I saw Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban 2 weeks ago, and my original review was that of a jaded know it all fan of the books that was disappointed that certain scenes were cut out.  In retrospect, I realize that this is easily the best of the first three Potter films in many ways.  There's lots of changes and new things to enjoy.  The children have matured greatly, as has the series itself.  Chris Columbus, who works best with childish fare like Gremlins and Home Alone was a good choice to direct the original two movies, but this installment, which calls for a decidedly more dark and disturbing tone, is expertly handled by Alberto Cuaron (a bizarre choice that ends up paying off mightily).  Clearly, this is designed to appeal to the both the die-hard and casual Potter fans alike.

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As Harry returns to Hogwarts for a third year, he's told that a killer named Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban (an Alcatraz style prison for criminal wizards) and wants to kill Harry.  Sirius has some connections to the death of Harry's parents, and Harry spends much of the film wondering what it's all about.  Throw in an inconsequential side story about a creature called Buckbeak the Hippogriff and Hermione's ability to be more than one place at the same time, and there's not too much else going on.

This time around, the screenplay is much more heavily edited from the source material, which may make some of the characters motivations and actions be a bit confusing to those that haven't read the book.  I saw the first two films before I read the books, and it was all magic surprise for me.  But now that I've read the entire series, I'm a bit more jaded about what they've left out of Azkaban.  So the line of me being a picky critic and a geeky Harry Potter fan may be a bit blurred, but hopefully I'll explain it enough to make a good review for you here.

The first two films (Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) were fantastic stories that were easy to adapt straight from the books, but so much of Azkaban is about personal fear that ends up being difficult to show on screen.  In the book, a Dementor touches Harry and it drains the soul out of him, you get inside of his mind and you can feel the sheer horror he's going through.  In the movie, you just see him faint. This is a sign of things to come for the rest of the Potter franchise in which significant portions of the book are cut to make the story fit into a feature length film.

For example, we're told Azkaban is a scary place to be and that Sirius Black "is a killer", but we're pretty much expected to take these claims at face value as the fearsomeness of both are never actually demonstrated. Even the misunderstood incident where Sirius was believed to have killed Peter Pettigrew and several Muggle bystanders is missing from the film .

The scene where we first see The Dementors while the kids are on the train is very terrifying, as are most scenes they appear in.  They even interrupt the prerequisite Quidditch game with a horrifying effect.

Daniell Radcliffe gives his best and most complex performance as Potter in the series, and Emma Watson appears more confident as Hermione and is a much better actress this time around.  Alan Rickman is sadly only used sparingly in this film as my favorite character, Professor Snape, but David Thewlis as Lupin is a nice addition to the cast.

The big surprise was how good Tom Felton has become as Draco Malfoy. While he comes off as a spoiled annoying rich twit in the first two films, he's gained about a foot of height on Harry and has matured considerably since we've last seen him, which helps him to actually come across as menacing for a change.

Rupert Gint doesn't get to do much but whine as Ron Weasley again, but the dynamic presence of his older twin brothers works very well, and makes you eagerly await the 4th and 5th movie where they should be given significant and hilarious things to do if you've read the books.

The biggest thing to get used to is the absence is the lack of Richard Harris as Dumbledore. Michael Gambon tries, but his take on the bearded professor is a sour and mostly humorless man that lacks the fatherly charm and sarcasm of the previous portrayal.

It's rather funny to see how the other Hogwarts students have evolved. Matthew Lewis who plays Neville Longbottom has turned from a dumpy overweight kid to a rather stretched out and awkward looking boy. An even funnier change is from Jamie Waylett who plays one of Draco's lackeys, Crabbe. A big hulking moose in the first two films, he's gotten taller, skinnier, and in the process, more intelligent looking as a result.

The big change is the new director, Alfonso Cuaron, who handles the maturing Potter franchise with a decidedly more mature approach than Christopher Columbus has.  One only can wonder what this great artistic visionary could have done with the first two films if he had the chance.  He takes the subject matter seriously, and is more than competent with his first mega budget film.  That being said, these films practically direct themselves, as it's Rowling's vision that really shines through, no matter who touches it.  In fact, some of Cuaron's touches are just plain distracting, like the closing scene where Harry's face is paused in a weird freeze frame during a moment of triumph.  You almost expect a Journey song to start playing over the closing credits.

The CGI is hit or miss here, with the home run being from the hippogriff creature, Buckbeak. His movements and rendering are beautiful, with each feather animated to perfection. The same can not be said, however for Lupin's werewolf alter ego, that ends up looking rather ridiculous, as an anorexic weird short haired gangly thing that my daughter mentioned reminded her of a mole rat. 

Gary Oldman works wonderfully as Sirius Black, but unfortunately, just as in the book, really only pops up in the film's end. And you'll likely have to wait to Part 5 of the series to enjoy any substantial screen time from him at all. Hopefully he'll have the time to visit a dentist during this layover, as his teeth are horrible to look at, even by British standards.

I get the feeling that many thing were cut for time.  Hopefully it'll get the Lord of The Rings style treatment when it comes out on DVD with plenty of the deleted scenes either restored, or placed as extras in the Special Features section. 

Meanwhile, the entire Potter crew is busy making the 4th Film Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, as you read this, so you won't have to wait long to get your fix again if you feel like you've been left hanging.

It's not as if they'll have try hard to convince anyone to see these movies, good review or not.

NOTE:  If you stick around to the end credits, you can hear Harry mutter a little something that's worth the wait. 

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