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As much of the civilized world now knows, the latest Harry Potter director is Alfonso Cuarón, best known for the explicit teen sexual awakening movie Y Tu Mamá También. As such, it may come as little surprise that his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban begins with the teenage wizard-in-training hiding under the bedsheets, whacking his wand.
The wand in this case, of course, is literally a piece of wood containing a phoenix feather. But the symbolism remains, and one gets the sense that perhaps Cuarón opens with the image as if to say, "Yeah, yeah, I know what you were thinking, now here's your joke and let's be done with it." Few, after all, remember Cuarón's little-seen but well-reviewed A Little Princess, which makes for a far better analogy to Harry Potter, given its boarding-school setting and themes of parental loss and empowerment by fantasy.
Co-producer Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films, seems to have taken it as his mandate to find a director as different from himself as possible who's still capable of working within the designated framework -- Cuarón inherits most of the actors and sets originally selected by Columbus and his crew, though the new director has changed the geography of things a bit. Both the Whomping Willow and Hagrid's hut have relocated to a mountainside, and with the unfortunate passing of Richard Harris, original Singing Detective Michael Gambon gets to be the new Albus Dumbledore. At the risk of blaspheming against the dead, Gambon's actually an improvement, playing the wizard headmaster as a more deliberately cryptic character rather than an aging scatterbrain.
As the J.K. Rowling books get progressively darker, it's wise to jettison Columbus from the helm at this stage. Though he did perhaps his finest directorial work ever on The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets saw an increasing amount of the director's trademark sentimentality start to creep in. Cuarón's mandate appears to have been "Make it darker!" So, tonally and visually, more darkness is what we get -- some scenes look almost like frames from a silent film. In conjunction with regular big-screen Potter adapter Steven Kloves, Cuarón has also taken more narrative liberties than Columbus did, and all of them are good, restructuring the film's chronology for increased dramatic impact; an added scene with Harry chasing an apparent phantom through pitch-black corridors at night is a standout, and conveys necessary plot information more effectively than Rowling managed. There are still a few loose ends that are better explained in the book (most notably the backstory of the magical map used by Harry), but there's only so much one can cram into two and a half hours without younger viewers walking out in impatience.
That is, unless they've already run screaming; this is by far the scariest of the Harry Potter films, and should not be viewed by little ones prone to nightmares. Harry runs away from home early on, is chased by an apparent werewolf, encounters talking shrunken heads (a particularly gruesome Cuarón addition), and then finally makes it safely to Hogwarts only to discover that a bunch of soul-sucking zombies called "dementors" have been invited to take up residence around the school, and they might just kill any student who comes near them. They've been sent from the Azkaban Prison for magical criminals in search of a recent escapee, the titular prisoner Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, shamelessly and hilariously mugging), who's expected to wreak havoc upon Harry if he ever catches up to the lad.
Magically speaking, this is a bit like having the guards from Abu Ghraib assigned to baby-sit your kids, though the parents of the Hogwarts students appear to have curious priorities: A mythical animal inadvertently causing minor injury creates a huge controversy resulting in a death sentence, yet supernatural, homicidal, living-dead prison guards who inspire terror in all are somehow not a major cause for concern.
Right-wing nut cases who complain about Harry Potter being satanic may find some solace in the introduction of an anti-big-government theme, as we're introduced to Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), a bureaucrat who apparently represents witches and wizards in the U.K. Parliament, all the while enforcing stupid decisions like the dementor thing. And let's not forget that the Harry Potter books and films are all about school choice, a popular issue among vehemently churchgoing folk. There's even some Christian-style forgiveness at a key moment, but that probably won't matter to the Pat Robertson crowd -- J.K. Rowling would have to publicly come out against evolution and in favor of George W. Bush for the religious right to shut their traps about the movie's alleged pagan worldview. (The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books regularly get a pass because their authors were Christians.)
Since every English actor working today is required to do one of these films at some point, The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces Julie Christie as the Hogsmeade Innkeeper, Lenny Henry as a Jamaican-accented shrunken head, Dawn French as the Fat Lady, Emma Thompson as hippie-gypsy Professor Trelawney (she plays it too broadly, but that's a minor gripe), rodent-faced Timothy Spall in an amusingly appropriate role (to reveal here might spoil things), and David Thewlis as new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin, whose name is a bit of a giveaway when it comes to his obligatory hidden secret (fans of his work in The Island of Dr. Moreau will be particularly amused). Poor Rik Mayall still hasn't made the final cut in his role as Peeves the poltergeist, and yet Warwick Davis gets to appear as yet another totally different little person -- his third such character in the series.
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