As much of the civilized world now knows, the latest Harry Potter director is Alfonso Cuarón, best known for the explicit teen-sexual-awakening movie Y Tu Mam´ También. So it may come as little surprise that his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban begins with the teenage wizard-in-training hiding under the bed sheets, whacking his wand. The wand in this case, of course, is literally a piece of wood containing a phoenix feather. But the symbolism remains, and one gets the sense that perhaps Cuarón opens with the image as if to say, "Yeah, yeah, I know what you were thinking, now here's your joke, and let's be done with it."
Co-producer Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films, seems to have taken it as his mandate to find a director as different from himself as possible but one who's still capable of working within the designated framework. Cuaron uses most of the sets originally selected by Columbus and his crew -- only moving the Whomping Willow and Hagrid's hut to a mountainside. He also cast a new Albus Dumbledore as a result of the unfortunate passing of Richard Harris. At the risk of blaspheming the dead, the original Singing Detective, Michael Gambon, is actually an improvement, playing the wizard headmaster as a more deliberately cryptic character rather than an aging scatterbrain.
It was probably wise to jettison Columbus from the helm at this stage, because Rowling's books get progressively darker. Though he did perhaps his finest directorial work ever on The Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets saw an increasing amount of the director's trademark sentimentality creep in. Cuarón made Prisoner of Azkaban tonally and visually darker, with some scenes looking almost like frames from a silent film. Cuaron and regular big-screen Potter adapter Steve Kloves also took more narrative liberties than Columbus did, restructuring the film's chronology for increased dramatic impact. There are still a few loose ends that are better explained in the book (most notably the back story of the magical map used by Harry), but there's only so much one can cram into two and a half hours without younger viewers walking out in impatience.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
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That is, unless they've already run, screaming. This is by far the scariest of the Harry Potter films. Harry runs away from home early on, is chased by an apparent werewolf, encounters talking shrunken heads (a particularly gruesome Cuarón addition), then finally makes it safely to Hogwarts, only to discover that a bunch of soul-sucking zombies called "dementors" have taken up residence and may kill any student who comes near them. They've been sent from Azkaban Prison for magical criminals in search of recent escapee Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, shamelessly and hilariously mugging), who's expected to kill Harry if he ever catches up to the lad.
Every English actor working today is required to do one of these films at some point, so Prisoner of Azkaban introduces numerous new Brits -- but there's plenty of screen time for the old favorites. Robbie Coltrane is always dependable as the half-giant Hagrid, and Alan Rickman's brooding Snape is a joy once more. As Harry's best friend, Ron, Rupert Grint has finally had his voice break, but he's not a lot of use, unless you consider infinite utterances of the word "brilliant" to be useful. There are hints dropped to a future potential romance with Hermione (Emma Watson), which can only be because she needs someone helpless to take care of.
As for Harry himself, let's just say it's a shame that Star Wars: Episode III has wrapped principal photography, because Hayden Christensen could learn a lot from young Daniel Radcliffe's portrayal of adolescent angst meeting magical fury. Unfortunately, perennial rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) gets short shrift this time, losing all his menace and becoming, to put it bluntly, a whiny little bitch.
Thus far, The Sorcerer's Stone remains the strongest Harry Potter movie, but Prisoner of Azkaban is a worthy and stylistically different followup, whereas Chamber of Secrets often felt like an unimaginative retread. I haven't read the next two books in the series yet, but here's hoping that they avoid the running Scooby-Doo cliché of the scene in which the one character who isn't who you think he is gets found in some heretofore undiscovered room, where he proceeds to explain the entire plot so far. It was cool the first time, because the character in question had a monster face growing out of the back of his head, but it's getting old as a narrative device. Blame Rowling, but Kloves and Cuarón so deftly rearrange other parts of the story that it really stands out when they fall ever-so-slightly short.