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It's nice to know that I've been writing reviews long enough that I have reviewed a film and two of its sequels! I quite liked the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, mainly because it was new and had a killer line-up of British character actors. The second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was a bit of a letdown because it was more of the same and, well, the second book isn't that good anyway. Now, we have number three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It picks up as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) return to Hogwart's School for their third year. After Harry's obligatory run-in with his Muggle relatives, he and his friends board the train to school. But a prisoner, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison and is supposedly on his way to kill Harry. The Dementors, a.k.a. the Azkaban prison guards are hot, or should I say cold, on his trail. Helping Harry fend off Sirius Black and the Dementors, is yet another new Defense Against the Black Arts professor (David Thewlis). Harry's first Defense Against the Black Arts professor (Ian Hart) turned out to be possessed by Voldemort and the second (Kenneth Branagh) was worse than useless. Thewlis is a big improvement but, needless to say, he has secrets of his own.
This new Harry Potter is definitely an improvement on number two. There is a new director, Alfonso Cuarón, best known for Y Tu Mamá También. Cuarón has done a big makeover on the look of a Harry Potter movie. Everything is a bit grittier and less like a fairy tale. Plus he is just a better director than Christopher Columbus (Home Alone), who directed the first two installments. Cuarón makes Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban an interesting movie to watch. You don't feel like you are just reading from the book. Adding to the feeling of newness is the fact that Professor Dumbledore is now played by Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris. Gambon does a very good job and doesn't try to look or act like Harris. Also, the kids, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, are noticeably older (shockingly older in their press appearances) and are improving their acting skills. Of the young actors, Watson seems to be emerging as the best of the three although Radcliffe and Grint are still good. By far the best thing in the movie is Thewlis playing the new Defense Against the Black Arts professor. He has lots of screen time with Harry and does very well with it. He's been around for awhile but I haven't seen him in much other than Seven Years in Tibet. The rest of the cast is back with the addition of Emma Thompson doing a funny, goofy turn as the Divination professor who keeps bumping into things. We still don't get to see enough of Snape (Alan Rickman) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane).
The effects are good but nothing to write home about. The Dementors are a bit disappointing. They nicely freeze everything in their vicinity but they look stupid, sort of like the Grim Reaper who appeared in the elevator with Bill Murray in Scrooged. Plus, there is only about two minutes of Quidditch in the whole movie. The story didn't hold my interest completely but I didn't get bored. The movie is a bit long at over two hours. Unfortunately, since Thewlis was playing the Defense Against the Black Arts professor, he was packing his bags at the end of the movie and won't be back. Also not coming back is Cuarón who is not directing the next installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is now filming for a 2005 release with Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) at the helm. So, maybe it'll be a romantic comedy. I am already grossed out by the foreshadowing of romance between Hermione and Ron. Yuck!