- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) movie review: Featuring wizards, dementors, hippogriffs, shapeshifters, and countless seasoned British film and stage stars, Alfonso Cuarón’s entry in the hugely successful Harry Potter franchise offers plenty of state-of-the-art CGI but precious little magic.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie: First-rate production values + state-of-the-art CGI … but where’s the magic?
Alfonso Cuarón may have seemed like an odd choice for director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in the hugely successful Harry Potter movie series based on J.K. Rowling’s bestselling fantasy novels.
That is, if one thinks only of Cuarón’s pre-Harry Potter sleeper hit, the François Truffaut-esque 2002 Mexican comedy-drama Y Tu Mamá También, while ignoring two of the filmmaker’s earlier efforts, the critically acclaimed A Little Princess and the moderately respected Great Expectations.
This time around, working with a reported $130 million budget, state-of-the-art special effects, and a whole array of veteran British film and stage stars, Cuarón surely could do no wrong.
At the box office, that is. For although his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie adaptation is stylistically superior to Chris Columbus’ previous work in the series, this latest Harry Potter entry is also a major artistic letdown.
Admittedly, Steve Kloves’ haphazard screenplay is mostly to blame for the film’s failings, since those who haven’t read Rowling’s 1999 bestseller will probably be left as dazed and confused as this reviewer was while attempting to follow the myriad twists and turns of the plot – which goes something like this:
After a particularly bizarre family confrontation, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) heads back to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Once there, Harry, now a full-fledged bespectacled teen, discovers that the evil Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the prison of Azkaban after 12 years of incarceration.
Black, everyone explains, was the murderous right-hand man of the dark wizard Voldemort, and sooner than you can say Wingardium Leviosa, the evildoer is roaming the corridors of Hogwarts, apparently seeking to avenge his fallen master by doing away with little Harry.
Bitter childhood trauma + tasty teen life essence
Besides having to deal with snotty school bullies, keep up with his Hogwarts duties, and do his utmost to remain alive, Harry must come to terms with his feelings of parental loss when he learns that Black was to blame for his parents’ death.
And if that weren’t enough, the troubled teen has to fend off the creepy dementors – Grim Reaper-like creatures that have been called upon to protect the school and whose favorite pastime is to suck away his life essence.
In order to get through this series of ordeals, Harry Potter relies on the moral (and physical) support of his two buddies, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and on the help of a mysterious teacher, Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), who seems to know more about all that’s going on than he cares to admit.
CGI not same as movie magic
Not helping with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s confusing plot twists, lack of thrills, and juvenile situations are John Williams’ – as usual – bombastic score and the sight of a veritable parade of renowned British actors (Maggie Smith, Julie Christie, Julie Walters, Michael Gambon [replacing Richard Harris], etc.) wasted in ineffectual roles or minuscule bits.
Even though Alfonso Cuarón may not have been responsible for his movie’s final cut and for all the emoting faces left on the cutting-room floor, he’s certainly to blame for allowing Gary Oldman to devour the scenery with more gusto than the meanest of the dementors, and for letting Emma Thompson (Best Actress Academy Award winner for Howards End, 1992) give what may well be the worst performance of her distinguished career.
Yet Cuarón’s biggest failure is that he has directed a movie about wizardry and witchcraft whose “magical” moments are comprised solely of visual effects. And no matter how technologically accomplished, CGI is merely what the abbreviation means: computer generated imagery.
For Alfonso Cuarón-generated magic, bypass Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and check out instead the second half of Y Tu Mamá También.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón.
Screenplay: Steve Kloves.
From J.K. Rowling’s novel.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe. Rupert Grint. Emma Watson. Gary Oldman. David Thewlis. Robbie Coltrane. Michael Gambon. Richard Griffiths. Alan Rickman. Fiona Shaw. Maggie Smith. Timothy Spall. Emma Thompson. Julie Walters. Julie Christie. Pam Ferris. Warwick Davis. Harry Melling. Adrian Rawlins. Geraldine Somerville. Robert Hardy. Oliver Phelps. James Phelps. Bonnie Wright. Mark Williams. Devon Murray. Matthew Lewis. Tom Felton. Dawn French.
Cinematography: Michael Seresin. Film Editing: Steven Weisberg. Music: John Williams. Production Design: Stuart Craig. Producers: Chris Columbus, David Heyman, Lorne Orleans, and Mark Radcliffe.
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Movie” notes
Producer Chris Columbus + director contenders
Also worth noting, before Alfonso Cuarón landed the job of director, Warner Bros. had approached/considered Cuarón’s fellow Mexican Guillermo del Toro, Marc Forster, M. Night Shyamalan, Callie Khouri, and Kenneth Branagh (who had played Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban cast and crew info via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Images of Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Warner Bros.
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Movie: Plentiful CGI, Scarce Magic” last updated in December 2020.