- May 7, 2001
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Studio: Warner Brothers
Film Length: 142 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Enhanced Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1
Languages: English, French & Spanish
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Package: Two discs in a double (regular) Keepcase.
Admittedly, several years back when the phenomenon of Harry Potter hit the bookshelves, my boys locked on like F-15’s patrolling the no-fly-zone. And when the initial film debuted, needless to say, we were among the first in line, in fact, that’s been the case for every subsequent film as well. Sure, with all the hoopla, I rolled my eyes, but you know what? I’m every bit as hooked. Well, maybe not every bit, but close. These are all incredibly well written books authored by the now infamous J.K. Rowling. Say what you will about the books, but they have been the cause of many youngsters dropping their Game Boys or Playstations with them actually wanting to pick up a book and read it. For years now, 15 or 20 minutes of Harry before bed has been a household tradition.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban marks a few, rather significant changes from previous installments. Firstly, director Chris Columbus (who was responsible for the direction of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - hey, I’m Canadian, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). The newest installment was directed by Alfonso Cuarón (responsible for the 2001 hit film, Y tu mamá También), who ironically hadn’t read any of the HP books prior to being offered the job. On a more somber note, the role of Albus Dumbledore is now played by Michael Gambon after the passing of the legendary Irish actor, Richard Harris.
Similar to the first two installments, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban starts during school break and opens with Harry Potter at home with his selfish and uncaring guardians. This time however, he decides to take matters into his own hands and settles on to hilariously inflate one family member who’s keen on insisting Harry’s parents were reprobates. Obviously forced to flee the family home, he catches the “Knight Bus” and heads off to stay at the Leaky Cauldron. During his trip Harry learns of the escape of Sirius Black (played by Gary Oldman), supporter of notorious Lord Voldemort, from the wizard prison of Azkaban. The prison was thought to be escape proof by witches and wizards and is guarded by unspeakable creatures called Dementors. The wizarding world is abuzz with news of the escape and fear that Sirius Black may strike again.
At the Leaky Cauldron, Harry meets up with his timid friend Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) and studious cohort Hermione Granger (played by Emma Watson). Ron’s father (played by Mark Williams) calls Harry aside and confidentially tells him Sirius Black blames Harry for Voldemort’s death and warns Harry of his possible retribution.
Sirius Black is considered responsible for the deaths of Harry's parents. Sirius and James were inseparable during their days at Hogwarts, so much so that James is believed to have trusted Sirius with the location he and Lily were hiding at. That bit of information ultimately lead to their demise and the scar that Harry carries after surviving that night. Harry is still unaware of who Sirius is and of a connection to him as yet unrevealed.
Sirius Black however, is determined to reach out to Harry and to locate the person responsible for sending him to prison. Unbeknownst to Ron, there is something he has that Sirius wants and will stop at nothing to get.
Upon their arrival at Hogwarts, they are greeted by headmaster Professor Dumbledore (played by Michael Gambon) who also warns the students of dangers possibly lurking about. With Dementors posted at every entrance and outside the grounds of Hogwarts, life at the school goes on as usual for most of the students but a feeling of uneasiness hovers over Hogwarts.
Harry, discovering that he is extremely sensitive to the Dementors' evil, seeks to learn a way to fend them off. Enter Professor Lupin (played by David Thewlis) who has been hired by Professor Dumbledore to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts, replacing Professor Lockhart who left after an unfortunate accident. Professor Lupin takes Harry under his wing and attempts to teach him how to repel the Dementors by learning how to produce a Potronus Charm, a bit of advanced magic for a wizard of Harry's young years.
The three friends are overjoyed when they learn that friend and grounds keeper, Hagrid, has been appointed to teach the Care of Magical Creatures class. Their joy is short lived, however, when Draco Malfoy (played by Tom Fenton), Harry’s enemy, causes trouble at Hagrid’s first class, becoming injured by a Hippogriff and causing an inquiry into the accident. The Hippogriff is ordered to be put to death for the incident, breaking Hagrid’s heart.
Fear sweeps over the castle when a portrait guarding Griffindor tower is slashed and it is discovered that Sirius Black is to blame. Harry learns of the possibility that his trusted Professor Lupin maybe responsible for allowing Sirius Black access to Hogwarts. Harry’s suspicions increase when Professor Lupin doesn’t show up for his next class resulting in Professor Snape (played by Alan Rickman) curiously setting an assignment on werewolves.
Soon the three friends find themselves in trouble when Ron is attacked by a dog and dragged into a hole beneath the Whomping Willow. Following right behind, Harry and Hermione discover the passage leads to the Shrieking Shack, a scary old house in Hogsmead. Inside, Ron is located in an upstairs bedroom but is not quick enough to warn Harry and Hermione that he’s not alone. It’s not long before Harry finds himself in a confrontation with the man he believes is ultimately responsible for the death of his parents. Secrets are revealed, enemies confronted, friendships questioned and sacrifices made.
With time of the essence, Harry and Hermione race to correct a past injustice and prevent another one from occurring. If they are successful, two lives will be saved and Harry’s future altered forever.
The film starts with a slightly more comedic infusion than we’ve seen from the previous two installments, but quickly transforms into a film that is darker and much more ominous than the others. One would think that with an entirely new director, the film would have a different feel to it, a slightly different flavor to it, but it doesn’t. And to be honest, considering this is merely one film among a number of installments, I’m thankful. It’s like an old cotton t-shirt that’s been washed 100 times. It might not look the best, but man is it comfortable. The one change I did find took a bit of getting used to was the performance of Gambon as Dumbledore. That’s not to say he doesn’t perform wonderfully, but I miss Richard Harris. And finally, the film simply wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Radcliffe, Grint and Watson. The three teens have matured, so too has their ability to act, delivering performances with much more depth and realism.
A few words about the packaging… Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a two disc set that comes in a double Keepcase (thinner style). The set includes two inserts. The first is a Chapter List which, when opened up, really nicely lays out the navigation path for the special features – very nice. The second is an order form for a number of HP movie products. While it’s true that the newest release is inconsistent with the packaging of the previous two films, I believe we have to cut Warner some slack here. For several years here I have read constantly how much we hated snappers and digipacks and how much we simply wanted WB to use Keepcases like everybody else, well now they are. Problem is, they got caught in the middle of a transition period and a number of their “franchises” and sets are going to be affected. Personally I’m happy for the change. I miss the elegance of the previous Two Disc Special Editions digipacks, but I appreciate the durability of the Keepcases. We complained – they listened. Bravo Warner…!
The Feature: 4.5/5
This is without question, the difficult part of the review. I’ve seen all of these installments, both theatrically, and on home video DVD. All of them have a very similar look and feel. Shown in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the video appears to have a rather icy and monochromatic look to it – perhaps a slightly bluish tint, obviously lending to the mood and atmosphere of the film. Much of that atmosphere is captured indoors among secret passageways and nighttime hallways, thus a darker than usually shot film.
Again, similar to the look of the other HP films, this film lacks that certain fine sharpness in detail – especially facial detail. There are a number of examples of scenes looking terrifically sharp and well defined, but the majority of the film is slightly on the softer side. Ironically, longer and wide shots don’t appear to be quite as soft. It is in my opinion slightly sharper than the first two HP films.
Colors appeared to be natural although I wouldn’t necessarily out and out label them as vibrant. Skin colors were somewhat of a hodgepodge in that many sequences show tones as rather anemic (perhaps it was merely the British alabaster skin tone…), while other scenes looked slightly on the redder side. Blacks were satisfactorily deep and whites were always clean and stark.
As for shadow detail and contrast levels, again, the film was shot in a variety of “different” places and depending on the scene, could look quite dark, while many of the outdoor scenes looked bright - very bright. Regardless of the specific scene, I was always pleased with the level of detail in terms of shadow detail and contrast.
There was only a hint of extremely fine film grain present and the end result was an image with a hefty amount of depth and dimensionality. The print was in pristine condition and free of any dust or dirt as well as scratches or blemishes.
Compression was handled perfectly. There were no signs whatsoever of any artifacting or other digital imperfections. Artificial sharpening was never a problem as edge enhancement was virtually all but non-existent.
You might think I have an awful lot to say in terms of negativities with this film. Really, I don’t. At the end of the day, much of what I reported looks absolutely representative of what I saw theatrically, so I find myself awarding a fairly high mark to this transfer. Does the image look as good or as pleasing as many of the new releases we are seeing nowadays…? Personally, I don’t think it does. But I also don’t think its transfer related. If you’re familiar with the previous two HP releases, then you know exactly what I mean. And despite some of the image’s shortcomings, this is still a beautiful film to look at.
Now this is where the disc really shines, presented in a DD 5.1 track which I would classify as a very dynamic and aggressive soundtrack. From the moment the opening titles display to the end credits, the soundtrack is engaging and enveloping keeping the viewer engrossed for the entire 142 minutes.
The strength of this track is without question, the dynamic range. The detail from the subtle birds chirping to the thunderous roars of moving staircases is all very impressive. The detail of the clanging plates, the crispness of the “insta-freeze” sequences and the wind whistling through the grass and leaves was most impressive.
Almost as impressive was the soundstage which showed off much of the distinctive John Williams’ score, impressively wide and expansive. Much of the film is harnessed up front and dialogue was always extremely bold and clear and intelligible even during the many effects and score that often accompanied the film.
There is a healthy use of rear surrounds that are extremely active throughout the entire course of the film. Constantly, you’ll hear various pans and other activities taking place throughout your entire theater – these were handled quite well and very tactfully, never sounding gimmicky. There is no shortage from the bottom end either as is evidenced by the slamming of huge castle doors and Hagrid taking his seat every so often – your sub is in for a respectable workout.
All in all, this is a superb soundtrack balanced to perfection.
The set is comprised of two discs. The special features are located as follows:
[*] Cast & Crew – This is merely a three page text listing of the members of the film.
[*] Theatrical Trailers. Is a grouping of three theatrical trailers for the all of the HP films that have been released thus far. They are 2:23, 2:12 and 1:50 minutes in length respectively.
Upon insertion of disc two, the Marauder’s Map appears listing five options. Each of the features is navigable through a series of sub-menus with English and French language options. They are:
[*] Divination Class – “Trelawney’s Crystal Ball” contains 5 deleted scenes which total approximately 5 minutes in running time. In “Creating The Vision”, a number of the films producers, screenwriter and HP author etc., including David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Mark Radcliffe, Alfonso Cuarón with J.K. Rowling and Chris Columbus which includes a number of discussions relating to the project coming together from the form of the original novel – brief, somewhat interesting and somewhat self-congratulatory - 11:43 minutes. “Head To Shrunken Head” is a collection of cast and crew interviews in a rather informal manner. The feature is comprised of seven individual interviews as well as an introduction and can be viewed by a “play-all” feature. Total 43:33 minutes.
[*] Defense Against of Dark Arts – “Magic You May Have Missed” is an interactive game to test your knowledge of the magic used throughout the film. “Tour Lupin’s Classroom” is a 360 degree tour of the professor’s classroom.
[*] Tour Honeydukes is another 360 degree tour which includes both levels of the candy store.
[*] Great Hall – “Catch Scabbers” is an interactive game where the goal is catch the little rodent, “Choir Practice” is a short video-like performance of the choir - 1:39. “The Quest of Sir Cadogan” is another interactive game where the participant uses the help of various paintings.
[*] Hogwarts Grounds – “Hagrid’s Hut” contains the following fathurettes: “Care of Magical Creatures” which a short doc on the animals and trainers used throughout the film - 4:44. “Conjuring a Scene” includes brief interviews with Gary Oldman with various crewmembers including the make-up, hairdressing and visual-effects members who were responsible for making the characters look as ghastly as they did - 15:35. “Game Preview” is merely an ad for EA games - 1:02. And finally, “DVD-ROM” features which includes really nothing more than adverts for a video game as well as on on-line source to play HP “Trading Cards” as well as a number of other HP sites.
While these special features are extremely well done in their layout and presentation, clearly they are geared toward younger fans of the franchise and I doubt many of those reading here will find them all that entertaining or informative.
Special Features: 3/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
I grow tired of listening to complaints of films not equaling their inspirational novels and frankly I think it’s silly to expect a two+ hour film to contain the same extraordinary detail as say a three or four hundred page book. A film simply doesn’t have the luxury of time. It’s truly remarkable what the producers have been able to cram into these films in terms of finer detail. Having said that, The Prisoner of Azkaban falls just short of the magic that existed in the first installment, however, it is equal to the initial film in terms of style and most certainly the performances. The film bests the Chamber of Secrets by a long margin, although I still enjoyed it.
As I indicated earlier in my review, I was skeptical of this whole HP franchise thing when it initially reared its head – man, has my thinking changed. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these films and the books they’re based upon and when these are looked back upon, say fifty or a hundred years from now, I believe they’ll carry as much weight and impact as we are experiencing today. To say these have merely become engrained within our culture would be a huge understatement – not doing justice to the films or the books that have been their source of inspiration.
As for the presentation, well in my opinion it is near flawless and is absolutely representative of the theatrical presentation – which is really all we can ask for. The supplemental features are slightly on the thin side – geared for younger fans, but that has very little impact on my feelings towards the third installment of this wonderful ensemble. Fans of Harry and Hogwarts should be delighted with this release.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (not an average)
Release Date: November 23rd, 2004