Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Warner DVD: 2-Disc Widescreen Edition

The new Warner DVD edition of this magical film contains many extra features, such as exclusive never-before-seen footage, a revealing interview with author J.K. Rawling and the filmmakers, tests of viewers' memory, self-guided tours of Honeydukes and Professor Lupin's classroom. Kids will also rejoice watching a behind-the-scene look at the creation of Buckbeak and the Dementors, and the animal trainers who took care of the movie's magical creatures. Also included are the theatrical trailers of the three “Harry Potter” movies, and how the marketing and visual materials of the franchise have changed over time.

The publication of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books was such a global literary and cultural phenomena that it was almost impossible to treat the franchise's first two films, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” as movies. A juggernaut hype labeled the series as one of the biggest events in film history. Now, with some perspective and new information about the filmmaking process, it's easier to reassess the artistic merits of the franchise, and the unique contribution of Alfonso Cuaron.

Rowling's books are a worldwide phenomenon, moving and capturing the imagination of readers of all ages. However, unlike great fable-fantasies, such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “E.T.,” which were movies about children that were made for and appealed to adults, the first two “Harry Potter” were largely movies about and for children.

Chris Columbus's renditions of the adventures of the beloved wizard's adventures were well-made, likable pictures that pleased their primary target audiences, the books' fans. However, from an artistic viewpoint, the first two “Harry Potter” movies were not exciting on any level, showing strains at being magical in the vein of seminal children fantasies. It's therefore a relief to report that the heavy reliance on special effects, which dominated at least half of the first two films, is noticeably absent from the third one.

As he's shown in his entire career, the highlights of which are the “Home Alone” pictures and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Columbus is a craftsman whose technical proficiency at best matches the level of his material, but never rises above it. With “Harry Potter,” Columbus benefited from Steve Cloves's scripts, which were sharper than those of his former efforts: the sappy melodrama “Step Mom” and a broad comedy like “Nine Months.”

In adapting the first two novels to the screen, Columbus slavishly made smooth, functional films that felt like visual illustrations of the thick texts on which they are based. Astute viewers quibbled with the clash–and resulting compromise–between the helmer's uniquely American cinematic sensibility, which is cheerful, bland, and middlebrow, and the specifically British roots of his literary source. The first two “Harry Potter” reflected the work of a commercial American director, a craftsman of movies that despite sophisticated digital technology were old-fashioned products with look that couldn't be grounded in any particular era.

Columbus, who had to audition to get the assignment, showed passion for the book and knowledge of its details, perhaps too much so. Known for his simple, wholesome fare, which is usually seasoned with juvenile and satirical elements, Columbus was unable to lift the narratives to a magical-mythical level. The main problem of the first films was that they fall victim to a repetitive structure.

Every dialogue scene leads to a special effects sequence. Lacking a dynamic tempo and unified vision, the films felt like a string of disparate set pieces, few of which were inventive or dazzling.

When Mexican director Alfonso Cuarn was first approached about helming “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third of Rowling's celebrated novels, he had just completed work on “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and wasn't familiar with the whole “Potter” mythology. However, after reading Steve Kloves' screenplay and the novels, he was hooked. “Even though on the surface this is a story about creatures, it was the issues explored in it that were so interesting to me, and so relevant today,” says Cuaron, who previously directed the enchanting family tale “A Little Princess.” “Issues about growing up, identity, relationships with friends, the lack of parental guidance, and the search within. There are also issues about social class, injustice, racism–things that affect all of us around the world.”

Though different, there's a thematic link between Cuaron's latest pictures. “Y Tu Mam Tambin” is a story about the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood; just like the new “Harry Potter” is about the journey from childhood to adolescence. Cuaron shows a keen understanding, and a more realistic view of the nuances of teenage life. Cuaron again shows that he is one of the most visually exciting directors working today, blessed with a unique storytelling sense. Their goal was to continue these adventures with the characters audiences had grown to love, and at the same time expose them to a new perspective.

Choosing a new director to depict Harry Potter's world was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Cuaron inherited a pre-established universe with sets and cast already in place. But the fact that “inheritance” gave him more time to focus on the story, the characters, and and the performances of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Miraculously, Cuaron was able to bring his own vision to the new film.

Unlike Columbus, Cuaron decided to be faithful to books' spirit, but not to be too literal with his interpretation. He wished, as it were, to “honor” Harry Potter familiar universe while imbuing it with his own signature. Realizing that they knew by heart the universe and the technical aspects, Cuaron asked the actors to think about their characters' psychology, to explore more deeply than they had done before the emotional territory.

All along, Cuarn's focus was the inner journey they embark upon, in which their fears manifest themselves from within rather than from without in the form of monsters. In the new film, Harry isn't so much dealing with the threat of magical creatures, but revelations about his own life, discoveries about his identity that force him to grow up fast. Cuaron tapped into “the teenage angst” in Rowling's novel. In this film, Harry is angrier, more socially awkward than in the first installments. No doubt, this is a function of his character's age–having to confront startling revelations about his past–but it's also a result of the director's singular perspective.

In keeping with the new thematic elements, Cuarn establishes a more mature tone in the characters' dialogue, wardrobe, and the look of the film itself. Since most teenagers are hyper-aware of pop culture and fashion trends, Cuarn makes the Hogwarts more contemporary and more naturalistic. Visiting several British schools, he observed the way the kids wore their uniforms. No two were alike. The teenagers' individuality was reflected in the specific way they wore their uniform. He then asked all the kids in the film to wear their uniforms as they would if their parents were not around. Playing an older, more self-aware Harry, Radcliffe opted for clothes that are less formal and but also less childish.

There's an element of suspense in watching the new DVD edition, which raises a question about the future of this popular series. Now that two different directors have put their signature on the franchise, it will be interesting to see what British director Mike Newell would do with the fourth “Harry Potter” film.

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