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Rated 3.42 stars
by 3588 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Thank You, Mr. Cuarón
by Jeffrey Chen

I'd like to personally thank Alfonso Cuarón for doing such a great job on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third Harry Potter film. I'm glad he took over the directorial duties from Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two movies. Columbus's work was competent, but his films were slavishly devoted to the text of J.K. Rowling's books, transferring the accounts almost literally to the screen. Both were were shot and acted in so straightforward a manner that the special effects and the story carried all the burden of delivering the magic. And that's probably why the first two Harry Potter movies don't hold up too well on repeated viewings -- once you know the stories (which I very much got into), there's little else to look for. The kids are cuddly and they spend a lot of time solving mysteries, so everything has only a little more staying power than a Scooby-Doo episode in the end.

Thus my hopes were high when I heard Cuarón was taking charge. He earned the position on the strength of his work on A Little Princess, a different boarding school tale with a magical feel. His latest film was the insightful and critically-acclaimed teenage sex road trip, Y Tu Mamá También. Both movies revealed Cuarón as a visionary filmmaker -- if anyone could take this world and infuse it with a new breath of life, he could. And he did.

Cuarón stepped in just in time, as the third story is where the series starts taking a darker turn -- Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is thirteen-years-old for this installment, and is ripe for a dose of angst. Cuarón continues to show he understands teenagers; he understands that they're beginning to realize how much potential they have and how safe they feel in exploring the options around them, and are thus frustrated when agents of the adult world continue trying to hold them back. Harry is right there now. At the start of the movie, he reads a book under the covers by the light of his wand, putting it out and pretending to be asleep whenever he hears his oppressive uncle approaching. He yells at his guardians in anger and kicks the chest in his bedroom in disgust. He's frustrated, and as he heads back to his school, Hogwarts, things only get worse because he discovers a notorious murderer (Gary Oldman) may be after him.

There's a precious moment in the movie that speaks volumes about what Cuarón brings to the franchise. Shortly after arriving, Harry and his dorm mates sit in their shared bedroom and pass around some candy that create various animal noises when they are eaten. The kids are having a blast, roaring like lions and trumpeting like elephants, and we sense a bonding that, despite its involvement of magical snacks, feels sacrosanct in anyone's experience of growing up as a teen. It's joyous, clearly a temporary respite from outside troubles, thus making it all the more precious. This scene is not from the book, but Cuarón's inclusion of it not only shows his willingness to deviate for the sake of solidifying a vision for the film, but also shows how important he regards communicating the experience of being Harry Potter.

In fact, everything takes much more of a backseat to Harry Potter himself this time. The adults, the faculty, all feel more distant, given less scenes in general. It's no surprise that the teacher given the most time is Prof. Lupin (David Thewlis), whom Harry forms a close attachment to. The ever-present threat of an escaped convict and, worse, the presence of the deadly prison-guard spectors called Dementors, sent to look for him, increase Harry's feeling of claustrophobia, thus giving him plenty of reason to look for moments to lash out, rebel, to find any kind of release. Harry's ride on the back of a winged beast called a hippogriff is one of the movie's high points of elation; at other moments, we see him being playful, curious, protective, defiant -- but always the spotlight is on him, even when he's in the company of his good friends. We never lose sight that this is his story.

That was the surprise Cuarón gave me. His visual style, which I anticipated, became icing on the cake, but wow is it delicious. We are no longer treated to multiple edits of static kid reaction shots; now the camera never stops moving, zooming, swooping, flying down from crane angles, going through windows and mirrors. Hogwarts has never been given such a sense of space. Such kinetic energy gives the awe of this magical world a strong sense of immediacy; Cuarón additionally makes the environment feel more lived-in, as the locations don't feel as neat and shiny as they did before. Also helping matters were the special effects, which have improved greatly from the first two films. Buckbeak, the hippogriff, looks believable; and the Dementors are given a visual translation of the cold hopelessness one feels when in their vicinity -- as they float by, everything around them literally freezes in ice.

Cuarón balances the darkness with plenty of humor, and everything adds up to an emotional finale about finding hope and freedom in secret allies and places outside the reach of authority. It is everything a Harry Potter movie should be, an awesome visual world housing the volatile heart of a teenager -- for couldn't the series itself be a metaphor for the rites of self-discovery in anyone's teenage years? My main lament now is that Cuarón won't be back for the fourth movie. What this could mean is Prisoner of Azkaban may be as good as a Harry Potter movie ever gets.

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG" for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language.)

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