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`HARRY POTTER': NOT THE SAME OLD TRICKS.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

'HARRY POTTER and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' is, in many ways, the movie we waited for while sitting through the other two boy wizard adventures.

It's scarier, funnier, filmed with real style and acted with the closest thing to naturalism that could be expected from such a fantasy-drenched enterprise. The kids, but especially (and appropriately) Daniel Radcliffe's Harry, have grown into much more complicated and difficult adolescents, which automatically makes them more interesting. And the new cast members, with one notable but not too bothersome exception, seem to have brought both their own and the returnees' games up to a higher level than what was previously demanded.

Growth and the nature of J.K. Rowling's third source novel contributed to these improvements, of course. But most of the credit should go to Alfonso Cuaron, the director of thoughtful Mexican (``Y Tu Mama Tambien'') and Hollywood (``A Little Princess'') critical darlings. He replaced the other ``Harrys' '' helmer, ``Home Alone'' guy Chris Columbus. The welcome mood and temperature changes are clearly the result of having a guy who knows how to use camera and lighting for effect, not just recording - and who can bring a palpable sense of magic to just about any scene he stages.

All of which is great. Yet there are still some things missing from ``Prisoner of Azkaban,'' like urgent narrative engagement (as always, the careful Steve Kloves adapted the script) and payoffs to some of the more dire themes that are brought up earlier in the film. A sense of drag and repetition sets in well before the climactic part of the story rewinds itself and virtually starts anew.

This prevents ``Prisoner of Azkaban'' from taking one's breath away. But we do catch our breath a good number of times, and that's nothing to shake a broomstick at.

The first time is during the standard opening sequence, which finds Harry once again toughing out the summer with his intolerable muggle minders the Dursleys. He gets so angry at an abusive aunt that he inflates her like a balloon that hilariously floats away. For that, Harry must leave his unhappy home. And he should get kicked out of the Hogwarts witchcraft academy, too, as it's against the rules for wizards his age to practice spells in the real world.

But to Harry's surprise, he's welcomed back at school, where his good friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have grown funnier and more mysterious, respectively. We soon learn why Harry has been given a pass. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), believed to be the betraying friend responsible for the deaths of the boy sorcerer's parents, has escaped from magician's prison Azkaban and is headed Harry's way. Frightening, spectrelike Dementors, the soul-sucking guardians of Azkaban, set up a perimeter around Hogwarts, hoping to catch the fugitive.

As if that wasn't enough to distract him from his studies, Harry is taken under the wing of the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, Professor Lupin, who despite being played by David Thewlis with all the mentoring good will any student could want, hides a few dark secrets of his own. Also alarming is Sibyll Trelawney, the myopic new divination teacher - who is a funny concept from the get-go, but too much the way Emma Thompson broadly overplays her.

She might have taken a few lessons from Michael Gambon, who should be thanked for applying just the right note of comic impishness to the thankless task of replacing the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts' beloved Headmaster Dumbledore. As for Oldman, to get too specific about his performance would give away too much, so we'll just say that the actor is terrific. So is another fine Brit thesp, Timothy Spall, in a small but crucial role.

Of returning faculty, Alan Rickman's Professor Snape is as snarly as ever and Robbie Coltrane's affectionate giant Hagrid rises to his new instructional and emotional duties.

Much as Cuaron rises to his challenges. How to make another one of those Quidditch games look interesting and threatening? Play it during a thunderstorm. Gotta start linking Harry's supernatural skills with his increasingly troubled psychological growth? Make him and his classmates confront and conquer their greatest fears the Hogwarts way. Put your own stamp on it yet maintain respect for what's gone before? Bring in a new, slightly funkier cinematographer (Michael Seresin) and your own long-trusted editor (Steven Weisberg), while encouraging such old Potter hands as production designer Stuart Craig, composer John Williams and the special-effects team to top their previous efforts.

In other words, tell the story the best way you can. Even if you have to put so much in that it drags a little.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN - Three stars

(PG: violence, language)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall.

Director: Alfonso Cuaron.

Running time: 2 hr. 21 min.

Playing: Wide release.

In a nutshell: Everything about the third stint at wizard school is better, thanks to a talented new director - but the story still drags a little too much.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

A chill wind blows in the pumpkin patch this time around for Rupert Grint, left, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe in ``Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Review
Date:Jun 4, 2004
Words:897
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