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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Many fans of the adventures of a certain lightning-scarred wizard cite J.K. Rowling's third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as their favorite book to date because it's the one in which the series really comes into its own and big things start happening. The same could be said of director Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of the story. Darker, moodier, and more intense than its Chris Columbus-helmed predecessors, Azkaban follows its hero (played for the third time by Daniel Radcliffe) into the throes of adolescence, as he and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) cope with the ups and downs of their third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This time around, Harry's arch-enemy Lord Voldemort takes a backseat to the nefarious wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murder who escapes from the depths of Azkaban Prison and makes a beeline for Harry, ostensibly because Sirius helped Voldemort kill Harry's parents and now wants to finish the job. Meanwhile, Harry's sympathetic new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), has something to hide, burly groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) runs into trouble when one of his fantastical creatures takes a piece out of Harry's rival, Draco Malfoy (a now-very-gangly Tom Felton), and loopy Divination instructor Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson) keeps seeing signs of Harry's impending death. And then there are the Dementors, the vile, ghostly Azkaban guardians who make Harry pass out every time he encounters them. It's a lot to deal with when you're only 13, and Harry knows — and resents — it. Azkaban is the first Potter movie to really tap into its hero's anger, and the film benefits from it. All of a sudden, Harry's adventures are more than just a diversion; now they're the key to a troubled young man finding out why he's been singled out (and, to his way of thinking, dumped on) by fate. As he'll discover by the end of the movie, there's much more going on than meets the eye, and even more difficult challenges ahead of him. Cuaron succeeds in getting strong performances out of his cast; veterans Oldman, Thewlis, and Thompson are all excellent additions, and Michael Gambon fills out the late Richard Harris's wizard hat with panache as Dumbledore. Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson have grown up in their roles, and all three seem to understand their characters better than ever under Cuaron's direction. Purists who enjoyed Columbus's letter-perfect book-to-film adaptations may find some of Cuaron's additions (a chatty, dreadlocked shrunken head in the rip-roaring Knight Bus sequence) and deletions (the secret behind the Marauder's Map) jarring, but the stylish director knows that staying true to the essence of the book matters more than dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." Warner Home Video brings Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to DVD in a two-disc set that's more flash than substance. The first platter offers the film in a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), with English, Spanish, and French Dolby Surround audio tracks and subtitles, a list of cast and crew credits, and previews for other Warner releases. Disc Two (which has English and French language options) hosts the extras, which include five unfinished scenes, a featurette/interview with Rowling and the filmmakers, cast and crew interviews hosted by British TV personality Johnny Vaughn, unimpressive self-guided tours of Lupin's classroom and Honeydukes Sweet Shop, three interactive games, a brief sing-along to the film's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" song, an interesting animal training featurette, a behind-the-scenes production design featurette, a video game preview, and DVD-ROM features. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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