November 26, 2004

Prisoner of Azkaban on DVD

Ah, the joys of puberty: Small and sniveling nemesis Draco now positively towers over our hero.
I still contend that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a less satisfying adaptation than either of its two predecessors. Watching the DVD today marked my third time with the film, however, and my appreciation grows with each viewing. The first two have proven less satisfying with each viewing, made perhaps more aggravating by the fact that they get so much so spot on that the omissions and alterations stick out like a sore thumb. Frustrating as it has turned out, with Azkaban Cuarón and Kloves have crafted a work that stands better on it's own than as a companion piece.
Perhaps the most striking difference is the difference in approach; the first two films went for the "throw in everything up to and including the kitchen sink" approach, which I quite liked. Azkaban, in adapting a longer work into a shorter running time, doesn't even try. Events are reordered, revamped, and replaced. Sections of dialog again come verbatim from the text ("Turn to page 394.") but it is rarely utilized in the same fashion as Rowling had it. For as many times as I felt they got it right ― alluding to but not expanding on the origins of the Marauder's map; Sirius and Lupin's mentions of James and Lily ― there were an equal number of times where they should have just let be; the Three Broomsticks revelation in particular was far more powerful in the book.
Still, I found myself far more engaged this time around. While the relentless and breathless editing that always seems to cut away a moment and a half too soon still irritates me, I'm familiar enough with the movie now to keep pace. The texture of the film, and the sense of place in particular, get better with each viewing. Columbus's take on the Potter world was more or less how I imagined it, and is indeed one of the things I admire most about his two entries in the series. That said, it always felt more fanciful than real; Harry's world was another world that I could quickly immerse myself in, but it never felt particularly real. Though I never minded, I really dig the way Cuarón has taken Columbus's world and grounded it in reality. It's the same storybook castle in the distance, with all of the towers in all the right places. But getting closer, the courtyards feel lived in and the geography is navigable. I knew that Hogwarts had the all of these locations already, but it wasn't until Azkaban that I could place the Quidditch pitch in relationship to the courtyard in relationship to Hagrid's hut. Even during my lacklustre first viewing of this flick in theatres, I revelled in the time travel sequences both as a way to finally slow the pacing down a pitch and as a way to travel all around Hogwarts without any significant cut aways.
Oh yeah, and the use of the Weeping Willow as both a calendar and a gag was awesome.
Cat Quandary: "Ronald has lost his rat."

Dumbledore Distracts: "See all those strawberries?"
IIf anything contributed to my increased appreciation for Prisoner of Azkaban, it was the visual presentation. It is a very dark and gloomy movie, with a relatively subdued colour palette. Throughout the vast majority of the movie, it's seems to have just rained (or in some cases, is raining violently). In theatres, this amounted to a washed out, dreary sort of look. The DVD perfectly captures what colour there is, bringing a look to the film that is more natural than it is theatrically gloomy. If there is any problem with the presentation, it's that the transfer tries to compensate for the lack of colour by pushing the contrast slightly high, which makes the blacks, while true blacks, slightly lacking in detail. Grain pops up occasionally but never becomes problematic to enjoyment.

Changing of the guard: Professor Lupin passes through his classroom one last time.
The English Dolby Digital mix is more notable for what it doesn't than what it does. What it doesn't do is draw attention to itself; for the first time in the series, the audio component of the experience is completely immersive. Dialogue, sound effects, and music are perfectly balanced; no element suffers to the advantage of the others. The action scenes make full use of the surrounds but never overpower the listener. Perhaps most importantly, even with the British accents understanding the dialogue is never a struggle. Despite all of this, the surrounds are fully utilized and the LFE channel never suffers. Not the latest and greatest demo disc to show off your equipment, but one of the most transparent listening experiences for a blockbuster in a good while.

Mischief managed... barely: The Marauder’s Map serves as the main menu for the somewhat lacklustre second disc.
Prisoner of Azkaban continues the "Harry Potter" series' tradition of style over substance for extras discs. Upon putting Disc Two into your player, you are presented with the typical FBI warning and studio into followed by the option of selecting either English or French. The narrator from the second discs of Azkaban's predecessors solemnly swears he is up to no good, and then the Marauder's Map loads as the main menu. The disc is from here split up into four sub-categories: "Divination Class", "Great Hall", "Defense Against the Dark Arts", and "Hogwarts Grounds". "Tour Honeydukes" is also available from the witch statue in the middle.
"Great Hall" features three controller-based games: "Catch Scabbers!", "Choir Practice", and "The Quest of Sir Cadogan" I personally found the Scabbers and Sir Cadogan games to be damn near impossible to play with my remote. Just the slight delay would mean having to interpret what was coming next to get anywhere. Nothing really substantial here.
"Defense Against the Dark Arts" features only two features: "Magic You May Have Missed" and "Tour Lupin's Classroom". The latter is probably the game that provides the most fun for all ages. Much like that old card game "Memory", it shows you a clip from the film and then asks you what magic just happened. A neat little way to pick out background details that were just thrown in there. "Tour Lupin's Classroom (and "Tour Honeydukes" for that matter) works just like the self-guided tours on the previous two discs: you have arrow options as to where you want to go, and with each node, the narrator has some sort of commentary. It was a nice little glimpse of what Hogwarts students do before the teacher enters, but nothing really substantial.
"Hogwarts Grounds" features a trailer for the Azkaban video game, the DVD-ROM features, and "Hagrid's Hut" - which in turn features several more options. For whatever reason, even using the dreadful DVD-ROM application on the DVD itself, I still couldn't get the DVD-ROM features to work through the menu itself. Clicking on "Extra Credit" in the skin seems to do the trick, however. Of the DVD-ROM features, only the "Hogwarts Timeline" is half-way interesting - and made all the more aggravating by the fact that there is nothing about it that would have prevented it from being part of the DVD proper. "Hagrid's Hut" features two things that prove far more interesting. "Care of Magical Creatures" smells a bit of EPK fluff, but still proves to be a nice, in-depth look at what goes into filming and handling all of the live animals on set. On set footage is inter-cut with clips from the movie and talking head interviews with the producers and animal trainers. Fascinating stuff; I wish the disc had more of these types of things. Following from the Chamber of Secrets disc, also featured at on this menu is another "Conjuring A Scene." This is a great look behind the scenes of a lot of the signature scenes in the film, complete with interviews at every level of the production including cast members, make-up artists, the director, the producers, the visual effects guys, the practical effects guys, the director of photography, and more. Seeing the "outside" of the Shrieking Shack was truly something to behold. I knew they'd run into problems with rain on-location, but how dire the situation was I have very little clue. The featurette is filled with a wide range of behind the scene clips. Easily my second favourite feature on the disc.
That's because my favourite feature can be found under "Divination Class". The feature in question, "Creating the Vision", would be my favourite if it only had David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Mark Radcliffe, Chris Columbus, and Stuart Craig. But throw in side-by-side commentary with Alfonso Cuarón and J.K. Rowling and you have one of the best featurettes in a long while. Seeing little details like J.K. Rowling's map of Hogwarts and its grounds was fantastic, but having Rowling go through all the big scenes and offer her opinion on them is a rare luxury with a film adaptation. ― especially in the case of one of the greatest literary phenomena in history. The other features that round out this section aren't total fluff either; "Trelawney's Crystal Ball" offers several deleted scenes. Most offer only slight additions or scenes that convey information already in the film via a different manner, but the second deleted scene is worthwhile for putting Hogwarts geography into context and the last two fill out a subplot that I missed in the final cut ("When Siriuses Attack"!). "Head to Shrunken Head" provides the usual cast interviews, but I found the talking head too irritating to get any enjoyment out of them. Typical questions to the tune of, "if you could have any magic power, what would it be?" The biggest thing I gleamed out of the whole affair was the sum of the weight gained by Richard Griffiths; truly a massive fellow, poor bloke.
Disc One features a cast and crew listing as well as a trailer for each of the three Harry Potter films.

A disjointed and rushed film that I never-the-less admire more each time. A very respectable DVD presentation with an excellent sound mix and a blemish-free transfer. Extras are plentiful but short on substance, yet still prove to be a minor step up from the previous film in the series.


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