The best of the Harry Potter films so far, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is also hands down the scariest, and the deepest. With all due respect to Chris Columbus, who has shifted from directing to co-producing while bequeathing to director Alfonso Cuarón some terrific sets and the talented screenwriter Steve Kloves, the latest of Harry’s excellent adventures is an inspired meeting of minds and (more to the point) hearts, between Cuarón and Potter creator J.K. Rowling. In plain Potter-speak, Columbus — who directed the capable if uninspired Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the suffocatingly dull Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — is a bit of a Muggle, a solid citizen altogether too grounded in the common-sense world. Perhaps Columbus is too well-adjusted to commit fully to Rowling’s instinctive affinity for the outsider, or her grasp of that children’s power — especially with abandoned kids like Harry — to create parallel universes that simultaneously give shape to their darkest fears, and provide them with alternative communities that redeem their loneliness.

Cuarón has explored this territory before in his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s old-fashioned tale A Little Princess, a small jewel of a movie about a poor little rich girl whose storytelling gifts transform her pricey boarding school from an arid emotional wasteland into a warm oasis of the imagination. Despite loud championing by the critics and a re-release by Warner Bros., the public turned its back on this exquisite picture. They’re unlikely to do the same with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and not only because it’s a juggernaut going in. The movie is a marvel of special effects seamlessly hitched to a powerful coming-of-age story. Part of the secret of Rowling’s success is her ability to tap into the mind of the modern adolescent, a terrain mined by Cuarón in Y Tu Mamá También. To judge by minor sartorial upgrades (Hermione has dumped the plaid uniform for cool jeans, and even Ron Weasley looks a little less as if he just rolled out of a sleeping bag) and a whiff of romance in the air, Harry, played once again by the cute but wanly inexpressive Daniel Radcliffe, and his pals are growing up, though not enough to jettison the prankish vitality that makes the Potter novels such a gas for kids of all ages. Cuarón clearly enjoys his special effects. In the priceless opening scenes, Harry misuses his powers to inflate his hated Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) and send her floating off, a furious balloon popping buttons, into the ether. Fleeing from his awful relatives, he’s picked up by a purple Knight bus, a triple-decker conveyance complete with a scrofulous bus conductor and a shrunken head gabbing unstoppably in a Caribbean accent, and rushed through the quiet Muggle streets to the Leaky Cauldron inn.

And so to Hogwarts, a haven not only for trainee wizards but for every child in the world who finds school an infinitely more inviting place to live than home. With its grumpy talking paintings and its ghosts flitting merrily through the halls, Hogwarts is not just an eccentrically jolly magic castle but a safe house, patrolled by the usual severe but for the most part kindly teaching staff. Michael Gambon, uncharacteristically benign in his knotted beard, replaces the late Richard Harris as headmaster Dumbledore, and several new characters complete the picture: David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, a tweedy professor of the Dark Arts, and an entertainingly hammy Emma Thompson as a hippie-spinsterish prof of Divination who sees big trouble in Harry’s future. In fact, the future has already arrived, in the person of Sirius Black, an escaped prisoner convicted of collaborating with the dastardly Lord Voldemort (valiantly dispatched by Harry in a previous installment) in the deaths of Harry’s parents. Black has escaped from the fearsome prison of Azkaban and is headed for Hogwarts, which for Harry’s protection is now being guarded by the dreaded Dementors, fluttering batlike creatures who suck the souls from their victims. They appear to be particularly interested in Harry’s, which is about to embark on its own long, dark night as he tries to discover who betrayed his parents, and why.

Chris Columbus made the first two Harry Potter movies for the more literal-minded of Rowling’s fans, those who are switched on by mere wands and wizards and Quidditch matches, and by getting scared out of their britches. There’s plenty to delight that constituency in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, including a shiny creature called Buckbeak, half horse, half eagle, a total klutz on the ground and grace itself in flight. There’s a house of horrors called the Shrieking Shack, a Marauder’s Map and a time-traveling device that adds some wicked twists to an already exhausting plot. But in the end, Cuarón, true to the spirit that swept through Y Tu Mamá También, has made a Harry Potter movie for romantic explorers of the soul. If Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is Rowling’s darkest novel to date, it is also the clearest articulation of her sense that our most potent fears come from within. Around that proposition, worked over to the point of banality by a hundred years of horror movies, Cuarón creates a moody gray-and-silver Transylvanian dreamscape, the kind we wake from at once sweating with terror and as satisfied as if we’d exorcised a vampire ourselves. The battle between good and evil is never a simple Manichaean struggle. In fact, ugliness may be a virtue and beauty suspect, and what drives the story is that it’s hard to tell who’s who. Far from being the wild-eyed wacko of the tabloids vivants that broadcast news of his escape, Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black is civilized and regretful, a man tortured by his own conscience. Kindly Professor Lupin has his own dark secret as well, and even Ron’s pet rat, Scabbers, is not what he seems. Nor, in the end, is Harry’s family history, news of which shakes the pedestal upon which he’s placed his father. I don’t know enough about J.K. Rowling’s childhood (though I’ll wager being born in a place called Chipping Sodbury was enough to cultivate her taste for Dickensian names and places) to tell what makes her cleave so sympathetically to werewolves, jailbirds, hairy giants and Muggle-magician hybrids like Hermione. Like many Brits, Rowling is a committed populist who also never met an underdog she didn’t like. In Alfonso Cuarón, for the first time, she has found a soul mate, someone who can speak for the Frankenstein monster in all of us.

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN | Directed by ALFONSO CUARÓN | Written by STEVE KLOVES, based on the novel by J.K. ROWLING | Produced by DAVID HEYMAN, CHRIS COLUMBUS and MARK RADCLIFFE | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide

Querying Cuarón: A word with Harry’s new potter

Jet-lagged to the gills and exhausted by the two grinding years it has taken to make Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Alfonso Cuarón still has enough energy to talk about his debts to author J.K. Rowling and to Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter movies and co-produced the new one. “I set out to be faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of the book,” the 41-year-old Mexican director tells me over the phone. “On the other hand, I wanted people who hadn’t read the book to enjoy it too. And I wanted to give continuity to the franchise.”

Cuarón clearly loves CGI effects, but deploys them sparingly alongside more traditional devices. “There’s a tendency in film to be very showy with effects,” he says. “We tried not to be. For example, I wanted to use an amazing underwater puppeteer named Basil Twist for the Dementors. But though they tested beautifully, it ended up too complex and we had to use CGI. For the Knight bus, though, we used the oldest technique on planet Earth. We undercranked the camera so that it looked as though the [very slow-moving] cars were going at normal speed and the bus was going very fast.”

Though there’s no obvious connection between the subject matter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Cuarón’s two previous movies, A Little Princess and Y Tu Mamá También, the director considers them thematically all of a piece. “So far all the films I’ve made have been about the search for identity, about children and teenagers moving toward adult status,” he says. “The temptation in Harry is to find a mask, but then he has to deal with the fact that he had a flawed father. The search for identity is a lifelong process, and whoever tells you that they’ve found their identity is talking rubbish. What they’ve found is a comfortable mask.”


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