Finally, a Harry Potter movie that does justice to J. K. Rowling’s books—and then some. As directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the most powerfully entrancing children’s film in years. Of course, a true kid’s classic is just as magical for adults, which makes this third installment in the Potter series a double blessing—parents won’t leave the theater feeling as if they’ve completed a chore. The movie has a visual sophistication that rivals the work of such great storybook illustrators as Maurice Sendak and John Tenniel, and an emotional resonance for older audiences that was lacking in its predecessors, since the narrative on its deepest level is about 13-year-old Harry’s passage into adulthood. Cuarón has rescued the Potter series, at least for now, from the franchise-film syndrome in which successive sequels resemble product lines and most of the imagination goes into their marketing.
Right from the start, we recognize we’re in expert hands. Finishing out the summer with his unsavory relatives, the Dursleys, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) can no longer abide his contemptuous Aunt Marge and, in a fit of sorcery, causes her to inflate balloonlike and waft, hollering, into the sky. The sequence is gruesome and rollicking and lyrical all at once; it duplicates the scene in the Rowling book while adding a Dickensian dimension—Cuarón, remember, directed the Ethan Hawke Great Expectations—and this sort of thing is true throughout much of the movie. The Dickens touch, I think, lies in the way Cuarón brings out the sensuality in these grotesque transformations. The characters, both human and otherworldly, are intensely fleshy; their bodily reconfigurations, like the teacher who morphs into a werewolf, have a comic horror. Viewed purely as a metaphor for adolescence, all this makes perfect sense, since Harry and his school chums Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are newly minted teenagers. They carry themselves at Hogwarts with the gangly grace of kids who are both unnerved and exhilarated by what is going on with their bodies.
Harry’s journey includes the dawning realization that there are monsters within himself as well as without. Ironically, the more prowess he develops as a wizard, the more troubled he appears. He learns early on that the sorcerer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who reputedly helped Lord Voldemort murder Harry’s parents, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is looking to kill him as well. In order to protect Harry and the other students from Black, Professor Dumbledore (a cheeky Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris) stations throughout Hogwarts wraithlike guards called Dementors, who suck the souls of their victims and are just as likely to annihilate the good as the bad. The unforgiving Dementors summon up for Harry his blackest memories of his parents’ death and his fears for his own safety. His only defense against the Dementors, which he painstakingly learns from his kindhearted Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), is to literally shield himself with a force field of supremely happy memories. Throughout the film, Harry is stricken with an incapacitating dread—this is by far the darkest of the Potter trilogy—that he can counter only with heroism: He faces the Dementors, he hunts down Black, and he reluctantly mounts a hippogriff—a half-horse, half-eagle creature that can snip boys in two—and turns a potential nightmare into a joyride. We see Harry grow into a valiant young man, but we are never fooled into believing that even at his most triumphant he is unafraid. What gives The Prisoner of Azkaban its emotional depth is Harry’s realization that he can be brave and “adult”—and still be petrified.
“Cuarón has an uncanny ability to depict young people in ways so fresh and true that their counterparts in other movies seem fake.”
The monsters in The Prisoner of Azkaban may be metaphors of adolescent fears, but they are also—monsters. The ravenous Dementors, who might have been drawn by Edvard Munch, are a reminder that guardians can be as lethal as predators. One of the most blissfully funny and unsettling scenes in the movie comes when Professor Lupin challenges his students to conjure up their worst fears for all to see and then dispel the horrors with humor. And so, for example, one student evokes a gigantic spider and then reimagines it skidding across the floor on roller skates. Throughout the movie, which was scripted with scrupulous intelligence by Steve Kloves, Cuarón serves up this double whammy of fright and slapstick. The triple-decker Purple Knight Bus that whisks Harry away from his uncaring relatives is under the command of a babbling shrunken head. The hippogriff is a beautiful creature, but its talons are like cutlasses. The Divination professor Sybil Trelawney (wonderfully played by Emma Thompson) is a big-haired kook with thick eyeglasses, but her forebodings are ominous. The paintings that line the corridors of Hogwarts frame living beings.
The terror in this universe is heightened because Harry, despite his belief that, in moments of peril, his father’s spirit resides inside himself, often seems horribly alone. What he lacks in his life are caring adults, which is why his friendship with Professor Lupin is such a beautiful respite (and why its resolution is so awful). Even the excruciatingly haughty Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), that human shroud, is a welcome face. For all its fearsomeness, Hogwarts is Harry’s only home, and Cuarón shows it off as a resplendent galaxy of secret corridors and stained glass—a boy’s playland.