If the Harry Potter series is seen in progression, the first film introduced the characters and the situations, the second used the time saved from our acquaintance to further our familiarity, and here in the third one, Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), we are treated to a little style. This is the series at its most comfortable, told with the maximum amount of flair.
It’s also the tipping point; Harry’s squarely a teenager now, more immediate and a little angry, and the film introduces some of the darker themes that, sadly, will dominate Harry’s education the rest of the way. But for now it’s the perfect balance between the stuff of kids and the substance of adults. It may be the funniest movie in the group, but it also is the first to suggest a darkness beyond monsters and beasts. The series matures here from the necessarily directness of Chris Columbus’ introductory pictures, but it maintains enough of its youthful charm before giving way to the Wagnerian bloat of the David Yates-directed final four episodes.
We join Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) back at the Dursleys’, his cruel adoptive family; a visit from the rude Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) sends Harry over the edge, and he uses his magic to inflate her and send her floating across the Surrey sky. From there he jumps ship, packing his things and setting out with little more plan than any 13-year-old has when they run away from home. Eventually he finds himself back at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry but not before he discovers that this time the annual plot against his life comes from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a follower of the evil dark wizard Voldemort who has spent the last dozen years locked up in Azkaban prison and recently escaped, presumably to find and kill Harry. The guards at Azkaban are black-cloaked specters called Dementors that specialize in sucking out souls, and they have been dispatched upon the school in case Black turns up, though the problem with Dementors is that they can’t always tell the difference between fugitives and students, disrupting school matches of the wizard sport Quidditch and Harry’s peace of mind; he faints whenever they’re near.
There are two-and-a-half new members of the faculty at Hogwarts this year. Adding to the staff that includes Professors McGonagall and Snape (Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman) and the groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), now promoted to professor, is the moony Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson) and the serious Professor Lupin (David Thewlis). Also new is Michael Gambon as the Headmaster Dumbledore, taking over for the late Richard Harris, who originated the role. Gone is Harris’ grace but it’s replaced with Gambon’s laconic wryness, which will serve him well throughout the series, as will his marvelous baritone that can switch from light and droll to deep and boding.
Back again, of course are Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), Harry’s friends, and the student body of allies and enemies, including the luckless nerd Neville (Matthew Lewis) and the bully Malfoy (Tom Felton). The young actors have followed their characters into their early teens, the last age in which I’d want to be filmed for projection on a sixty-foot screen, and some hide the awkwardness better than others, but as always, the driving of the story is up to them and they come through.
There are fewer big set-pieces in this story than there are in the others, but Cuarón infuses the storytelling with a heretofore missing element of cinematic style. Columbus’ introductory pictures were made in the style of old Hollywood, with a directness that’s purposefully invisible and absolutely correct for the first two installments. Cuarón is more visual; he takes advantage of our familiarity with the subject to give us crazy angles and interesting compositions. I’m thinking of a section in a tavern when a character tells Harry about Sirius Black that moves around the space while the camera keeps a chilling wanted poster as the focal point, or a static shot in an inn that places the elbow of a hallway in the center of the frame and furthers the action on the right side while providing a visual gag on the left. I don’t think anyone would confuse Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with an art-house movie; it does feature spectacular special effects at the service of battles with werewolves, time travel and vertiginous flights on winged creatures, but it’s weirder than the usual Hollywood blockbuster and certainly a lot funnier.
In fact, this is the funniest of the Potter pictures in a way that comes from the script and not the performances. The screenwriter Steve Kloves breaks a little from his previously gospel-like fealty to the J.K. Rowling books, a direction supported by Cuarón. Here there is an invented character (a talking shrunken head), a character who, through casting, goes from being a glorified extra to a very real presence (the Igor-like Tom the Innkeeper played by Jim Tavaré), and the zingers in the script are generated from the personalities of the characters on film, not in the books. I’m thinking of a great line of Watson’s when she sees herself while time traveling that speaks volumes to the insecurities many women have about the back of their heads, and I get quite a bit of amusement from Gambon’s casual request of either a large cup of tea or a large brandy. Thompson is also a riot as the spacy, new age Trelawney; it’s a shame that the stories don’t make more room for her in the later editions.
The composer John Williams, who wrote the original music for Prisoner of Azkaban and the previous two films, and whose themes are used throughout the rest of the series, provides one of his best and most varied scores here, giving us, in addition to his fine symphonic music that colors the story, a pompous march during the Dursley sequence, a jazzy riff during a wild ride on a phantom double-decker bus and even a choral piece complete with musically croaking toads. There is a flute piece that apes the “Flight of the Bumblebee” that’s put to particularly good use.
Counterbalancing the lightness, Caurón introduces elements that go beyond being simply scary to psychologically disturbing. There’s a lot about the nature of fear and the fragile character of loyalty and friendship. It’s all simple, but these are enormous ideas for children, that someone you trusted could actually be against you. More disturbing still is the suggestion, here for the first time, that attraction to the opposite sex is possible. One of the many reasons the books and the movies are destined to be staples on the book- and DVD-shelves of future generations is the way they deal seriously with real issues that children are just beginning to learn. There’s nothing particularly complex about what they’re getting at, but the more unsettling aspects of human nature aren’t glossed over. Soon enough, these unsettling elements will weigh down some of the films, but here, under Caurón’s guidance, they are in perfect balance with light fantasy. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the finest of the series.