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Harry back in darker Azkaban
Actors Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe at the premiere of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (AP)

New York, May 24: Harry Potter is back, and this time a lot has changed.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is more sinister, more magical and, some will say, much more cinematic than the first two movies based on J.K. Rowling’s immensely popular book series.

Azkaban, rated PG and opening June 4 nationwide, had its US premiere yesterday at Radio City Music Hall, attended by the film’s actors, including Daniel Radcliffe (as Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron). They were met by screams from a sea of fans, mostly teenage girls, who filled an entire block outside the music hall.

Sarah Huang, 15, of Queens arrived at 4 am and waited almost 12 hours just to get a glimpse of the young stars. The sign she held up read simply, “Boxers or Briefs'”

Grint said Azkaban is noticeably different from its popular predecessors, The Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.

“I think this film is a lot darker and what happens is more grown-up,” he said.

Among celebrities attending the premiere, often with their children in tow, were Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, LL Cool J, Spike Lee and Leelee Sobieski.

In the hands of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who took over the job from the first two films’ director, Chris Columbus, the third instalment revels in the outdoors, often placing the characters in forests or on grassy hills. Just as in the book, there are intense magical spells, a seemingly mad escaped prisoner and a howling werewolf.

Cuaron uses hand-held cameras in the Dursley home and panoramic shots in and around the magicians’ school, Hogwarts.

Harry gets his own Titanic like I-can-fly scene while riding a magical half-bird, half-horse. But the director not only goes big, he dives small, taking time to focus intimately and briefly on various life forms — a bird, a leaf, even a swarm of bats — to help set or change a mood.

Other aspects of Azkaban that will have fans talking:

• Special effects: It’s full of realistic-looking whimsy (yes, the shape-shifting, triple-decker Knight Bus skirts through Muggle road traffic with ease) and scary creatures (the bony-fingered Dementors, the black canine Grim and that nasty werewolf).

• Whether less is more: There are fewer Quidditch matches than in the book, not a lot is made of Harry’s new, flying broomstick, and there are very few mentions of Gryffindor, Slytherin and the other Hogwarts “houses”.

• The cast: Cinema-savvy adults will not only appreciate seeing Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Julie Christie interpreting new “Potter” characters, but may get an electric charge in watching David Thewlis, Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman together, chewing up one pivotal scene.

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