The movie should have been a half-hour longer. I want to throw that out first, because almost every review I've read of the movie has gushed over its new, darker, more adult demeanor, and utterly ignored the gutting of the novel's climax.
The movie opens identically to the book, with the boy-wizard Harry once again living with his insufferable, magic-hating aunt and uncle. His home life is made even worse by the arrival of a brutish aunt, who immediately launches into attacks on Harry's long dead parents. Harry, now 13, attempts to bit his tongue, but can't. As he's heatedly defending his parents, he accidentally "blows up" his aunt, causing her to swell to several times her normal size, and careen off through skies of London.
Harry flees the house, bringing all of his school gear with him, but not knowing what'll happen to him -- he's not supposed to use magic outside of school, and the incident with his aunt could get him expelled. While walking down the darkened, rainy streets, he catches glimpse of a huge black dog following. Startled, he falls over, and finds that he accidentally summoned a great purple bus -- the Knight Bus. This emergency wizard transport whips him through the streets of London to the Leaky Cauldron, where he meets up with friends and allies who warn him that something far worse has happened than a gas-filled aunt: crazed killer and Voldemort supporter Sirus Black has escaped from the unescapable wizard prison of Azkaban. And he's looking to kill Harry.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Harry Potter books have been getting steadily darker and bleaker since the first one was published. Although Harry's won just about every battle, his nemesis Voldemort has continued to grow in strength, his plans checked, but not stopped. However, while the books are undeniably shadowed by all this, they're simultaneously illuminated by the wonder and humor of the universe. Unfortunately, that's something that the movies seem to be losing.
Director Alfonso Cuaron's take on the Harry Potter series shades everything darker -- there are very few scenes with sunlight; almost everything happens in or after a storm. It's as though the dreary, foggy soul of England's risen up to permeate the film. The effect isn't a bad one -- as the trailer noted, something wicked is definitely coming this way, and with the when you have creatures such as the Dementors -- the wraith-like Azkaban guards sent to Hogwart's to hunt for Black -- you can't expect things to be continuously bright and cheery.
And yet, the books have this thread of resilient optimism and fun running through them that's captured by Rowlings' insertion of day-to-day happenings in the books. For example, in the book, Harry and Ron spend one night struggling with their Divination homework until they strike upon the idea of just making stuff up. Knowing that their teacher always prophesies gloom and doom for Harry, they try to make their horoscopes as awful as possible, imagining more and more extreme deaths. It's a funny scene, and one that helps to relieve the overall tension of the book. It's not in movie, and its exclusion points to a problem that both this film and its immediate predecessor had: an unrelenting desire to get through the film as quickly as possible. Anything that does not serve the plot (and a few things that do) are ditched in an effort to get the film in under two hours and twenty minutes.
Watching this film, I felt like a man in an art gallery with three exhibits to go, but only 15 minutes in which to view them ... with a curator over my shoulder constantly urging me to move faster.
Visually, the movie looks good, though not quite as good as the earlier films. The hippogriff Buckbeak is perfect, and the Dementors are just as creepy as I expected. Hogsmeade, the village down next to the school, is seen fleetingly, but looks suitably medieval. The acting is decent -- Lupine come off as I imagined him in the books, though I wish he'd had more screen time. The kids really aren't kids any more, running a few years ahead of their allegedly 13-year-old selves in the books, but they comfortable and capable in their roles, and that's enough for me to overlook the age discrepancies.
The layout of Hogwart's seems to have changed however -- the entire set seems more mountainous than it was before, and doesn't quite fit with what came before. Although it's a minor thing, I found the children's use of normal "Muggle" clothes to be something of a disconnect. There's precedent for it, since the kids at Hogwarts wear ties and such to school -- but still, seeing them in jeans and sweatshirts made the whole set seem more ... mundane.
The Missing Motivation
When I watched the first Harry Potter movie, I still hadn't read the books. That had changed by the time the second one came out, and now when I watch a film I'm all-too-conscious of what's been left out. And this time, there was a heck of a lot left out.
Oh, there were the normal small scenes cut here and there, but you'd expect that in any movie adaptation of a book. No, what bothered me was the neutering of the book's dramatic ending, as revelation after revelation was discarded. Why does Snape hate Harry -- and his father -- so much? Who were Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, why did they make the Marauder's Map, and what significance did it have for the events of this movie? Why was Harry's patronus a stag? All these questions are answered in the final pages of the book, but ignored in the movie.
I found these exclusions to be extremely aggravating, because only a few more minutes of exposition could have made it all come together perfectly. Even worse, the true nature of Wormtail's betrayal -- not that he was one person who know the Potter's secret hiding place, but the only one who knew -- was watered down. The final result is a climax that rings hollow to fans and which will confuse less-informed viewers.
This would bother me less if I knew that the creators were going to go the Peter Jackson route, showing an abbreviated version of the film in theatres, and then editing back in 20-30 minutes of footage when it arrives on DVD. Unfortunately though, the Harry Potter DVDs have been disappointing reproductions of the theatrical releases, and any deleted scenes remain segregated from the larger film. It's a shame and a waste -- the novels have gotten successfully larger as the series has gone one, in part because we all enjoy spending as much time as possible at Hogwarts. Yet with the films, each one has gotten shorter, and the directors seem intent on showing us as little of the setting as they can get away with. One would think this trend would have to be reversed with the fourth film, since the Goblet of Fire is such a large book, but I am not hopeful.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban didn't overwhelm the box office, and it didn't overwhelm me. While I enjoyed seeing it, and I will get the DVD, I couldn't help but be disappointed by its lackluster ending.