Eyebrows were raised when Alfonso Cuaron, whose Y Tu Mama Tambien explicitly explored teen sexuality, was hired to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Exactly what kind of mojo would Harry and wizard school classmates Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley be working? It's an easy joke that ignores what else Cuaron has done and what Chris Columbus, director of the first two Potter movies, couldn't be counted on to do with Part 3.
Cuaron also made the 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess, one of only two films (In America was the other) that forced me to briefly exit the theater to regain composure during a crying jag. Cuaron, 42, understands youthful innocence and the maturation forces that disrupt it. He identifies those moments when childhood flies out the window, and the poignancy of clutching after it. A Little Princess was rated G, and Y Tu Mama Tambien was trimmed to a hard R, yet they share that sensibility.
That's apparently what author J.K. Rowling has in mind as Harry's story continues. Columbus did his part well in the first two films, a toy-store filmmaker relishing the chance to stage Quidditch matches and creature wonderments. That talent wore thin by the time Harry Potter and the Chambers of Secrets lumbered to a close. How many times, I asked then, can we be expected to watch the same rabbits pulled from a hat?
Like its literary inspiration, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is darker, moodier than its predecessors. It's not just that the terror level has been cranked up, but because growing up is a scary proposition. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is no longer a wide-eyed kid unaware of his supernatural potential. He's as impatient and impulsive as any 13-year-old, an orphan curious about his parents and fed up with their replacements. Harry's innocence is heading out the window, and something dangerous waits outside.
On the surface, what lurks is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer stalking Harry after escaping from prison. Sirius doesn't appear except in newspapers and wanted posters until the second hour, yet his presence looms over the first. When the nature of his character comes into focus, Sirius widens the adolescent allegory, bringing into question the motives of every adult Harry encounters.
There are beasties and spells in Cuaron's film, but this is an intensely personal fantasy for Potter fans who, like their hero, have grown up with the books.
The film begins with Harry indulging in the quintessential youth rebellion: wreaking vengeance on a hated authority figure and running away from home. Lucky for him it's almost time for classes to resume at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are still loyal, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is still a jerk, and supportive teachers await. Word has reached Professor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris) that Sirius is after Harry.
New to the staff is dark-arts defense professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who lends protection to Harry even before he arrives for the new term. Outside Hogwarts, an army of sepulchral, soul-sucking Dementors guard against Sirius, although their nature is to attack anyone in their way. The Dementors are wonderful creations, for their striking visual effects and as a tool to make familiar material fresher. There's a Quidditch match that hinges not on who wins, but who survives the Dementors, creatures that give Harry's spell-casting classes more urgency. Cuaron uses the cinematic template Columbus devised - revolving staircases, flying brooms and the like - but sparingly, choosing surprising substance over familiar style.
Certainly the half-horse, half-hawk hippogriff is a more impressive computer-generated creature than Part 2's Dobby the wimpy elf. But the special effect also becomes more than merely eye candy or plush toy inspiration. A menacing demon dog seems like a fright tool before becoming a clue to a misjudged personality.
The special effects in the first two films were cool; this time they smartly serve the drama, too.
Reaching puberty hasn't hurt the performances of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, something that had been a legitimate concern after Columbus' gee-whiz stagnancy. Rowling and Cuaron take Harry, Hermione and Ron to higher levels of maturity, and the actors are right in step. The nature of Sirius' role limits Oldman's contributions. Any actor could have played Sirius, but I'm guessing Oldman's screen persona was deemed explosive enough to carry the first hour, when Sirius is a barely visible threat.
There isn't a weak link in the cast. Thewlis provides an inscrutable sense of authority that arcs into tragedy, and the rodent features of Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew are vital to a third act packed with surprises. Emma Thompson joins the Hogwarts faculty for comic relief and accidental exposition. Gambon makes a smooth transition from Harris' performances, and Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, although not as big a role in this film, is still a dandy foil and fall guy.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is as much a sign of good things to come from the franchise as the second movie was worrisome. In three films, we've experienced an initial amazement, followed by sameness, then a burst of inspiration and emotion making the time well spent. Kind of like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And there are at least two more Harry Potter movies to come. Let's hope they're not sequels but continuations of a saga just beginning to roll.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Julie Christie
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling