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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is very different from the first two Harry Potter movies, and that difference makes it a better movie. Though, its glossy look and exaggerated scale give it the required family resemblance to its predecessors since this third installment signals a change of course. The movie goes away from the limited conventions of action-movie formula and into a more metaphysical direction reaching the place this fantasy series has wanted to go all along.
New director Alfonso Cuaron has the burden of fashioning a movie that works as a discrete entity, and it doesn’t disappoint the legions of fans for whom the movie can only be an adjunct to the reading experience. The strain is sometimes felt, and there’s an uninflected quality to the movie’s first half hour as if everything is being given equal importance. However, Cuaron’s respect for the material enables him to steer clear of the twin traps of cuteness and meaningless freneticism. For Cuaron, the movie is more than just a chance to dazzle and amuse with spectacle, and much more than its predecessors, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is also a movie for adults.
The movie start with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) as an teenager, and that might be a part of the change in tone. As usual, he’s living with his horrible aunt and uncle trying to resist the temptation to put a nasty spell on both of them. He finally loses his composure when his uncle’s sister (Pam Ferris) shows up and insults him. In retaliation, he inflates her with hot air. She expands, floats and bounces gently off the ceiling, goes out the window and floats up to the sky, screams all the way. It’s a lovely fantasy.
Since its very first minutes, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie seems at pains to assure audiences that this is indeed going to be one jolly ride of a movie. Therefore, the floating-aunt sequence is soon followed by another magical bit, in which Harry is whisked back to school on a three-decker bus that narrows and elongates in order to pass through dense traffic. Once again, the effects are expertly done, but the scene plants a suspicion that the movie will be nothing but an amalgam of computer sequences. Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case, and the suspicion takes some minutes to go away.
Of course, Harry is always in danger. This time it seems to be because of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the man who may have been responsible for the death of Harry’s parents. He has escaped from prison and is now looking to find Harry. In setting up protection for Harry and his fellow students, the administrators of Hogwarts bring in monstrous guards known as Dementors. These Dementors is attracted by sorrow memory, and because Harry’s own past is darker than those of his fellow students, he has a particularly adverse reaction to the presence of the Dementors and must take special training under the new Dark Arts professor, Lupin (David Thewlis), to learn to manage deal with those creatures.
Talking about Thewlis, he is an actor of demonstrable intensity, but he wisely holds back playing Lupin as one of those quiet, relaxed teachers communicating to youngsters the illusion that the adult world is manageable. It’s Lupin’s job to teach Harry to face the Dementors by helping him to find in his mind a happy, meaningful memory. It’s a measure of novelist J.K. Rowling’s sophisticated understanding of memory that the most powerful recollection Harry can summon is of something he can’t quite be sure ever happened.
Emma Thompson has a funny turn as a tactless and flighty professor of divination, and Michael Gambon as headmaster Dumbledore proves a droll replacement for the late Richard Harris. As it hurtles toward the finish, the movie doesn’t shortchange the action, but neither does Cuaron feel obligated to end the movie with a special-effects orgy. The result is a climax that’s rooted in character, and that’s lively and aglow with imagination, rather than frantic and insistent.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie is big enough to impress but not so brash as to obscure a pervasive undertone of real adult sadness. That’s something new for Harry Potter movie series, and the best hope that this franchise will not just continue, but grow.