By Chris Campo
So I have been very surprised by the Harry Potter saga thus far. The first one legitimately blew me away, and even though I thought The Chamber of Secrets was a lesser sequel, I was still hopeful for the future of the franchise. This film is not directed by Chris Columbus, the director of the of the first two films. New blood has been brought to this franchise in the form of Alfonso Cuaron, who you may know as the man who brought us 2013's Gravity. Can a new director step up to the plate? Or will Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban be a disappointment? No spell is going to make me tell you, so you might as well continue reading.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban begins similar to the last two. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is living with his Aunt (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle (Richard Griffiths), however this time they're being visited by his Uncle's nasty sister, Marge (Pam Ferris). Harry, however, is done putting up with them, and for the first time in his life he fights fire with fire, right before leaving for Hogwarts for the year. Upon leaving, he, of course, meets up with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and while on the express, Harry is informed about a murderer on the loose named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who just may be responsible for his parent's deaths. The man recently escaped from Azkaban Prison, one of the hardest prisons to escape from, and is on the hunt for Harry, who vows to do whatever it takes, including fend off the horrifying Dementors surrounding Hogwarts, to defeat Sirius Black.
This is, without a doubt, the best of the series thus far. This is where I feel the series realized it's more than just a fun film series, and put some real effort and talent into it. Alfonso Cuaron blew me away with his work. From literally the opening shot I knew this was going to be different than the previous two. It's a more mature look into the Wizarding World, but never once loses the sense of awe and fun of the series. Every aspect of the filmmaking blew me away, and every shot could be a painting. I am sad that this is Cuaron's only Harry Potter film, but I am excited to see how future films will compare to this on a filmmaking aspect. I am scratching my head, wondering if there will be a better looking film in this series.
In terms of tone, The Prisoner of Azkaban nails it. It's by far the darkest of the first three. and yet it's also the funniest. This film gets scary. No, seriously. The first time we meet the dementors was a chilling, highly suspenseful sequence. Every time those damn things are on screen I was rather unsettled. This film isn't The Conjuring, so it won't cause nightmares, but it is nice that they cheapen the film with non-threatening monsters. I laughed more in this one than in the other two films combined. It's just funny, there's nothing else to really say, especially Ron, who stood out here far more than in the other films. The style on display is so fine tuned and it really sets itself apart from the earlier movies. It also changes the structure up, making it something other than just the same film over and over, much like Chamber of Secrets (and it's 20 minutes shorter).
The story here feels personal, Harry growing as a character, and so does everyone else. This is the first time I was wow'd by Alan Rickman's Professor Snape, and warmed by Dumbledore, who's been replaced by Michael Gambon. Every character seems to serve a purpose, and that's something I really appreciate. I especially liked how our heroes stood up to their bullies, like in a few cheer worthy moments where Draco gets humiliated. The main story with the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black, worked as well. Gary Oldman not only gave a wonderful performance as Black, but he was also a great character with a lot of layers. There is something introduced in the third act that felt like it came out of left field, but it sets up the final set piece, which was a wonderful sequence and ended the film on a high note. That one aspect that I wont spoil still felt a bit forced, though.
Speaking of that final sequence, the action in general is very well filmed. From the scene on the Bus early on to the very exciting Quidditch sequence, the action looks phenomenal and is just a ton of fun. And there's a lot of it, so the run time goes by in the blink of an eye. The special effects, as well, continue to improve. They're not perfect, but there are times where they look like they're from a modern day movie. But that Quidditch scene I mentioned looks leaps and bounds better than in the previous two. This film is just a joy to look at, and I may sound like a broken record, but I don't care. It's cinematic eye candy, and I loved it. There's a sequence in a hallway that just consists of two people talking, but it's shot in such a cool way, gripping me as thought it was an action scene or something just as big and grand.
Overall, this is my favorite Harry Potter film so far. It changed the structure and style of the previous films and stands out as not only a great sequel, but a great film in general. It looks amazing and the story is the most personal and fun yet. I am so excited to see where the series takes me next, although I'm slightly disheartened that Alfonso Cuaron won't return to the director's chair. I can't wait to watch Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
4 1/2 Stars