Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grant, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Dawn French, David Bradley, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Pam Ferris, Lee Ingleby, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Bonnie Wright. Screenplay: Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling).

Trading in all those homey reds, golds, and whites from the first two Harry Potter films for creepier silvers, purples, and greys, moving the camera restlessly instead of just zooming backward in awe, treating the story like the plot of an actual film rather than a stiffly re-enacted cultural memory or a priceless museum piece, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does everything right that the Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets adaptations did wrong. Alfonso Cuarón's film is a genuine work of imagination, moody and intricate, full of sidelong wonders and surprisingly adult double-entendres, and totally irreverent to the notion that Harry Potter needs to be delivered to its cultish fan base exactly as they pictured it. Cuarón is too good a director for us to have expected anything less than a significant improvement on Chris Columbus' two tries, but the sheer scale of Azkaban's superiority still comes as a surprise. The young troika of actors actually seem to be walking around living lives, hardly ever in their deanish Hogwarts robes, and because they aren't constantly photographed in static, isolating close-ups, the energy Cuarón has released in their performances isn't squashed by pedestrian filmmaking. Daniel Radcliffe, our earnest young Harry, seems to have watched East of Eden a time or two as preparation for Harry's teenage years, but even this form of hyper-sincerity is infinitely preferable to the body-snatcher lifelessness that gripped all three tykes by the last time around.

New cast members in the adult set, like ferrety David Thewlis and batty Gary Oldman, have space to create real characters and a functional, fluid movie to create them in; even the carry-overs like Alan Rickman as Snape do nervier and wittier things with their line readings. Cuarón seems to grasp that the specific mysteries of Rowling's plot should not be the only sources of wonder or curiosity in the movie, and so he prods his cast into these unpredictable performances, and he fills the frame with inspired touches like the animated Wanted posters advertising for the head of Oldman's Sirius Black. Deathless composer John Williams seems to thrive, too, under the new director's hand; his Azkaban melodies abandon the Star Wars-in-mothballs stuff he passed in for the early outings and really get under the skin of this newer, testier, more hormonal Harry. Finally, Cuarón also ignites the franchise's first sustained scares with the ragged, faceless Dementors that glide around Hogwarts, ostensibly to keep out murderous intruders but terrifying their wards at least as much as they protect them. Sure the visual effects that accompany the Dementor attacks look suspiciously like the Ring Wraith assaults in the Lord of the Rings films, but now that Jackson & Co. have resoundingly won the great dual of the franchises that began when both were launched in 2001, it's hard to begrudge the Potter films a few consolation prizes.

Even this Potter isn't perfect. As ever, nearly everything involving Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid is a squishy bore, particularly the way in which our three young heroes are perpetually going to his cottage when they aren't supposed to, only to sneak out the back or under the furniture in the very nick of time. (Hasn't this already happened like six times in the three movies we've seen so far?) In another relapse of bad Potter habits, the concluding third of the picture gets a little bogged down, especially once most of the characters and effects have been introduced and there's just the story to drive things. But Rowling rallies her game for some truly surprising twists near the conclusion (surprising, anyway, for the fourteen of us alive who haven't read the book), and Cuarón snaps back to attention here, too, with some truly moving moments between young Harry and an uncharacteristically warm Gary Oldman. Even the end credits seem touched by magic this time around, capping a picture that's not only a franchise peak but a high point of the whole summer. For the first time in four years of half-trying, I'm gathering what all the fuss is about. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Score: John Williams
Best Visual Effects: Tim Burke, Roger Guyett, Bill George, and John Richardson

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