Finally a Harry Potter film worth a damn. Living again with his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Marge for the summer, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is subjected to their cruel and unrelenting torture before inflating his aunt into a balloon and watching as she drifts away into the London air. Director Alfonso Cuarón is obsessed with Harry Potter’s evolvement into a young adult and this vicious, almost disturbing spectacle of abuse affords us a side of the wizard that is none too nice. Unlike Chris Columbus’s banal Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, the anxiously paced and happily embellished Prisoner of Azkaban is not only a film with big ideas but also one that trades in conflict of the internal variety. After breathlessly making his way through London and back to Hogwarts, Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a man who allegedly led Lord Voldemort to the boy’s parents, has escaped from prison and is now looking for him. Over the course of the film, Harry seems to grapple with his inevitable meeting with Sirius, but instead discovers that his true enemy is himself. Whether it’s winning the affections of a strange flying bird or learning to tell good apart from evil (a disturbing sequence between a wolf and a werewolf posits a fascinating struggle between nurture and nature), Cuarón’s characters are very much on the brink of psychosexual enlightenment. (For Ron Weasley, the developing Hermione’s mysterious comings and goings are a constant source of wonder.) Harry and his friends are constantly climbing and running places, and Cuarón’s subversive, often expressionistic compositions are surprisingly suggestive, giving way to a meta showdown between the present and the future that challenges Harry’s notions of self-worth and allows him to fully conquer his fears. Lines like “You’re supposed to stroke it” and “I’m sorry to hear about your broomstick” are delivered with tongues planted firmly and cheek. When the young wizard learns to conquer the illusion of the sinister Dementors that guard Hogwarts, the room is lined with an array of phallic candles. These images aren’t accidents (is Harry really stroking his magic wand in the film’s opening sequence?)—this is Cuarón’s way of summoning the queasy terrain of the wizard’s adolescence. Here is a Harry Potter film where the filmmaker isn’t trying to fulfill a check-listed quota. But will fans of Chris Columbus’s films be prepared for this new installment, where the final showdown isn’t between Harry and a big scary animal but a boy and the perils of time?
An improvement over Warner Home Video's Chamber of Secrets and Sorcerer's Stone DVDs, the image on this two-disc Prisoner of Azkaban edition isn't as flat. Of course, that really has everything to do with Alfonso Cuarón, who manages to bring some life and color to the dreary aesthetic Chris Columbus set up in the previous two films. The sound is equally impressive: Surrounds don't snap-crackle-pop as much as I would have liked, but the film's dialogue and score resonate handsomely across the entire soundstage.
Besides a widescreen presentation of the film, the first disc contains cast and crew information and trailers for the first three films in the series. Disc two collects the usual assortment of games, challenges, and virtual tours, all of which you'll have to find using the Maruder's Map interactive menu. The features collected inside the Divination Class are the most worthwhile: five deleted scenes, a "Creating the Vision" interview with J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers (which boasts interesting if somewhat masturbatory discussions about the trickiness and ease of both the novel and film), and the amusing "Head to Shrunken Head" interviews with the cast and crew (if only all DVD interviews were this much fun!). Also of note is the "Cure of Magical Creatures" and "Conjuring the Scene" behind-the-scenes features found inside Hagrid's Hut.
The shortest Harry Potter film to date, Prisoner of Azkaban is noticeably slim in the extras department.