One of the best films so far this year and a big step up from two previous solid efforts, 'Azkaban' takes the Potter film franchise in a new and welcome change of direction thanks mostly to the stronger story and a whole new look and feel via Director Alfonso Cuaron. The result is something far more out of a dark teenager's fantasy than a child's sense of wonder that set the tone for the first two adventures - thus captivating not only the darker elements of the novel but helping the film franchise grow and mature just as its main stars and novels are doing.
A lot of people are using their Potter reviews to slag off on Director Chris Columbus's handling of the first two movies. The thing is though Columbus laid the groundwork needed for such a movie as 'Azkaban' which wouldn't have worked anywhere near as well if the other two hadn't setup much of the universe it existed in. Columbus' movies were delightful child romps - straightforward fantasy mysteries slavishly loyal to their material with a lot of visual effects flare and a good introduction to Rowling's wild array of characters. Their main fault lay in the fact they were so slavish to the word of the material rather than its meaning. Whilst all the little details were correct, they didn't translate into the film arena as smoothly as they should have. As a result pacing was off balance, sequences which should've been thrilling fell flat and the actors were weighed down with clunky dialogue.
Consequently 'Azkaban' is the most cinematic of these movies - with two massive hits under its belt and a fourth on its way, now was the time for the studio to start taking risks with the material and it pays off handsomely. Much like the "Lord of the Rings" movies, Cuaron and writer Steve Kloves have made marked changes to the material - deleting big segments and background information at times, other events have been altered or truncated to the point that those very happy with the way the first two films managed to include everything will be unnerved by chunks missing here. The point is though like Peter Jackson, Cuaron has remained faithful to the characters and story but deliberately set out to make a movie.
The result is a fascinating dark tale of wizardy, revenge and betrayal. The story is far more complex and layered, the tone significantly darker and more adult, and the action better fit into the plot. Scenes aren't wasted or go off on unneeded tangeants like the last two movies - every scene is relevant. The magic tricks and wonders of the wizarding world are slightly nudged to the background and help move the plot along rather than be a crux for it. The humour is more apparent on both upfront and subtextual levels, and in a surprise for a Potter movie, there's quite a few good scare jumps as well.
The actors are all nicely settled into their roles now with all the kids doing great jobs without any stumbling on their words or wonky delivery that plagued the first film and sometimes upset the flow of the second. The three main are all turning into fine actors and some of the interplay (like the Ron-Hermione blossoming attraction) are handled beautifully. Likewise the regular adult cast are all back and do great jobs, Rickman AT LAST finally getting some more screentime and having a ball using it. Coltrane's Hagrid is far less of a bumbler this time around thank god, although Smith is left with little to do as McGonagall barely makes an appearance here. The big change amongst them though is Michael Gambon as the new Dumbledore. Harris was a wise old wizard of power and nobility, Gambon reinvents him more as a mischievous cheeky little devil. The result is a character not as strong or believably powerful as Harris, but one that's far more interesting and mysterious.
There's a bunch of new veteran talent in here too. Emma Thompson does the hopelessly eccentric Trelawney exactly as I pictured and plays it up well, likewise the always hilarious Dawn French manages a fun little cameo in here too. Gary Oldman doesn't get much screentime but what he does is fine - combining a convincingly sinister bad guy with another more warmer personal side. Spall has only a brief appearance too sadly, though admittedly takes it a little too over the top. Thewlis however is the real surprise, delivering a strong turn in the 'mentor' style role of Lupin who helps guide Harry.
The effects are remarkably improved too. No more cheesy centaur or half faces, in this creatures such as the part giant falcon/part horse 'Buckbeak' to the more subtle touches such as the black dog are remarkably strong and convincing CG effects. That said an odd looking werewolf and the ghostly Dementors are effectively creepy though come across as somewhat sprite-ish. The music combines the old themes and newer and more subtle dark orchestral elements to effectively add to the mood. Cinematography, production design, etc. are all changed and for the most part improved. From the wide epic shots of the Buckbeak first flight to the everyday clothes of the main trio, it all feels better than it used to.
The downsides with this movie are more going to be arguments over the changes that have been made in comparison to the book or the other two films than any actual new event/thing in 'Azkaban'. There were some things from the book I was surprised were cut out as they were important - the history of the Maurauder's Map, the crime of Sirius, the early attacks in the Gryffindor Common Room, and much of the events within the Shrieking Shack aren't here even though they do contribute to the overall plot. As a result whilst fans will be able to keep up, devouts may be a little miffed that something they loved was cut, whilst those unfamiliar with the books or movies will likely become lost - especially younger viewers.
Likewise whilst most of the changes Cuaron has made have been welcome ones and for the better part improvements, some have not. The extension of the Hogwarts sets out into the surrounding grounds and hillside combined with the very English overcast weather give everything a far more open and interesting feel (this is a very foliage-filled movie). As a result though sets like the Great Hall and the infirmary feel not only less wonderous but stand out as fake more than expected. The forest surrounding the grounds has been changed from a very dark and foreboding place filled with all sorts of scary creatures into something about as threatening as a national park.
The cinematography is far wider and more epic in tone but the use of transitionals such as the constant winking out to black each time Harry faints is a little irritating. Draco has turned from a decently nasty bully into a whining little prat who's barely a foil at all for our main three. Hogsmeade briefly appears but hardly seems like the magical place of the books. Exposition seems clumsily handled at times with conversations like McGonagall and the barmaid a little too convenient, crammed and unlikely.
Still that's just petty complains about the look. Make no mistake about it, this film is superb - an instant classic. Much like "X2" or "The Empire Strikes Back", 'Azkaban' takes an already strong product, gives it a different slant and makes it even better. If the films stay at this quality we'll have a great franchise, if they continue to grow and improve - the sky's the limit.