What a bummer when that genial Hollywood company-man Chris Columbus was hired to direct the movie of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001). The adaptation was faithful to a fault, but the picture was a bland, twinkling, Christmassy thing that missed or muffled the book's emotional beats, and it had none of the subversive energy out of which J.K. Rowling's Harry had been forged. I'm not saying Rowling is some kind of Riot Grrrrl. But despite the headmistressy civility of her prose and her insistence on a disciplined and controlled nonconformity, her books express a rage against a certain fascistic strain of the blue-blood English upper crust and their clueless allies, the vulgarly snobbish middle-class mortals known memorably as "muggles." Every book begins with the lonely, friendless, maltreated orphan Harry shut in his room, practicing his magic in secret—just as Rowling must have shut herself away to summon up the pagan fury at the core of each new adventure.
At the time, I suggested that a better filmmaker for Harry would be the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. And now, three years later, we have the third Potter picture, Harry Potter and the Prisoner ofAzkaban(Warner Bros.), and look who directed it. And look how much better it is than the first two installments! What a call! Should I ask for a finder's fee?
Well, OK, picking Cuarón wasn't such a stroke of genius. He directed maybe the most evocative live-action kids movie since The Black Stallion (1979), A Little Princess (1995), and his failed modern 1998 Great Expectations (set in Florida and New York's SoHo) was a worthy stab at re-energizing a classic. More important, his approach to constructing a world on film is the opposite of Columbus'. Where the latter works from the top down, dollying into his lavish sets from on high, Cuarón builds his scenes from below, from deep inside his storybook universe. It helps that the characters' emotions are so vivid. The tactile power of Cuarón's filmmaking is clear from the first scene, in which Harry (once more Daniel Radcliffe) is discovered under his covers in the middle of the night in that awful Dursley house, doing something naughty. No, it's not what you're thinking: He's playing with his wand. I mean, he's testing out his new potency. I mean ...
There's room for suggestiveness here, because Potter isn't pre-pubescent anymore, and neither is the actor. Harry is a gangly and confused English teen, uncertain both of his right to express himself and the extent of his powers to do so. He's the quintessential prickly hormonal adolescent. When a nasty aunt (Pam Ferris) insults his dead mom and dad, Harry can't contain his rage and blows her up like a barrage balloon. Cuarón doesn't direct the scene for whimsy: He's one step away from some David Cronenberg vision in which she's splattered all over the walls.
The entrance to Hogwarts' dining hall, with the Glee Club warbling "Double double toil and trouble … Something wicked this way comes!" is both funny and goose-bumpingly operatic. But the palette of this film is scarier: The contrasts are higher, the blacks deeper, and Cuarón irises in and out of many scenes like a silent Expressionist master. The colors reflect a new uncertainty. Harry is in mortal danger from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a wizard who's supposed to have it in for him and who has managed to escape from the prison Azkaban. The guards who pursue Black are possibly worse than he is: cowled, skeletal creatures called Dementors that suck peoples' souls out of their bodies—and that take a mysterious interest in Harry's soul, too.
In truth, those Dementors are not quite as bone-chilling as I'd hoped they'd be, at least compared to Peter Jackson's Ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings. But there's a chilling effect when they hover in the air and pull at their victims' faces like taffy. Harry's pal Ron * (Rupert Grint) says the Dementors make him feel cold, as if he'll never be cheerful again—an evocative description of real adolescent depression. Cuarón is mindful of these metaphors, so the movie works on more than one level.
Unfortunately, it isn't gangbusters on the first, narrative level. Although possibly the best of the books, Prisoner of Azkaban is very much a middle chapter. It loses momentum in the second half, and there's no climactic wand-off with some super-villain. (Voldemort remains off-screen.) Gary Oldman can be a terrific actor, but he's too finicky, cold, and small of spirit for Sirius Black. (Sean Bean would have been a better choice.) And Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as the top wizard, Dumbledore, can't resist camping it up. The happy additions are the always enigmatically lewd David Thewlis as a mysterious professor named Lupin (the name hints at his secret) and Emma Thompson as a spaced-out, frizzy-haired divination instructor with glasses that triple the size of her eyeballs. She's proof that even wizards have their New Age pseudoscientists; and she gives Emma Watson's delectable Hermione a chance to show that girls can be more healthily skeptical than boys any day.
Even when Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban runs down, there is so much magic to marvel at: the stranded wizard's night bus that's like a visit from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), with a rasta shrunken head calling out the stops; the giant flying hippogriff, with its body of a horse and head of an eagle; and the whomping willow, which flings the three protagonists around in unprecedented dimensional detail. There's a 3-D texture to those ornate corridors, the oil paintings with their parallel vaudeville routines, the undulating landscape, and the lakes like magnificent fjords. In Cuarón's hands, the world of Harry Potter doesn't feel like a synthetic movie theme park anymore. It's almost real, Hogwarts and all.