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Friday, June 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
The "Harry Potter" books and movies, moving in a slow tandem, can be experienced twofold: as a ripping good tale of magic and adventure, or as an often-touching portrait of a boy slowly becoming a man. With "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the fine third movie in the series, the latter experience is especially profound: Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, has a deeper voice, a more confident bearing and a new fire in his eyes. He's now a teenager, coping with pain in his past and uncertainty in his future, and there are moments in "Prisoner of Azkaban" where you can see the man that Harry will become and the actor that Radcliffe is becoming.
If he isn't quite there yet (there's a crying scene that clearly gave Radcliffe trouble), no worries wizards aren't built in a day. And "Prisoner of Azkaban," compared with the two previous movies, is both more dark and more delightful. Purists may frown; new director Alfonso Cuarón and longtime "Potter" screenwriter Steve Kloves have taken a few liberties with the book, compressing the story to create a tighter movie. (As the "Potter" books get longer and longer, expect more of this with, as Cuarón has said in interviews, author J.K. Rowling's blessing.)
So, revisit the book to get the full picture, and see the movie for what it is: a charming and occasionally haunting interpretation of a book that's now a classic. Cuarón ("A Little Princess," "Y Tu Mamá También") has brought a slightly grittier vision to the series: Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint, now extra-tall) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are now looking a little less Hollywood-perfect and more like real kids; dressing in jeans and scruffy sweatshirts for their off-hours at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, customizing their school uniforms with a touch of grunge.
Though the story follows Rowling's now-familiar template a year at Hogwarts, in which Harry must battle with some dark force of evil "Prisoner of Azkaban" cranks the drama up a notch. Hovering over much of the film is the sinister presence of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a wizard believed to be have been responsible for the death of Harry's parents (having lured them to the evil Voldemort) and now gunning for Harry himself. Dementors tattered, vaguely floating demons are brought on to guard the gates of Hogwarts, and Harry must watch his every step, fearing for his life.
One of the great strengths of the "Harry Potter" movie series has been its perfect casting, and "Prisoner" is no exception, introducing several new characters to the fold. David Thewlis is gentle, soft-voiced, and ever-so-slightly odd as Professor Lupin, new Defense Against the Dark Arts master; he's guarding a secret that the faint scratches on his face merely hint at. Emma Thompson, with Coke-bottle glasses, rolling r's and a hairball-like cough, is a hoot as divination professor Sibyll Trelawney. (She's always looking at students' tea leaves and murmuring a vague, "pity ... ") And Oldman, who spends much of the movie simply as a malevolent moving head on animated posters, finds humanity in the complex Black.
Among the regulars, Alan Rickman continues to stand out as the perpetually ticked-off Professor Snape. Paler than ever he's practically anemic in his nastiness he draws out his few lines for all they're worth, putting a spin on "Turn to page 394" that's so scary you want to hide under your desk. Robbie Coltrane's kindhearted Hagrid has some juicy scenes, but the rest get fairly short shrift this time around blink and you'll miss Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. That's a bit frustrating: Like the kids in the Hogsmeade candy store, we just want more of Maggie Smith's prim Professor McGonagall, and Michael Gambon's faintly spacey Dumbledore.
But, short of a four-hour movie (and who knows how "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" will shape up?), it's best to focus on the kids and their story, and on the glorious special effects that work to perfection. (There's a flying scene here that conveys Harry's joy better than any dialogue could.) And "Prisoner of Azkaban" stands as a happy example of fine adaptation of a work of art transferred to another medium, losing none of its heart.
There's a line spoken by Hermione late in the film that's perfectly in character and perfectly funny it's exactly what this very self-possessed girl would say at that moment. But it's not from the book it's Kloves (or maybe Cuarón, or Watson?) picking up the torch from Rowling, adding texture to a world already rich. Like Harry's happy broomstick ride, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is a marvelous adventure and a worthy installment in a longer journey.
Moira Macdonald: firstname.lastname@example.org
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