A good story is a good story no matter what medium it is told in. As probably one of the last people in the English-speaking world who has not read any of the successful Harry Potter novels from British writer J. K. Rowling, I can only approach the adaptations of these films with no preconceived notions as to the world of young wizard-in-training Harry Potter. For me, the films are their own being and with Alfonso Cuaron taking over the directorial reins from Chris Columbus, the latest installment Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban is a marked step up from the initial two installments.
When Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to the Hogwarts Academy for Wizards and Witches for his third year of schooling, he finds that the staff is in a state of agitation over the escape from Azkaban, an Alcatraz like prison for magic users, of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a maniacal wizard who was involved with the death of Harry’s parents. With the fear that Black may try to come to the school and kill Harry, Hogwarts undergoes an almost state of siege. While trying to cope with the continual bullying of rival student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and the crush of schoolwork, Harry finds himself drawn into the mystery of his parents’ murder.
The switch in directors from Columbus to Cuaron is noticeable and much welcomed. While Columbus’ work was steady it lacked any real style as Columbus approached the material with a reverence that wouldn’t allow him to impart any directorial vision of his own. Cuaron however seems to have no compunctions about at least meeting the material halfway, bringing his own thoughts to the film. The use of handheld camera in the opening moments of the film indicates that the viewer is a much richer visual experience. Cuaron’s film is a grittier looking affair and that look adds a verisimilitude that hasn’t been present in the series. He also delivers some of the scariest images of the series yet in the spectral form of the Azkaban prison guards, the Dementors.
Prisoner of Azkaban suffers from the same uneven story pace that the first two films in this series had. The opening segment feels episodic; the middle is exposition heavy with much of the major action happening towards the end. However, Cuaron keeps thing flowing along and without having read Rowling’s book, I strong suspect that his film is not as slavishly devoted to bringing to life every moment from the source material as Columbus’ proceeding two films were.
Cuaron’s previous film, the controversial Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) which deals with two teenagers’ sexual awakening, seems like an odd precursor to his work here, but both films are similar in theme. As Harry enters his teen years, his own yearning to define himself drives his search for the truth about his parents. Like many teenagers, he sees the adults surrounding him acting as if they are conspiring to keep secrets from him. In the film’s opening scenes with Harry’s guardians we see that their cruelty towards him is not born out of frustration from having been saddled with his care but more out of fear of what he may become. It’s this realization that helps support Harry’s transition to being a more proactive player in his own destiny.