Given the near incalculable popularity of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, it's probably a given that any film based on them—no matter how simplistic or slapdash—would be a huge box office success. We should probably be thankful then that the two films produced so far—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—have proved to be such bright entertainment. With spot-on casting, imaginative production design and zippy direction on the part of Chris Columbus (Home Alone), the films have made themselves able companions to Rowling's brilliant literary creations.
Having plowed his way through two of the seven books (only five of which have actually been published so far), Columbus is stepping aside, settling into the producer's chair and letting a new director take over. Mexican stylist Alfonso Cuarón may not seem like the most suitable man for the job. His last film was the gleefully smutty art house hit Y Tu Mamá También, the story of two teenage boys who hit the road (and the sack) with a beautiful older woman. Dig a little deeper into Cuarón's résumé, however, and you'll find a wonderful adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's kiddy classic A Little Princess. Thankfully (and, perhaps, not so surprisingly), Curarón is the perfect new recruit. Far more than Columbus, Cuarón understands the dark, Roald Dahl-inspired humor of Rowling's work.
It's almost a shame then that the new fellow is saddled with what could be the least interesting of Rowling's narratives. The Prisoner of Azkaban takes us into Harry's third year at Hogwart's Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Seems the entire wizarding world is up in arms since the escape of one Sirius Black (villainous standby Gary Oldman) from the titular Azkaban prison. Black, it would appear, was a loyal servant of Lord Voldemort and sold out his friends, Harry Potter's parents, to the evil wizard. The ghostly guardians of Azkaban, the Dementors, have taken up residence around Hogwarts in the assumption that Black may be gunning for young Harry. It's an intriguing setup, but it doesn't really build to much.
You see, The Prisoner of Azkaban is mostly a transitional book and spends a lot of its time introducing crucial characters, such as Sirius Black, Professor Lupin and Peter Pettigrew, who will have great impact on the overall story arc of the Harry Potter series. With no major confrontation, no appearance by Voldemort and, ultimately, no villain, Prisoner is a bit of a letdown, storywise. Series regulars Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and Snape get a token scene or two but have been reduced to mere cameos now that the stories have gotten longer and more complex. Heck, even the much-vaunted “prisoner” is absent from about 95 percent of the film. If you aren't a loyal devotee of the books, well-schooled in the minutia of Rowling's universe, this film will have the least impact on you of all of them.
Plot grumblings aside, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the first of the films to take on a life beyond that of the books. Columbus' films were slavishly faithful recreations of Rowling's world. Cuarón doesn't entirely break away from that. (He's using the same cast, same sets, same screenwriter). But he is a master of crafting memorable scenes, and there are a few sequences that actually surpass the content of Rowling's book. (The thrilling "Night Bus" race through London leaps to mind.) Cuarón's deep, dark style is noticeable throughout, especially in the subtle introduction of temporal symbolism and the clever use of the legendary “whomping willow” tree to denote the passage of the seasons.
The young members of the cast are certainly coming into their own as actors. Star Daniel Radcliffe gets to stretch his acting muscles a bit more, as his Harry Potter has entered his older, slightly more rebellious teenage years. It's nice to see Harry getting a little more proactive after the rather passive hero of the last two films. It's a little harder to judge the adult actors, though. Newcomer Michael Gambon (replacing Richard Harris as Dumbledore) is kept mostly in the background and Gary Oldman probably only has about 10 minutes of screentime.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn't going to recruit any new members to the cult of Potter. (Not that it needs to.) But with its inventive new director, the film conquers a plot that's more fact-filled than action-oriented and emerges as magically delicious entertainment for young and old.