Montreal Film Journal

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

That's Harry Potter? My, he's so tall, low-voiced, strong... Dangerous. His getting back at his old bitchy aunt early in the film is played for laughs, but I found it creepy. The little wizard is becoming more and more powerful, and those that cross him have to watch out that he doesn't explode on them - this kid's a timebomb. Ron's still Ron, walking a thin line between amusing and annoying, and Hermione... I must say, the little lady is growing into quite the babe.

The movie as a whole also feels different than the previous ones. I liked Chris Columbus's "Potter" flicks all right, but Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón brings more atmosphere and danger to the franchise. The beasts and creatures that surround the Hogwarts School of Witchcrafts and Wizardry aren't so goofy anymore, they're mean buggers that could snap your neck in a blink.

Harry's third year at Hogwarts is again shrouded in menace and secrecy. This time he has to worry about Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a mass murderer who has just escaped from Azkaban prison. He was locked away twelve years ago for helping the evil Voldemort to kill Harry's parents, and headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, seamlessly replacing the late Richard Harris) is afraid Black will now come after the young Potter. As such, Dementors are brought in to protect the school, even though these cloaked soul-suckers are probably scarier than whatever they're supposed to keep out...

One thing that's unavoidable in these movies, for better or worse, is that through all the mayhem the students must still go to class and listen to their teachers. That means we can enjoy more of Alan Rickman's arrogant superiority as Professor Snape, more of Malfoy being a one-note bullying asshole, more Quidditch and more of big-ass Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and his out-of-this-world pets, notably the half-eagle, half-horse Hippogriff, a magnificent special effects creation. We also meet Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and Sybil Trelawney (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who teaches Divination.

All that's fine and dandy, but it doesn't advance the plot at all. It takes more than 90 minutes (the full length of most movies!) before Sirius Black finally appears. Then all of the sudden we're rushing through exposition about the true nature of Black, Lupin, Ron's rat, etc. I don't know if I would have understood half of it if I hadn't read the J.K. Rowling book. Still, there's some cool stuff happening around the revelations, as the kids clash with the badass tree (man, I love badass trees), a bloodthirsty black dog, a Werewolf and a whole posse of Dementors. And then there's the "Back to the Future 2"-style climax, possibly my favorite sequence in the entire series. There hasn't been a truly great "Harry Potter" movie yet, but this is a step in the right direction.

6/3/2004