Early on, I wrote off the Harry Potter series as a watered down 'Lord of the Rings' aimed at preteens on both sides of the Atlantic. But the further the series moved away from the kiddie fare that saturated 'Sorcerer's Stone' and 'Chamber of Secrets,' the more I've come to appreciate J.K. Rowling's epic coming of age story. 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' is the third film in the series, and the first to take a decidedly dark turn into the underbelly of Hogwarts and the infamous legacy of its most notorious alumni.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) return for their third year of witchcraft and wizardry training only to be met with the news that a vicious criminal named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban Prison. Once a trusted ally of the evil wizard Voldemort, Black is now desperately searching for Harry in an attempt to finish the job his master could not. To Harry's relief, creatures called Dementors are dispatched to the school to protect the students and capture the would-be-assassin. But the Dementors have a strange effect on Harry that calls their true motivations into question. Everything is not as it appears, and Harry begins to search for answers about the death of his parents, the threatening presence of Black, and the ever-looming threat of Voldemort.
Director Alfonso Cuarón ('Y tu mamá también,' 'Children of Men') picks up the reins from director Chris Columbus and delivers a more complex tale of Harry's adolescence. Cuarón's confident vision of the Potter universe pairs Rowling's themes with those he's explored in his other work to change the entire tone of the film without allowing it to feel disconnected from Columbus's entries. Indeed, just one look at the film's cinematography says volumes about Cuarón's approach -- the rich colors of the first two Potter films may have been replaced with a monochromatic chill, but it feels like a natural progression that continues to subtly depict Harry's mounting unease with the world around him. Best of all, Cuarón draws deeper performances out of his maturing cast. The three young heroes finally have an edge to their personalities, an untapped aggression they can't define that's simply waiting to be unleashed.
Older viewers will also be pleased to find that Black and the Dementors aren't the only ominous elements introduced into the saga -- the entire school seems to be cloaked under the darkening shadow of Voldemort and his minions. There's a palpable tension in almost every scene and the warm-fuzzies of the first two films are far less intrusive this time around. While it rarely amounts to more than just a tease of the bleak events waiting for Harry in future installments, Prisoner of Azkaban' does a much better job of satisfying older film fans like myself who want more out of their fantasy than flowery spells and wide-eyed wonderment.
My biggest complaint is merely a matter of taste. For every startling twist and menacing development, there are several lighthearted distractions that keep 'Prisoner of Azkaban' from feeling like a cohesive whole. I don't blame Cuarón -- returning for his third film in the series, screenwriter Steve Kloves again falls into the trap of trying to cram in too many fan favorite moments from the books. While a better balance might have been struck in a four hour film, the final edit of 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is arguably too short to handle the bipolar natures of its light and dark elements. Moments that would seem to be insanely traumatic for the characters are regularly followed by schoolyard shenanigans that make it seem as if the kids have completely forgotten what just happened. The truncated nature of the film inadvertently stunts the emotional believability of Harry and company, resulting in a flick that feels at odds with its runtime and its source material.
In the end, an intriguing story, a darker tone, and the addition of several additional top notch performances can't save 'Prisoner of Azkaban' from having something of an identity crisis. Fans of the books and the lighter elements of the first two films will be more forgiving, but I constantly found myself wishing the story would quit wasting time with minor subplots and get to the point. Regardless, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' remains a really good flick, and one that easily trumps its two predecessors.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Just like the other Ultimate Editions for part 1 and part 2 of 'Harry Potter' this one comes packed in a case that's exactly the same size, with one slight change that makes a huge and frustrating difference to the set. This time they're included a 3D hologram slip-in insert for the front. This is annoying for a couple reasons. First, the first two have no such hologram, so Warner Brothers has already changed up the packaging on a set that's supposed to look really cool lined up next to each other on your shelf. Whenever a studio changes up the packaging for a set that should look identical I always get a little irked. Second, since this hologram needs a place to sit, the front of the box now has overlapping cutouts on the bottom and top where the hologram slips in. I hate this, because I've already frayed the top overlap that has the Blu-ray symbol. Once it gets caught on anything, it's so flimsy that it will bend up and out and never look the same afterward. These Ultimate Editions are for the ultimate collectors. Collectors, like myself, love consistency in packaging because these affect how they look on the shelf. The first two editions looked polished and were sturdy and firm. Now with these extraneous holographic inserts the packaging takes on a cheaper feel, that doesn't hold up as well, and that won't look the same compared to the two other Ultimate Editions you bought earlier.
Now for the contents of the package.
It comes complete with three discs. A BD-50 disc for the feature film, a DVD disc for the special features, and a BD-25 disc for the brand new one-hour documentary for the eight-part documentary planned for each of the Ultimate Editions. Part three is called "Creatures." The discs are housed in a standard fold out tray with each disc having its own hub to call home. A cardboard envelop inside contains two collectible, oversized cards. One for Hermione Granger and the other for Sirius Black.
Capping off the new goodies is a 48-page full-color companion booklet about the creatures of 'Harry Potter' that goes along with the new one-hour documentary. All of this is housed in a sturdy book-like structure that slides into the cardboard slipcover provided.
Note: The same transfer is recycled here, so Ken's original review still holds true.
'Prisoner of Azkaban' is presented with a striking 1080p/VC-1 encode that comes very close to matching the quality of the five-star high-def transfer of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.' This Blu-ray edition utterly thrashes its standard definition counterpart -- in a side-by-side comparison, the DVD looks like a tattered relic of a forgotten era.
The high-def transfer renders Cuarón's icy hues with the same richness and stability as his vibrant primaries. 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is deprived of color more often than the first two 'Potter' flicks, but nicely saturated fleshtones and a comfortable contrast join forces to give the cinematography a natural appearance. I was most impressed by the film's day lit exteriors -- even when the kids step out in the dim light of overcast skies, the video quality is simply stunning, boasting sharp edges and plenty of jaw-dropping, three-dimensional imagery. Night shots and gloomy interiors are more filmic in nature (some might say a bit softer), but the picture still showcases plenty of crisp textures and intricate details that should keep the nitpickers at bay.
Better still, Warner Brothers has produced a clean transfer that doesn't suffer from source noise, artifacting, or bothersome edge enhancement -- that's no small feat considering that the film is packed with rolling fog, gray skies, and copious amounts of CG. I did catch three instances of faint banding in the distance during particularly murky weather, but it didn't distract from the film's overall impact. All in all, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' boasts a great looking transfer that will appeal to fans and first-time viewers alike. It's not quite a top-tier demo disc like 'Order of the Phoenix,' but it certainly trumps 'Sorcerer's Stone' and inches past 'Chamber of Secrets.'
This time around we get a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, instead of the uncompressed LCPM mix from the last release of the film on Blu-ray. Here the Blu-ray excels, with a rousing, wildly entertaining sound mix that will keep you entertained and enthralled for the entire running time.
'Prisoner of Azkaban' seems to be where the movies become much more talkative as characters go to great lengths to explain what is happening in the wizarding universe. So it's great that dialogue is never overpowered or hampered in the process. The dialogue here is perfectly prioritized holding its own against jarring sound effects and a booming, unforgettable score. Even as Professor Trelawney rattles off her staccato-sounding gibberish, each of her words are precisely mixed in the soundfield to let us know exactly what she's mumbling about.
The rain-soaked Quidditch match is one of the many sonic highlights. From the pounding sounding of distant thunder to the drip-drop of pouring rain this scene has it all. Directionality is done to perfection as Harry and other Quidditch player zoom from one end of the field to the other. The rear speakers are alive with the crack of lightning and thunder, and the whooshing sound of the Dementors as they approach.
LFE bursts forth as Lupin changes from man to beast. It rumbles the room during the feverish Quidditch match, but it never overwhelms the rest of the track. From the big, whooshing sound effects to the tiny plink sound a wand makes after it's been knocked from a wizard's hand with a spell, all the sound effects are given equal opportunity to impress and dazzle.
Sorry if you were expecting more director's or extended cuts here, there aren't any.
Are the Ultimate Editions worth it? With the packaging of the first two, and as a collector myself, I would have said yes! Now with the change in packaging, going with the cheaper hologram insert look on the front, I can't definitively say yes anymore. Why studios feel the need to change up packaging on a collection that's supposed to be perfectly uniform when all is said and done is a completel mystery to me. The top part of the package is easy to bend, rip and mangle without even trying. I won't be surprised if some of these packages are shipped to owners already damaged. They're just way too easy to ruin now, and one little rip or tear will make them look bad.
The new eight-part documentary is a nice touch and the new 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix is rather superb. All in all this is still great for collector's, but those who wanted the same packaging to be kept throughout will be disappointed. Since they've already changed it up on three and four, this leaves the door open to even more radical changes on five through 8. Let's keep our fingers crossed that Warner doesn't mess with them much more than they already have.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.