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Cuaron Brings More Magic to Potter Series

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Cuaron Brings More Magic to Potter Series
 
by Jeremy Mathews

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”
Warner Bros.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowlings
Produced by David Heyman
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Glint, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, Oliver Phelps, James Phelps, Tom Felton, Timothy Spall and Emma Thompson
Rated PG

(out of four)

With a mix of maturity and grace, the Harry Potter series has reached a new level of quality. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” improves on the already impressive acting of the first two films while developing a more cinematic approach, courtesy of director Alfonso Cuaron.

Cuaron, the Mexico-born who made the sexually unabashed masterpiece “Y tu mama tambien,” isn’t a completely surprising since he also made “A Little Princess” in 1995. His vision combines the world that has already been established with modern day adolescence, as Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, are in the same middle state of puberty as the actors who play them, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Glint and Emma Watson. The film isn’t just darker, its also funnier and somehow reaches an odd level of magic realism with the free schoolboy attitude of the wizards in training at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Cuaron brings the film to a more cinematic level than the previous two, with nonstandard shot setups including long takes that require stronger initial performances from the actors, keen use of music and more consistent pacing. One particularly appropriate shot follows characters running inside the school by passing through Hogwarts giant clock and all its gears. And plenty of action is always going on amongst Potter’s various classmates or in the wonderfully detailed production design.

At the same time, the world still meshes with that created in the earlier films, with the school’s moving staircases, talking paintings and playful ghosts. The difference is that the quiddich match this time takes place during a storm, and the action isn’t centered on the game, but goings on above the clouds.

A fun opening scene shows a magic bus racing through the streets of London, weaving in between the heavy traffic while the normal humans, or muggles, are unaware. The first of several talking shrunken heads in the film treats the slow old lady crossing the street as a routine procedure in the racing bus business. The bus picks him up as a “wizard in danger” after Harry leaves his disagreeable step parents and their spoiled son, the Dursleys, in anger after inflating their dinner guest with hot air as retribution for insulting his parents.

Harry soon discovers that the reason he’s considered in danger is that the viscous Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), seen screaming in the animated police photo in the wanted signs, has escaped from Azkaban prison. Most people with information are tacit toward Harry, and all he can initially gather is that Black was a cohort of the evil Lord Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents. Since Harry is thought to be the only one who can defeat Voldemort if he rematerializes, Black must be on the way to kill him.

However, the prison guards hunting Black turn out to be a scarier foe. The Dementors, a bit reminiscent of the ring wraiths, are floating hooded creatures who torment anyone who gets in their way while they’re hunting a prisoner. They accent people’s worst memories, making them even worse for Harry, whose parents’ death still haunts him.

Harry’s mother and father become big elements as Black’s escape causes him to think more about his past. Harry finds a father figure in Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the dark arts defense teacher who was friends with Harry’s parents. Thewlis gives the part warmth and experience as his character relates to the young wizard at the age in which one constantly questions their superiors.

Radcliffe, like his two costars, has matured as an actor as his character has grown, and displays a wide range of emotions as the confused adolescent. He can handle the tense dramatic scenes as well as the film’s comedic elements. Glint and Watson also establish themselves as fine actors, creating a rapport of traded insults that can only mean they’re attracted to one another. Watson also uses the advantage of having a character who loves to bring attention to her intelligence to steal some scenes with her plucky spirit.

Cuaron has captured the attitudes, conflicts and curiosities of adolescence, starting with the opening scene, in which Harry is under the sheets, quite literally playing with his wand. The kids wear contemporary street clothes when class is in session, and wear their uniforms…well, the way kids their age usually wear their uniforms, with sloppy, loose-tied ties around unkempt collars.

Up to this point, the Harry Potter series has allowed us to grow with its actors and characters, from the youthful wonder and innocence of the early films to the darker emotions in this one. While obviously the well-being of the child actors should be taken into account, it would be truly unfortunate if the series continued with different, younger actors after the next film, as many have suggested will be the case. The whole point of the series is that the youths grow up and mature throughout the year, and it would be detrimental to the series as a whole to switch actors, even if the others can match the impressive pool of talent, because it would distort the grand character arc. Besides, people five years older than they’ll be by the time the series ends (assuming the books get done in time) have played younger characters.

The adult actors are also as strong as ever, with the new additions of Thewlis and Emma Thompson as a ditzy old divination teacher mixing well with the returning cast members, including Alan Rickman as the sinister Severus Snape, Maggie Smith as the head of Harry’s house and Robbie Coltrane as the large and warm groundskeeper Hagrid, who has been promoted to professor at the school. Hagrid and his giant, flying pet, however, are unjustly accused motif of the film—after Harry’s obnoxious rival, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), provokes it to attack him. Michael Gambon also comes to the cast, replacing the late, inimitable Richard Harris as headmaster Dumbledore. Gambon slips into the role with warmth and humor as the wise and kind old man.

The series had yet to make any major missteps, and with Cuaron’s addition of humor, energy and cinematic grace, it reaches a new level of quality that’s unique to the film instead of from a slave-like loyalty to the book.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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