Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban ****

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“Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban” was the first Potter film that made my top ten list.  This is one of the great fantasy films of this decade.  From start to finish this is an astonishingly piece of cinema.  The director this time is Alfonso Cuaron, director of such films as “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, and “A Little Princess”.  This is a truly gifted director who infuses this film with more character and creates scenes of startling beauty.  He also brings an edge to the film as the story grows much darker. 

Right from the opening scenes you can see this film become deeper.  The  performances become a little more real, and the look of the film is a little darker.  After Harry leaves his Aunt and Uncles house in a rage, he finds himself confronted with what appears to be a demonic dog.  Just before the scene gets really scary, the Night Bus shows up to pick him up.  This is a wonderful creation, designed after a double decker bus, that picks up stranded witches and wizards.  This is where he learns about the prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black.  Black has just escaped, and is on his way to Hogwarts.  As it turns out, he had a helping hand in the deaths of Potter’s parents, and now he wants to finish the job that Voldomort started.  He remains off screen for most of the film.  We get constant updates of his whereabouts, and as he gets closer and closer to Hogwarts, the tension mounts.

Meanwhile, Harry is dealing with the Dementors.  These are nasty creatures that are usually the guards at Azkaban, but have been stationed at Hogwarts as they try to find Sirius Black.  Get close enough to them and they will try to suck out your soul.  They are cloaked creatures that look like the ghost of Christmas future.  There first time on scene is a nerve racking confrontation as they search the Hogwart’s Express for the escapee. 

The usual cast, including Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane are all present, but we now find Michael Gambon filling the role of Albus Dumbledore after the great Richard Harris’ passing.  He brings a slightly darker edge to the role, which fits right in with the direction that this series is taking.  The new characters this time are Remus Lupin played by David Thewelis, as the new defense against the dark arts teacher, and of course, Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman.  Thewelis and Oldman are highly gifted actors, who bring out the best in those around them.  Thewlis in particular has a few solo scenes with Daniel Radcliffe, who finds notes we did not know he had.  These actors help the child stars of this series take the next step in their acting careers.  It is truly wonderful to watch.

Christopher Colombus did a wonderful job with the first two films, and this time steps in to a producing role, but Alfonso Cuaron takes this series to a whole new level.  He brings a style to the look and atmosphere of the movie that really suggests the darkness underneith.  Even the way he shoots the castle itself, seems to suggest more sinister forces are behind the walls.  He even gets a slightly more magical score out of John Williams.

As the series goes on, it seems to be coming to a point where this will no longer be appropriate for little children.  This entry has Harry and his friends facing off against werewolves and dementors, which are the stuff of nightmares.  I am happy to see that the studio is not holding back on making these elements truly scary.  It seems like the series is growing with it’s built in audience.  This entry set the bar very high for the following sequels.

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