Anyone expecting a Harry Potter movie from the maker of Y Tu Mama Tambien to be in the same key as the ones by Chris Columbus is in for a shock with this latest — and, as far as I’m concerned, greatest — entry in the franchise.
No, the new film is not an overtly sexualized take on the material, as the presence of director Alfonso Cuaron might suggest, though there’s subtext for days surrounding the three main characters’ adolescence. This starts early on, when Harry is hiding under his bed sheets doing something forbidden — practicing magic — and pretending to be sound asleep whenever his uncle (Richard Griffiths) looks in. The subversion doesn’t stop there, though much of it is conveyed in the manner in which the main characters interact with each other, which has taken on a new edge. However, the subtext never seems forced, smarmy or joke-y, but merely helps to usher the characters into their teenage years in a way that feels natural, adding a much needed weight and reality to the notion that they’re growing older.
Cuaron’s brilliance lies less in this, however, than in the fact that he’s made a film adaptation of its respective Potter book, where the Columbus films did their best to actually reproduce their corresponding books. And while the latter approach might please hardcore admirers of the novels, it doesn’t necessarily translate into a good film. Cuaron is more interested in capturing the spirit of the source material — and, to some degree, elaborating on it. Add to this his innately stronger sense of cinema and a story with a genuine emotional center (something rather lacking in the first two films) and you get a Harry Potter picture that flirts with — and possibly even achieves — greatness.
The fundamental difference here is that the first two entries were good Harry Potter movies; the new one is just a good movie on any level. Then, too, the Columbus films were handsome productions, while this one is absolutely gorgeous — despite the fact that many of the sets are the same as in the previous movies. The Columbus realm of Harry Potter is more like something you’d find at Disney World, whereas Cuaron’s version comes across as a real, separate place — a genuinely magical world, not just a well-scrubbed image of one. It helps immensely that stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have themselves crossed over into adolescence rather gracefully, and it helps even more that they’ve all become better, more assured actors in the bargain.
Some of what raises the new film above its predecessors is inherent in the source story itself, which forms the film’s emotional center — Harry’s sense of personal discovery and growth. Yet without Cuaron’s adept handling of the material, the resonance would have been lost. It would have been easy for Harry’s big moment of self-realization to have been just so much turning of gears — that it’s coming is pretty transparent — instead of one of the film’s emotional high points. Credit Cuaron and Radcliffe for making it work beyond either the story or the screenplay.
The story, however, is a good one, even if its plot is one easily grasped by its young target audience. The idea that Harry is the target of escaped murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and that things will turn out not to be exactly what they seem is certainly more than serviceable, if not all that much different on the surface from what underpinned the earlier films. What is different is the tone and the compactness of the story line.
Prisoner of Azkaban is less apt to wander off down blind alleys just to indulge in bits of business for the supporting cast of seasoned British actors. There’s no sense of indulgence or padding in this regard (indeed, one is apt to feel a bit sorry for Maggie Smith, who makes little more than a cameo appearance this time). Despite the film’s being 142 minutes long, the story is compact and everything ultimately ties together in a shrewd and satisfying manner. Everyone involved seems to be at the top of his or her game — even composer John Williams, whom I usually find to be a bit much, is here inspired to greater heights. At some points, he actually appears to be riffing on his own penchant for Wagnerian bombast, while in one notable case, he cooks up an almost jarringly modern composition that’s a kind of weird blend of Raymond Scott and Peter Maxwell Davies.
Bringing in Michael Gambon as a replacement for the late Richard Harris proves to have been an inspired choice. Gambon doesn’t try to copy Harris and emerges as a livelier, less distracted Dumbledore, and this actually helps to goose the series. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about it all is the fact that this PG-rated (and it clearly pushes the boundaries of that rating) “children’s” fantasy is a lot more of a horror film than Van Helsing was. The only place it stumbles in this regard is with its CGI werewolf: The effects are OK, but the design itself smacks of an uneasy compromise between horror and not making something too scary for a younger audience. I’m not sure it succeeds in that latter regard, since the film throughout is still dark and intense in a way that might frighten younger children — but then it needs to be remembered that the series’ audience has aged along with the characters, so the more adult tone is a natural development.
The downside to all this? Cuaron is not directing the next entry, and it may well pale in comparison. But even if it does, we’ll still have this one remarkable film in the series.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke