When Hogwarts fans learned who was to direct the third chapter
of the Harry Potter series, there were many raised eyebrows:
“Alfonso Cuarón? Isn’t he the one that did that
porno?”

Film Reviews
Cute hoodie, Hermione. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Yes, Cuarón directed the steamy, unrated “Y Tu
Mamá También,” but if any of these doubters had
seen “Y Tu Mamá … ,” they would have known
that Cuarón’s expert eye for color and meticulous
attention to tone would be a perfect match for J.K. Rowling’s
bewitching novel. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of
Azkaban” may upset the strictly-by-the-book Potter fans, but
it’s the first of the series to feel like a film, rather than
a movie version of the book.

Instead of trying to fill “Azkaban” with as many
details from the book as possible, Cuarón focuses on
establishing mood. The result: Hogwarts has never looked so
beautiful — or creepy. The opening scenes are shrouded in
perpetual rain. A surrealistic bus ride that looks like it came
straight from a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (“The City of Lost
Children”) leads to a train haunted by dementors, which
resemble translucent grim reapers. When the train finally pulls
into Hogwarts, accompanied by a children’s choir eerily
chanting “Something wicked this way comes,” you know
this isn’t a typical kid’s flick.

While the previous two films in the series treat Harry (Daniel
Radcliffe) and his pals Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma
Watson) as one entity , “Azkaban” orbits more around
Harry alone, and he spends more time in introspective solitude or
talking to newfound mentor Professor Lupin (David Thewlis,
“The Big Lebowski”). The young wizard has much more to
cope with here — his life is threatened by runaway convict
Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, “The Fifth Element”).

Harry’s personal struggle also shows that these little
witches are no longer children, but are on the cusp of adolescence.
Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) delivers low blows
that in the first two films are merely mean; here they challenge
Harry’s masculinity. Cuarón also adds sexual tension
between Ron and Hermione, who play their romantic parts with a
perfect blend of awkwardness and fear.

Of course, England’s all-star cast — including
Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman — give spectacular
performances. Newcomers Emma Thompson as a flighty mystic, Thewlis
as the kind yet mischievous Lupin and quintessential bad-guy Oldman
are welcome additions to the cast and play their fantastical
characters with a touch of human vulnerability that makes them seem
real.

While Ron’s comic antics and a few subplots from the book
may be missed by die-hard fans, Cuarón succeeds in fusing
entertainment and artistry with “Azkaban.” A grownup
filmmaker is exactly what the Harry Potter series needed.

Rating: Four out of five stars.

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