harry Potter DVDs are packed with extras—documentaries, deleted scenes, games—and they all may be purchased separately or together, in a six-disc set that includes all three movies and all their attendant goodies. All of them are available in either fullscreen or widescreen. Be forewarned, however: The six-disc set is only a good buy if you don’t already own any of the movies; there are no bells and whistles that the separate editions don’t have.

As for family suitability, Prisoner of Azkaban should be suitable for all but the youngest children, who would likely find it too slowly-paced and complicated anyway.




























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