Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
review © 2004 by Donna Schwartz Mills

Studio: Warner Brothers
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language
Mom Rating: 5 out of 5
Kid Rating: 5 out of 5

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis
Writer: Steve Kloves
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

It's shaping up to be a wonderful summer for family films.
Hot on the heels of "Shrek 2," which is still breaking box
office records, we now have the third installment in the
"Harry Potter" series. I firmly believe that years from now,
our children will be showing these films to our
grandchildren with the same reverence we now hold for "The
Wizard of Oz"... only with Harry, we will ultimately have
seven classic fantasy adventures to enjoy.

Many Hollywood types were surprised when young hotshot
director Alfonso Cuarón accepted this job after the success
of his racy hit, "Y Tu Mama Tambien." It was later revealed
that J.K. Rowling herself was such a fan of Cuarón's filmed
version of "A Little Princess" that he was actually *her*
first choice to helm Harry's debut. Chris Columbus ended up
bringing the first two novels to the screen, and some
critics lamented that Columbus was a little too faithful to
the books. There was much speculation that Cuarón would
bring a more daring touch to "Azkaban." However, Columbus is
still on hand as a producer, and this film doesn't veer too
far away from the world he already created for the screen.

The one big difference between this film and the previous
ones are that so much of the action takes place outside
Hogwarts castle, but that's as much a reflection of
Rowling's book as any decisions made by Cuarón.

"The Prisoner of Azkaban" is a transitional chapter in Harry
Potter's story, bridging the wonder and discovery of the
first two books into the darker, more dangerous tone of
those that follow. Harry and his friends are now 13 years
old and fully experiencing the emotional ups and downs of
adolescence. Because of his tragic history and difficult
living situation, Harry's feelings are a little more
intense. Where a normal teenager may have the urge to slam
a door in anger, the rage of a teen wizard can do some
actual harm (which he demonstrates to comic effect).

Once again, Harry arrives at Hogwarts under the vague threat
of mortal danger. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a legendary
murderer, has escaped from Azkaban prison, and we soon find
out that the entire wizarding world expects that Harry will
be his next victim. Searching for Black are the prison's
creepy guards; ghostly creatures known as Dementors, who
disturbingly take an interest in Harry. In the course of the
year, Harry learns more about his past -- and gets closer to
the understanding the circumstances that led to the death of
his parents, Lily and James.

Much of his new-found knowledge is provided by Professor
Lupin, a new teacher with a dark secret, portrayed by David
Thewlis. It turns out that like the dreaded Professor Snape
(Alan Rickman), Lupin was a classmate of Lily and James
Potter. Unlike Snape, he was their friend -- and he takes
Harry under his wing.

The "Harry Potter" series seems to be employing the entire
population of good British actors. In addition to Thewlis
and Oldman (who are both wonderful), this film brings us
Emma Thompson as a flakey teacher of prognostication and
Julie Christie as a witchy pub owner. Michael Gambon
replaces the late Richard Harris as headmaster Albus
Dumbledore. Gambon's is a more robust and mischievous
portrayal, and while he's very good, Harris' frailty brought
more poignance to the role.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (as Harry,
Hermione and Ron) are growing into very attractive young
actors who can really carry the action, and director Cuarón
gets the most out of them. This is good, but it's at the
expense of veterans Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Alan
Rickman. Rickman makes the best of his diminished presence
by stealing every scene he is in with drippy malevolence.

Like the previous "Harry Potter" films, this one is rated PG
for some frightening moments, so parents should evaluate
whether their younger children can handle it or not. I felt
this one was a lot safer for the little ones because the
dangers Harry and his friends face are more psychological:
There is no face-off with the evil Voldemort (just wait
until movie #4!) and nothing as graphically scary as the
giant snake and spiders we saw in the last film. What you
have here are the spooky Dementors and a werewolf; if your
kids could handle "Scooby-Doo" without nightmares, they
should be fine with "The Prisoner of Azkaban."

The movie feels a little more disjointed than the previous
two, which may be due to the need to condense the action
into 136 minutes (which is pretty long for a film these
days, especially one targeted to families). Potter fans may
miss some of the details revealed in the novel, and those
who aren't familiar with the book may have a few moments
when they have trouble following the story. My eight-year-
old daughter, who enjoyed it very much, left with several
questions about what was motivating Professor Lupin and
Sirius Black. She wants to see it again... but in the
meantime, she is actually reading the book. A movie that is
entertaining *and* inspires your kids to read? There's
nothing better than that...

About the Author

Former entertainment industry Donna Schwartz Mills now feeds her movie habit by dragging her little girl to every family film that comes out, often on opening day. She says
she can't wait for her daughter to turn 17. Read more family film reviews at

Donna Schwartz Mills