HD DVD
Recommended
3.5 stars
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Overall Grade
3.5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
3.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4.5 Stars
Supplements
2 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
Recommended

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Street Date:
December 11th, 2007
Reviewed by:
High-Def Digest staff
Review Date: 1
December 14th, 2007
Movie Release Year:
2004
Studio:
Warner Home Entertainment
Length:
142 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Non-format-specific portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.'

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

Early on, I wrote off the Harry Potter series as a watered down 'Lord of the Rings' aimed at preteens on both sides of the Atlantic. But the further the series moved away from the kiddie fare that saturated 'Sorcerer's Stone' and 'Chamber of Secrets,' the more I've come to appreciate J.K. Rowling's epic coming of age story. 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' is the third film in the series, and the first to take a decidedly dark turn into the underbelly of Hogwarts and the infamous legacy of its most notorious alumni.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) return for their third year of witchcraft and wizardry training only to be met with the news that a vicious criminal named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban Prison. Once a trusted ally of the evil wizard Voldemort, Black is now desperately searching for Harry in an attempt to finish the job his master could not. To Harry's relief, creatures called Dementors are dispatched to the school to protect the students and capture the would-be-assassin. But the Dementors have a strange effect on Harry that calls their true motivations into question. Everything is not as it appears, and Harry begins to search for answers about the death of his parents, the threatening presence of Black, and the ever-looming threat of Voldemort.

Director Alfonso Cuarón ('Y tu mamá también,' 'Children of Men') picks up the reins from director Chris Columbus and delivers a more complex tale of Harry's adolescence. Cuarón's confident vision of the Potter universe pairs Rowling's themes with those he's explored in his other work to change the entire tone of the film without allowing it to feel disconnected from Columbus's entries. Indeed, just one look at the film's cinematography says volumes about Cuarón's approach -- the rich colors of the first two Potter films may have been replaced with a monochromatic chill, but it feels like a natural progression that continues to subtly depict Harry's mounting unease with the world around him. Best of all, Cuarón draws deeper performances out of his maturing cast. The three young heroes finally have an edge to their personalities, an untapped aggression they can't define that's simply waiting to be unleashed.

Older viewers will also be pleased to find that Black and the Dementors aren't the only ominous elements introduced into the saga -- the entire school seems to be cloaked under the darkening shadow of Voldemort and his minions. There's a palpable tension in almost every scene and the warm-fuzzies of the first two films are far less intrusive this time around. While it rarely amounts to more than just a tease of the bleak events waiting for Harry in future installments, Prisoner of Azkaban' does a much better job of satisfying older film fans like myself who want more out of their fantasy than flowery spells and wide-eyed wonderment.

My biggest complaint is merely a matter of taste. For every startling twist and menacing development, there are several lighthearted distractions that keep 'Prisoner of Azkaban' from feeling like a cohesive whole. I don't blame Cuarón -- returning for his third film in the series, screenwriter Steve Kloves again falls into the trap of trying to cram in too many fan favorite moments from the books. While a better balance might have been struck in a four hour film, the final edit of 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is arguably too short to handle the bipolar natures of its light and dark elements. Moments that would seem to be insanely traumatic for the characters are regularly followed by schoolyard shenanigans that make it seem as if the kids have completely forgotten what just happened. The truncated nature of the film inadvertently stunts the emotional believability of Harry and company, resulting in a flick that feels at odds with its runtime and its source material.

In the end, an intriguing story, a darker tone, and the addition of several additional top notch performances can't save 'Prisoner of Azkaban' from having something of an identity crisis. Fans of the books and the lighter elements of the first two films will be more forgiving, but I constantly found myself wishing the story would quit wasting time with minor subplots and get to the point. Regardless, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' remains a really good flick, and one that easily trumps its two predecessors.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

'Prisoner of Azkaban' is presented with a striking 1080p/VC-1 encode (identical to the Blu-ray) that comes very close to matching the quality of the five-star high-def transfer of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.' This HD DVD edition utterly thrashes its standard definition counterpart -- in a side-by-side comparison, the DVD looks like a tattered relic of a forgotten era.

The high-def transfer renders Cuarón's icy hues with the same richness and stability as his vibrant primaries. 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is deprived of color more often than the first two 'Potter' flicks, but nicely saturated fleshtones and a comfortable contrast join forces to give the cinematography a natural appearance. I was most impressed by the film's day lit exteriors -- even when the kids step out in the dim light of overcast skies, the video quality is simply stunning, boasting sharp edges and plenty of jaw-dropping, three-dimensional imagery. Night shots and gloomy interiors are more filmic in nature (some might say a bit softer), but the picture still showcases plenty of crisp textures and intricate details that should keep the nitpickers at bay.

Better still, Warner Brothers has produced a clean transfer that doesn't suffer from source noise, artifacting, or bothersome edge enhancement -- that's no small feat considering that the film is packed with rolling fog, gray skies, and copious amounts of CG. I did catch three instances of faint banding in the distance during particularly murky weather, but it didn't distract from the film's overall impact. All in all, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' boasts a great looking transfer that will appeal to fans and first-time viewers alike. It's not quite a top-tier demo disc like 'Order of the Phoenix,' but it certainly trumps 'Sorcerer's Stone' and inches past 'Chamber of Secrets.'

The Audio: Rating the Sound

This HD DVD version of 'Prisoner of Azkaban' features an aggressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track (48kHz/16-Bit/1.8Mbps) that significantly enhances the effect of the story's dark tone. Although the film opens with a quiet reminder of Harry's home life, it quickly accelerates into an LFE-laden experience that instills every on-screen element with convincing weight. An impressive array of bass tones will give your subwoofer quite the workout -- I regularly marveled at the thunderous rumbles of moving stone, the heavy thooms of dark magic, and the powerful flap of winged creatures. At the other extreme, high-end screeches and squeals aren't hindered by peaking issues. More importantly, the tonal realism of the effects sent chills down my spine and allowed me to further immerse myself in the film's tense scenes.

Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, leaving nothing to the imagination. The soundfield in this HD DVD edition opens wider than it does on the standard DVD -- subtle effects are more apparent, ambiance is more defined, and channel movement is smoother. The environmental scenes benefit the most and I found myself constantly aware of extra effects I could barely hear on the DVD. Countless multitudes of rustling leaves fil the forests, while land mines of snapping branches explode beneath stomping feet. Likewise, John Williams' beautiful score is released into the entire soundfield -- the strings swell across the front channels, while the accompanying brass trumpet their arrival from every direction.

As it stands, the only thing that keeps 'Prisoner of Azkaban' from being a five-star audio release is that it falls just short of packing the same gut-punch as the audio on 'Order of the Phoenix.' Still I would be remiss if I didn't mention a personal nitpick I had with this track, which is that directionality can be slightly skewed at times. There are a dozen or so scenes when dialogue and other effects seem to lean into the left or right channels as the music crescendos. For example, listen closely to the scene in which Ron is dragged beneath the Whomping Willow -- sounds that should come directly from the central channel are unevenly distributed to either side. It's a strange (if perhaps intentional) alteration that's likely to catch the ears of stringent audiophiles. Regardless, all things considered, this is a winning track all around.

(Note that the Dolby TrueHD track on this HD DVD sounds identical to the Blu-ray uncompressed PCM mix. If there is a difference, it was imperceptible to my ears.)

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

Like the high-def releases of 'Sorcerer's Stone' and 'Chamber of Secrets,' 'Prisoner of Azkaban' includes all of the behind-the-scenes material from the standard DVD, but none of the original disc's interactive games. Still, my biggest complaint about this supplemental package is that it lacks a much-needed commentary or proper making-of documentary.

  • Shrunken Head Interviews (SD, 44 minutes) -- The meatiest of the supplements is also the best. Divided into seven segments (with an introduction and a play-all option), this segment features interviews with dozens of cast and crew members. Each group gives a fair amount of behind-the-scenes information that helps to create an impression of Cuarón's style, and his efforts to infuse the film with a darker tone. While the questions tend to focus on surface-level subjects, everyone is personable and keeps their answers casually directed at a more adult audience. The lone annoyances are the moderator and the lack of input from a couple of key players. (J.K. Rowling? Nope. Cuarón? No such luck.)
  • Creating the Vision (SD, 12 minutes) -- This pre-production featurette includes interviews with author J.K. Rowling, director Alfonso Cuarón, and various producers. The participants discuss the challenges in adapting a novel of this scope, the details of how the project originally came together, and allowing for a tonal shift without losing the visual and thematic connections to earlier 'Potter' films. Unfortunately, this one comes off as a brief promotional obligation, and certainly doesn't provide the level of in-depth information a commentary would have covered.
  • Conjuring a Scene (SD, 16 minutes) -- This is a decent series of quick-hit interviews exploring how the film's make-up and special effects teams that brought each character to life. My favorite bits were those that follow Gary Oldman as he discusses his transformation into Sirius Black.
  • Deleted Scenes (5 minutes) -- I've never read the "Harry Potter" books, so I'm probably overlooking some legitimate fan-service in this collection of standard cuts. I thought the scenes were interesting, but none offered anything of significance to the characters or the story.
  • Care of Magical Creatures (SD, 5 minutes) -- This is a quick jaunt into the world of the on-set animal trainer and his "crew." There isn't a lot of substance here, with the featurette aimed squarely at a younger audience.
  • Theatrical Trailers (SD, 6 minutes) -- Standard definition trailers for 'Sorcerer's Stone,' 'Chamber of Secrets,' and 'Prisoner of Azkaban.'
  • Choir Practice (SD, 2 minutes) -- A brief choir-performance short that, believe it or not, offers a more superficial experience than watching the trailers.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

Nothing.

Final Thoughts

'Prisoner of Azkaban' shifts the tone of the series for the better, but its inconsistencies still left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. But have no fear Potter devotees -- this is certainly a strong HD DVD release. While I wasn't particularly impressed with the disc's slim port of supplements, its remarkable transfer and vigorous TrueHD audio mix more than save the day. Warner continues to treat one of its most precious properties with the kind of care and respect that it deserves.

Technical Specs

  • HD DVD 30GB
  • HD DVD 30GB

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/VC-1
  • 1080p/VC-1

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 2.40:1
  • 2.40:1

Audio Formats

  • English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-Bit/1.8Mbps)
  • English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-Bit/1.8Mbps)
  • English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround

Subtitles/Captions

  • English Subtitles
  • French Subtitles
  • Spanish Subtitles
  • Chinese Subtitles
  • Japanese Subtitles
  • English Subtitles
  • Korean Subtitles
  • French Subtitles
  • Portugese Subtitles
  • Spanish Subtitles
  • Chinese Subtitles
  • Japanese Subtitles
  • Korean Subtitles
  • Portugese Subtitles

Supplements

  • Featurettes
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Theatrical Trailers

Exclusive HD Content

  • None

All disc reviews at High-Def Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about our gear.

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