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You’d be forgiven for thinking the director of Y Tu Mama Tambien might be a little out of place helming what is primarily a children’s film. Ultimately, however, director Alfonso Cuaron manages to competently steer what is the most accomplished Harry Potter adaptation yet. While many film franchises rest on their laurels after the first couple of outings, you get the feeling that Harry and his buddies are just gathering steam. If only you could send the cast to the fountain of youth…

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban
After a brief encounter where Harry manages to inflate his Aunt Marge and send her flying through the air, our pint-sized hero returns to Hogwart’s school for another year of wizard education. But the students are in shock when they learn that the dastardly Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has managed to escape from the walls of Azkaban of prison. The trouble is he’s had a bit of a chequered past with young Mr.Potter, having indirectly caused the death of his Harry’s parents. Sirius also doesn’t think to kindly of Harry since he had a hand in his master’s death earlier on.

Naturally those at Hogwarts are afraid that Sirius will return to Hogwarts to hunt down his prey. The prison guards, called Dementors, who managed to let Sirius escape, surround the school to try and protect the students from Sirius. However, they take a bit of a liking to Harry also, almost literally sucking the life out of him for some strange (and relatively unexplained) reason. It’s only a matter of time before Sirius returns to seek vengeance after all these years, but all is not what it seems in the end.

The first act is almost pointless in terms of the progression of the story, which could probably be largely attributed to the fact you’ve got a juvenile audience who need to be dragged in quickly to get them involved in the story. What you get is a series of little vignettes which eventually lead to some semblance of a narrative. When the film does get going, however, what you’ll find is that it’s incredibly entertaining. You’ve got an interactive map of Hogwarts, a nifty little time travel device and Harry’s useful invisibility cloak which liven things up, giving viewers a highly entertaining second half.

The cast have definitely aged. It’s a noticeable difference from the second film but it does help make things look a lot more mature and convincing. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) couples his added age with a certain confidence in the role which had been lacking before, while the support cast of Emma Watson (playing Hermione), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Tom Felton (Malfoy) are now a whole lot more convincing. Couple that with a spattering of old hands to help them along, including Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith, and you’ve got yourself a great mix of characters. But it’s never really about the cast, with the storyline and fantasy element taking centre stage right from the outset.

So where to from here? The first two films were serviceable but nothing startling, the general consensus about the third instalment is that it’s by far the strongest of the lot, and the fourth film has already begun production. Hopefully the franchise continues improving, as that will ensure the fourth film is not to be missed regardless of your age. Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban eventually recovers from a slow start to end up being a highly entertaining outing that benefits from a slightly darker tone, a young cast who are now much more comfortable in their roles and a story which carries on the fun whilst still touching on universal themes here and there.

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban
It’s not only the film that has been improved over the previous versions. While the transfers on the first two films were quite impressive, the 2.40:1 visuals on this release are simply superb. Alfonso Cuaron fills every set with as much information as possible, making the frame an incredibly busy picture indeed. Thankfully the transfer holds up extremely well, with a great level of sharpness that doesn’t show any signs of aliasing or shimmer at all.

The colours are noticeably vibrant when they need to be, although with the darker tone of the film comes a much more muted palette so we don’t exactly get the full effect. Black levels are also very impressive, which is great considering a lot of the action takes place at night. Overall this is a great transfer, with basically nothing to pick on at all.

The only soundtrack included on this release is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but thankfully it’s a particularly solid one. The second half of the film is where the best examples lie, with the surrounds used effectively to re-create atmospherics, sound effects and the musical score. John Williams again heads up the music on this film, using his famous talents to provide a subtle yet highly effective score which bounces around the rear speakers when necessary.

Dialogue tends to sit firmly in the front speakers for the most part, but directional effects are used throughout the entire film, mainly for ambience. And surprisingly the audio mix also causes the subwoofer to crank up on various occasions, providing an unexpected punch here and there. On the whole there’s a lot to like about the audio on this disc.

Warner have again gone all out and provided us with a two-disc release which is packed with a lot of content to keep the fans busy. The first disc is pretty much bare bones except for a cast and crew listing and theatrical trailers for the first three films. Disc two, however, is where the fun and games begin.

In the Divination Class section you’ll find Trelawney’s Crystal Ball, which is a collection of five short, unfinished scenes which didn’t make it into the film. None of them are all that important but they make for decent viewing nonetheless. Next is a featurette entitled Creating The Vision, a book-to-film piece which runs for around ten minutes. Those behind the film are interviewed and give their input on the adaptation of the book to the film versions. Even J.K.Rowling gets a big run in this one, which will please fans of the novels no end. Rounding out this section is Head To Shrunken Head, a series of interviews with the key cast and crew members. Interviewer Johnny Vaughn is accompanied by Shrunken Head (it’ll make sense if you’ve seen the film) to interview the likes of Daniel Radcliffe and Alfonso Cuaron, among others.

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban
The next section is the Great Hall, the children’s section that included two remote control games and a karaoke-type version of one of the songs from the film. The first game involves using your DVD remote to catch Scabbers (the rat), while the second, entitled The Quest of Sir Cadogan is similar but a little more complex. All three are sure to entertain the kids while you cook dinner.

Moving on, the Defence Against The Dark Arts section contains a small trivia game called Magic You May Have Missed. A short piece of a scene plays before a multiple choice question appears before you. The other extra in this section is a tour of Lupin’s classroom. Using your remote you can view the classroom full circle. Again, not entirely riveting stuff but the bulk of this is for the kids anyway.

The next section is Hogwart’s grounds, which includes two featurettes inside Hagrid’s Hut. The first piece is called Care Of Magical Creatures and looks at the team of animal trainers employed to care for the creatures used in the film. Everything from owls to bats to a cat named Crackerjack (making his feature film debut) is covered in this highly entertaining piece. The Conjuring A Scene piece deals with the intricate sets, costumes and effects used for the film. Running for almost fifteen minutes in total, you end up learning a heap of little facts about the film over the duration, something which is welcome since there is no commentary to perform the same job. This section also contains a trailer for the EA game based on the film as well as a couple of DVD-ROM extras for the kids.

Finally, the Tour Honeydukes section is another full-circle interactive tour, this time of the sweet shop from the film. Be careful, though, as it’s a tempting sight for a sweet-tooth.

Overall the extras are actually pretty light on when you view them as a group. You’ve got only a short collection of deleted scenes, a few little games for the kids and some featurettes on the making of aspects of the film. But considering the children are the ones most likely to be interested in the disc for an extended length of time it comes as no surprise that there are no commentary tracks or meatier versions of the featurettes. With that in mind it’s not a bad package overall but certainly not one to knock your wizard socks off.

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Finally the Potter franchise is gaining speed. The story, when it gets going, is a fun ride featuring all the necessary fantasy elements yet keeping true to the characters we’ve grown to love. The kids will love the change of pace and tone, which the adults could probably bear to watch a couple of times. The two-disc set is impressive, with basically flawless video, a great audio mix and enough extras to keep the little ones happy for a while. In all there should be no hesitation in picking this one up.