But Cuaron has gone one giant step further than mere competence. He’s discovered a path through the thicket of creatures, demons and spells upon. This Harry has an emotional tuning fork, if we may switch metaphors, twin tines embodied by a newly adolescent Harry (well-played yet again by Daniel Radcliffe) and by a new character, Professor Lupin, acted with customary yet singular fluency by the wonderful David Thewlis.
Before listing Cuarón’s achievements, let’s briefly look at Columbus’s most salient fault: Turning the Potter movies into a series of gimmicks. Essentially, the first two Harrys lurched from one special effects scene to another, even when as with the ghosts of Hogwarts the effects would be better off spread through the movie. Any accumulation of emotional affect would dissipate as we stopped to watch stairways split and rejoin or boys fly around on broomsticks. Columbus even reduced the acting to gimmickry by allowing the likes of Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith to indulge their appetites for hammery.
If by nothing else you can tell Cuarón is up to something else by the way he limits Rickman’s and Smith’s screen time. Rickman has some plot to carry so he’s up there a bit more than Smith, and Emma Thompson makes her first appearance as a new member of the faculty, so she gets to try out her wings, but the lack of overacting is almost palpable. There’s more air in the theater.
Cuarón also disgorges an enormous amount of information during the film’s running time. A prologue at his guardian’s home shows us that adolescent pique has begun to alter his relationship with his rude, but now somewhat fearful aunt and uncle (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) and why. We also discover that seniors in the world of witches and wizards have begun to worry for Harry’s safety.
As Harry and we soon discover, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, as good as he’s been in years, believe it or not), has escaped from the fortress prison Azkaban. Black has been imprisoned for leading Harry’s parents into the clutches of Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard who killed them and whom Harry defeated in the first film. Now that Black has escaped, it’s believed he’s now after Harry.
Harry boards the train to Hogwarts along with his old friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), sharing a compartment with a fourth companion who, apparently asleep, lies bundled up in a corner under a cloak. This is one the movie hits its first note of true terror. A huge flying…thing, halfway between a dragon and a demon boards the train and comes clumping down the corridor. It’s preceded by a chill that freezes the air and frosts the glass ahead. It comes to Harry’s compartment, pauses, and then slides the door open. Revealing its gruesome head and piercing cry, it begins to suck something obviously elemental and spiritual from inside Harry. At this point, the figure from the corner leaps up brandishing a wand and commands the creature to depart.
It’s a heck of a scene. But it’s also a crucial one. The creature is a Dementor, one of a large pack that usually spends its time guarding Azkaban. If a living soul crosses its path, it swoops down upon it and begins to suck out the psychic residue of all its dark experiences, leaving it mad or worse. Sirius is such a high-profile escapee that the Dementors have been set loose to look for him and have set up a perimeter around Hogwarts. Because Harry has had so many dark experiences, he naturally attracts them.
But it’s the man in corner who will have a greater impact upon Harry’s life. It’s Professor Lupin, the new professor of spells at Hogwarts. Kindly yet still strong, he is the first male professor in the film who combines maturity and vigor with generosity of spirit. Even his lessons are designed less to impart formulaic recitations of spells than to encourage the internal growth of his charges. The one class we sit in on nearly from beginning to end involves confronting our most fearsome monsters by thinking of something that makes them look ridiculous for example.
On a more personal level, Lupin helps Harry with his fears as Sirius remains at large and gets closer and closer to Hogwarts. Some of the advice is just about how the young man should hold up. But some is also quite practical and leads evermore into adventure. Their moments together seal-up all the many parts of a colorful film into a single garment.
And there are many other parts. Cuarón has not turns The Prisoner of Azkaban into a “little” film by any means. Robbie Coltrane’s delightful giant Hagrid is back, this time promoted to a professor of magical animals. Specifically, he’s there to train Harry’s class in the care, feeding, and riding of Buckbeak, a “Hippogriff,” which my notes describe as half-horse, half-eagle, though I recall there being another “half” in there somewhere. There are magic maps that reveal themselves only to people who know the right spell, werewolves and magic dogs, a town full of wizards, the most haunted house in Britain, and more. Oh, yes, that little creep Malfoy lurks about.
The visual effects, given their proper place, are more effective than usual. They carry an emotional resonance free of the carnival barker’s metallic echo.
Naturally, most of the audience goes into the Harry Potter movies knowing exactly how things are going to turn out. I’m the only member of my family who gets to be surprised and I believe my position is enviable. Cuarón has designed the climax so that what’s up is up in the air nearly right to the end. It kept me on the edge of my seat.
In any case, Cuarón has delivered two movies for the price of one. He’s made a terrific adaptation of J.K. Rowling (I have an expert’s word on this) and he’s delivered another superb Cuarón film and not extra charge.