After The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, I was starting to dread the arrival of another Harry Potter movie. Director Chris Columbus had a way of breaking whatever spells J.K. Rowling had cast in her books, partly because he was so determined to be faithful to them. The movies were line-by-line translations, with nothing between the lines. And Columbus didn't know how to vary the scenes dramatically; everything weighed the same. But hold on to your wizard hats, ladies and gentlemen, because Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in Rowling's seven-year lesson plan, has a genuine artist at the helm. Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón is best known for 2002's Y Tu Mamá También, a socially conscious film about sexual awakening, but he's also adapted a pair of beloved British young-adult novels, A Little Princess and Great Expectations. Who better, then, to adapt a beloved British young-adult novel about sexual awakening?
Okay, I'm exaggerating about the sexual awakening, but in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has fallen under the sway of that most magical potion, hormones. His voice is deeper, his legs are longer, and there's a teenager's abandon in the way he deals with his adoptive aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. This time it's newcomer Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) who gets the sharp end of Harry's wand when she maliciously insults his dead parents. Already full of hot air, the old windbag inflates even more, floating out the window and sailing over Little Whinging like a dirigible. And Cuarón stages this modest act of revenge so gracefully, yet so humorously, that we immediately know we're in good hands. Humor was one of the things that got lost in Columbus' by-the-book line readings, and if Daniel Radcliffe still doesn't seem as mischievous as everybody keeps saying Harry is, he does a better job of reacting to the madness around him. He also does a better job of getting mad. For Harry, now a teenager, is pissed.
And yet still scared. For those of us not religiously devoted to Rowling's books - surely I'm not the only one - the movies can seem a little repetitive, formulaic. The antagonists change (sometimes before our eyes), but the need to defeat the antagonists remains. And Harry, although he's always conquering his fears, always seems to start the next movie with a new set. Here, he's terrified of the Dementors, black-cloaked phantoms with bony fingers and gaping holes where their mouths should be. Leaning over their victims, Dementors literally suck the life out of them - no, not the life, the soul. They're supposedly after Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, surprisingly earnest), a notorious killer who escaped from Azkaban Prison and may have played a role in the death of Harry's parents. But they also seem to be after Harry, as does Sirius, although appearances don't always correspond to reality in the hocus-pocus world of Harry Potter. Then again, sometimes a rat really is a rat.
As with the other two movies, there won't be many surprises for those audience members who've read the book at least once. They may wonder what happened to some of the pages, though, because Cuarón and scriptwriter Steve Kloves have done some judicious pruning and grafting. There isn't much wizard-training, for instance, and only a short round of rain-soaked Quidditch. But David Thewlis gets plenty of screen time as Professor Lupine, who takes a fatherly interest in Harry. And Emma Thompson serves up some juicy ham as Sibyl Trelawny, a divination professor with better second sight than first. (The soda-bottle glasses make her look like Mrs. Magoo.) One of the great pleasures of watching the Harry Potter movies has been the parade of British actors passing through the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Alan Rickman, a personal favorite, returns as Professor Snape, hissing venomously. And Michael Gambon ably takes over for Richard Harris as Dumbledore.
Harris died shortly before The Chamber of Secrets opened, so parents may have some explaining to do. But they may have some explaining to do anyway, because The Prisoner of Azkaban is a scarier ride than its two predecessors. Even I jumped in a couple of places, and I don't jump very often. In the movie's defense, the heightened fear factor seems in keeping with a maturation process that the books and movies are undergoing. As Harry gets older, the ideal reader and viewer needs to get a little older as well. The whole look of this movie seems more mature, less tinted with the golden light of a children's bedtime story. Cuarón goes with somber shades of brown, gray and black, and this grounds Harry's magical adventures in harsh, cold reality. The movie's too long by about a half-hour, and it loses its footing toward the end, sliding into climactic scenes without adequate preparation. But finally someone has figured out what it takes to get Harry Potter from the page to the screen: You need a wizard.