Saturday, June 5, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: The boy wizard's growing up. J.K. Rowling's novels are getting deeper and darker. Hermione is morphing from cute girl to hottie.
The Bottom Line: Third movie in the series is darker, more mature, but runs like Cliffs Notes of the book.

Pity screenwriter Steve Kloves. He has the gargantuan task of boiling down a beloved children's book into a two-hour film. All right, we'll allow two hours and some change. He must extract from J.K. Rowling's intricate storylines and rich exposition a coherent screenplay. Did we say there was a two-hour time limit?

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a book well suited for film -- a five-hour long film, as one KOLD "Reel Life" reviewer suggested. No way would a major studio release a product that long. One notable exception was Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet, which clocked in at a little more than four hours. People gasped when the first Potter film ran more than two-and-a-half hours. I say you can make a four-hour Potter film that does the book justice and people will still lap it up. But that film will not be made under Hollywood economic mandates, and begging is futile. So the squeeze is on Kloves as well as director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). Cuaron seems like the right fit at the right time, as Harry and friends grow out of their kid roles into more complicated characters.

The result is hit and miss. They hit some good stuff. They miss some good stuff. The film suffers from omission, and it's stunningly obvious if you've read the book. I kept asking myself, shouldn't another scene go here? How did we get here? Rather than try to massage some scenes to flow together or take necessary liberties with the storyline, Kloves cuts. It's as if he waved his screenwriters' wand, crossed his fingers and uttered the incantation, "Hope this works." But then again, he's trapped. He has to follow the book as closely as possible, because that's what the audience, largely Potter readers, demand.

In the third installment, a murderous wizard aligned with He-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named escapes from Azkaban prison, and he's looking to kill Harry (Radcliffe). So too are Dementors, shadowy grim-reaperlike spirits who suck the soul out of you. The rest of the Hogwarts gang is back, including Harry's pals Ron (Grint), Hermione (Watson), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). So too are the usual foes: Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Michael Gambon steps into the huge shoes of the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore.

Harry Potter and The Wizard Of Azkaban is as visually stunning as its two prequels, and not merely because of CGI spells and magical creatures including the half-eagle, half-horse Hippogriff. There are many moments when Cuaron lets the film breathe and saturate us into the world of Hogwarts. Cuaron works at setting moods to complement the pictures, and that is Prisoner's strength. Another strong point: many moments of dry, understated wit. But one key scene in the third act of the picture is a nightmare, brimming with breathless dialogue that is essential to us understanding the rest of the film, and yet it's going to go over a lot of people's heads unless you have read the book. That's obviously what Kloves counted on.

The fourth book in the series, in production now, will be the acid test. Steve Kloves will face an even tougher challenge condensing the darkest Potter book yet to be made. Plans to split it into two films have been abandoned. Bring it in at under three hours. The clock's running...

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