It’s difficult to pinpoint what it is that is so engrossing about a bunch of adolescent Brits running around a castle waving wands and shouting things in mock-Latin. It may be one specific thing that’s hard to put our collective thumb on, and then, it may be any number of the dazzling effects, touching themes, and wonderfully drawn characters that keep this cinematic series alive. That, and a new fresh direction.
The third book-gone-film of J.K. Rowling’s literary phenomenon, “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban,” delivers us well-needed growth, both in aspects of the story and of the production itself. New director Alfonso Cuaron (best known for 2002’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) takes the megaphone from Chris Columbus, who directed each of the movies that preceded “Prisoner” but has resigned himself to the producer’s chair (or shall we say, tower) this time around. The change is welcome and can be felt in each moment of the film. Under Cuaron’s eye, the character of Harry (played again by Daniel Radcliffe) has grown up a great deal, becoming much less just another prodigy and much more a real kid with real pain, a real past, and real talents. Not to mention confusion and a sense of mystery, like any teenager. Harry is even seen in a number of hooded sweatshirts, which look like they could have come from any of today’s most popular clothiers—though let us thank all that is good that not a single commercial name is seen emblazoned across our heroes’ chests. Way to not sell out, Harry! Potter’s friends, fellow protégé wizards Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley (portrayed in reprise by Emma Watson and Rupert Grint), are also seen in their fair share of stylish, youthful garb throughout the film. This is a good thing though, lest we forget that these kids are indeed, real kids outside of Hogwarts.
Teenybop fashion aside, “Prisoner” is several shades darker than the first two Potter films, “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Chamber of Secrets.” The story is chock full of real emotion and intrigue, appealing (yet sometimes confusing) twists, and a new set of spooky specters, the Dementors of Azkaban, eerie guards from the prison who give a feeling of oppression and malevolence to the entire arc of the movie. Tragically, the Dementors (by virtue of Rowling’s description), greatly resemble Peter Jackson’s nazgul from the “Lord of the Rings” films, merely an unfortunate coincidence considering “Prisoner of Azkaban” the book was written prior to the release of Jackson’s epic trilogy. Regardless, the Dementors (besides their great moniker) both literally and figuratively chill the entire movie, and even though not the villains offer an additional sense of danger, especially when all of the students are warned “do not give them a reason to harm you.” The Dementors are much like any authority figure: make no trouble with them and they’ll bring no trouble to you (for the most part, anyway). That is to say, the further you stay from their radar, the better off you’ll be. These guys are much more intimidating than your every day campus security guards though. If the Dementors don’t creep you out even a little (especially after seeing “The Kiss”), check to see if you have a pulse.
Radcliffe’s supporting cast is carving out their places in the picture as well with more mature performances. You may often find yourself thinking Hermione is actually more interesting than Harry (Watson had me believing at times that Hermione was the more seasoned, talented, and overall intelligent wizard…or witch, rather). And Gary Oldman plays up the grimy menace of Sirius Black (the movie’s namesake) masterfully, perhaps his best role of the kind since he played Dracula, another case in which you aren’t sure whether to like him or not.
The story will have you thinking more than you’d expect from a Harry Potter tale as well. While socio-politics are not a prominent aspect of Potter-dom, there are scenarios within that explore the rights of the condemned, various perspectives on capital punishment, compromise in academia, and fear of the misunderstood. By no means should these things distract you mid-movie, but if nothing else they are a testimony to the intelligence of Rowling’s subtly layered text (adapted here by Oscar-nominated “Wonder Boys” scribe Steve Kloves, who wrote the screenplays for “Stone” and “Secrets,” as well).
As stupid as it sounds in regards to a movie about teenage wizards, this cold, almost melancholy “Potter” is the best yet because it’s the most real. Though the actors go over the top occasionally (and Daniel Radcliffe really doesn’t pull off “angry” or other such dire emotions very well), the lines they speak are well written enough to invoke the real-life humor, anguish, fear, and friendship that make any movie worth watching, and in this case it keeps the magic grounded without sacrificing the fantasy that is so well-loved in these stories. More so than ever, you’ll believe there really is a Hogwarts out there.
At a time in which fantasy-lovers have been utterly spoiled by hobbits and elves (myself included), and coming hotly in the wake of the “Lord of the Rings” sweep at the Oscars this year, Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is as gutsy as it is poignant, completely unafraid to make its own place in the genre and reinvent an already successful franchise.