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Warner Home Video presents
Mr. Weasley: I want you to promise me you won't go looking for Black.
DVD ReviewThe Harry Potter films, based on British author J.K. Rowling's juggernaut series of books, have found critical and financial success, but I never felt they really succeeded as movies. They just seem like entirely pleasant recreations of the books, minus much of the flavor and nuance, plus some wobbly special effects. The third one, though, helmed this time by celebrated Mexican director Alfonso Caurón, actually feels like a movie. Whether it's a better Harry Potter adaptation seems to be a matter of taste.
Year Three begins badly for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). He runs away from home and narrowly escapes arrest after blowing up his aunt (quite literally, I assure you) for insulting his dead parents. He finds out he was spared from expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry only because there's an escaped murderer on the loose. It seems Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a following of Lord Voldemort (aka He Who Must Not Be Named) has broken out of the titular prison and wants Harry dead. To make matters worse, the prison guards, fearsome beasts known as dementors that make you relive your worst memory, are prowling the school grounds looking for Black, and, well, Harry has worse memories than most. Helping him get through the year and solve the mystery of his parents' death are trusty friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and a friend of Harry's parents.
Once again, the supporting cast includes the best of the best of British actors, including new additions like Emma Thompson as Madame Trelawney, a woozy divination professor, and Michael Gambon, filling in quite well for the late Richard Harris as Headmaster Dumbledore.
The plot is a real ripper, and the book upon which its based is the most cleverly constructed of the five yet released. Sirius Black proves a menacing presence throughout, but the dementors are even scarier, and the last act, which I won't spoil in case you are one of the few people reading this who hasn't either read the book or seen the movie (hi to both of you, by the way) provides the most entertaining and emotional moments in the films thus far.
Oddly, Azkaban is both the best film of the bunch and the worst adaptation of the source material. It's the first of the films to move like a movie rather than an animated audiobook, with a tightly constructed narrative and little downtime for magical whimsy. As a result, it never lags, and thankfully avoids the cloying, kid-friendly tone that popped up in the first two (particularly the positively embarrassing ending of Chamber of Secrets)—the third book is darker and more intense than the two previous, and Caurón and screenwriter Steve Kloves (a veteran of the first two movies) has taken that to heart, running the film at a breakneck pace, with only the rare pause for breath and for Harry to reflect on the turmoil he's going through (scenes which come off nicely, thanks in large part to Radcliffe's maturing skills as an actor).
But the pacing also means some of the flavor of the books has been lost. Believe it or not, as dark as the narrative is, Azkaban is not a depressing book, but Caurón and Kloves don't seem willing to stop and marvel at the oddities of the magical world or develop character-based side plots (a major element of the book, a row between Ron and Hermione, is more or less snipped). While I appreciate the fact that film and novel are different beasts, it's never good to let plot overtake character, and while I think that's happened to some extent in every Potter film thus far, Azkaban is by far the worst offender. There's also the fact that, in the interest of brevity, Azkaban jettisons Rowling's trademarked lengthy exposition scene to explain the plot, to the point where the climax (not the lengthy denouement) moves by so quickly I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have understood a lick of it if I hadn't read the book. Ok, like four times. Unless you count the times I listened to it on tape. Realize that it's the longest and most complex of the first three books, yet it's the shortest film. (Incidentally, what plot problems there are could probably be fixed in the ten minutes of screentime that make up the difference between Azkaban and Chamber of Secrets.) I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that Kloves won't be writing the script for book five; I'm no longer confident he knows why the books appeal to so many, kids and adults alike.
Those complaints aside, Azkaban builds upon the success of the earlier films in every way, from the more elaborate production design (Hogwarts finally looks like a place rather than a big set), to the tonally appropriate cinematography (a good change for a more adult narrative), to more dynamic camerawork and better performances from the young trio—Watson and Grint are growing into their roles nicely as well.
Roger Ebert mistakenly awarded the first two films four stars (yeah, they're decent kids films, but... four?), but knocked off half a rating because he didn't think Azkaban was as much fun. I see his point, but I didn't so much mind the change. Of course the stories will darken as the children grow up. I just hope the filmmakers don't lose the magic completely in all that darkness.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: With no real extras on Disc 1, the lengthy feature is given a lot of breathing room, and it looks very nice. The image captures the moody cinematography well, with deep blacks, good shadow detail, and appropriately muted colors. Some scenes show a bit of grain, but said was certainly visible in the theater, and is likely as much an artistic component as an artifact of the Super 35 filming process. Other than that, I noted no edge enhancement or artifacting and few significant instances of aliasing.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 mix is suitably active for a fantasy film, with a wide front soundstage, well-presented dialogue, and active surrounds throughout. Though most scenes sound good, the mix really comes to life during the more visceral moments, including the Quidditch match in the rain and an attack by the whomping willow. LFE is strong in these scenes as well.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
5 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Amaray Double
The majority of what is included can be found on Disc 2, though in addition to the film, the first platter includes a simple cast and crew listing and trailers for all three Potter films (though sadly not the effective Something Wicked This Way Comes teaser for Azkaban).
The menus for Disc 2 are based on the elaborately designed Marauder's Map and once again feature narration from Jim Dale, voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks in the U.S. Extras are split into different locations on the map.
Divination Class provides access to the most high-profile bonuses. Select Trelawney's Crystal Ball to view five deleted scenes. Three of them are simple scene extensions, but the last two (which run less than three minutes total and are presented with completed special effects) clearly should have been left in, as they patch several plot holes in the book-to-film adaptation. Creating the Vision (11m:43s) is a fawning conversation between J.K. Rowling and Alfonso Cuarón, with soundbites from producer Chris Columbus, writer Steve Kloves, and other members of the creative team. Rowling does most of the talking, explaining how she enjoyed the film and thought the changes and additions were just great and so on. The piece actually covers the first two films briefly as well, and touches on the creative process and production design from the standpoint of "the world of Harry Potter." It's all interesting, but it moves far too quickly.
I wish I could say the same for Head to Head with Shrunken Head, a 43-minute collection of interviews with the cast and crew conducted by British "journalist" Johnny Vaughn, with help from the Jamaican shrunken head from the Knight Bus scene. The interviews are broken down into seven menu selections (the heroes, the Gryffindors, the Slytherins, Professor Lupin and Sirius Black, Professor Dumbledore and Rubeus Hagrid, the Dursleys, and the filmmakers) that run around six minutes each. The questions are pretty lightweight ("What would your boggart appear as?"), though hearing the young cast talk about dealing with fame is kind of interesting, and the filmmakers do provide a bit of perspective on making the third film in an already wildly successful series. Unfortunately, the shrunken head often breaks in with idiotic comments, and either the interviewees were told to laugh like morons in reaction to it, or things were simply edited to make it look that way—the interviews themselves are much too dry for anyone young enough to appreciate the lame humor. Straight interviews would have been much better, I think.
Hogwart's Grounds includes the rest of the substantive material. Select Hagrid's Hut to view two short technical clips. Care of Magical Creatures (4m:44s) focuses on all the real animals used for the shoot, including imported crows, trained bats, and tame owls (not the brightest animals, it would seem). Conjuring a Scene (15m:35s) is a quick rundown of the major special effects sequences, and features commentary from the effects crew on the development of the dementors (Caurón wanted to use puppets, but only CGI proved practical), Buckbeak the hippogriff (keep an eye out for the digital poop), the Shrieking Shack, the Knight Bus, and the lucky contribution of rainy weather in Scotland to the moody cinematography. This section also includes a short preview for the Prisoner of Azkaban video game.
The rest of the extras are aimed at children. Defense Against the Dark Arts houses and interactive tour of Lupin's Classroom akin to the set tours on other series DVDs (the effect of walking through a scene with the ability to stop and look closely at props and set design is still pretty neat). The Magic You May Have Missed memory challenge asks you to watch scenes closely for magical elements visible in the background. I could have done without the "challenge" part, but it was cool to notice all the little elements that fill out the corners of the screen and serve to create a wholly realized magical world.
Back on the main menu, Tour Honeydukes is another neat interactive tour, while The Great Hall houses two interactive games (Catch Scabbers! and The Quest of Sir Cadogan) and sing-a-long "choir practice" for Something Wicked This Way Comes.
For those who care about such things, Warner has changed from the digipacks used for the earlier films to a standard Amaray keep case.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the series thus far, both as a book and as a film, and though the motion picture adaptation isn't perfect, it accurately captures the feel of the narrative better than previous installments. It also happily dispenses with the methodical storytelling and cringe-inducing, syrupy sweetness that made the Chris Columbus-helmed pictures such a chore to sit through. The DVD also qualifies as the best yet in terms of both video quality and extras.
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