HP3 has a new director on board: Alfonso Cuaron, widely understood to be introducing a darker, more grown-up feel to the Harry Potter adventures. Cuaron famously crowned his last movie,Y Tu Mama Tambien, with his male leads indulging in a three-way love romp with an older woman who withdraws leaving the men to get it on. Happily, Cuaron's treatment of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley has nothing more daring than allowing them to say "bloody" without getting a clip round the ear.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, however, literally darker than the first two bright, clean movies that Chris Columbus delivered: a touch muddier, a hint grainier in its look. And to add to the general air of disquiet, there seems to be -- unless I am imagining this -- a silent, fleeting cameo at the very beginning by Ian Brown, late of the Stone Roses, glimpsed morosely on his own in a pub called the Leaky Cauldron.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER FILMS
Otherwise things are not so very different for Harry and his wizardly chums. As ever, we start with Harry's enforced confinement during the holidays in the suburban home of his hateful muggle relatives, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and these days hormones are kicking in to fuel the resentment. Taller, ganglier Harry has got a bit of fierce teen attitude -- a little bit anyway -- and breaks the no-magic-outside-Hogwarts rule, hexing his unspeakable Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) by making her blow up like Mrs. Creosote and letting her float away.
This infringement is, however, overlooked by the school authorities and soon Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is back at Hogwarts with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). This time around the big scare is that the evil wizard Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman, rumored to be responsible for the death of Harry's parents, has escaped from the prison at Azkaban and is headed their way. But there are secrets and secrets-within-secrets to be uncovered about Sirius and his relationship with Harry.
As ever with the Harry Potter series, the actors playing the new teacher-intake supply much of the fun. Professor Dumbledore is portrayed by Michael Gambon who, perhaps in honor of the late Richard Harris, does it with a faint Irish accent. Emma Thompson is on great form as Sybil Trelawney, a scatty, pop-eyed Professor of Divination who reads tea leaves. (The parent or guardian accompanying each group of Harry Potter fans will have to explain afterwards what tea leaves are.) David Thewlis brings saturnine charisma to the role of Professor Lupin, the new Defense Against Dark Arts teacher. Among the existing staff, Alan Rickman gets some laughs with his acid, rolling consonants, and Robbie Coltrane has charm and real pathos as Hagrid, the bulky old retainer who gets into trouble for letting the Hippogriff, a bizarre horse-eagle creature, attack one of the pupils.
Hermione mischievously disrupts the time-space continuum with a time machine which allows her to spy on herself from afar. "Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?" she says crossly -- the best line in the film.
It's all rattling good fun, but oddly, considering that this is around 20 minutes shorter than the previous film, I found my attention wandering more often. Cuaron stages the big set-pieces well but may not have Columbus' gift for driving the storyline onwards at all times, round the obstacles and over the speed bumps. Perhaps it's possible to get blase about this most reliable of entertainment franchises, which has translated the bestselling books to the screen with such energy and good humor.
But I'm not sure how often we can watch, for film after film, that opening scene in Uncle Vernon's suburban house, then the scenes outside in the street, then the railway station and then the dangerous but essentially cosy Hogwarts, where Harry gets to fly around on broomsticks or fantasy animals. After three movies, I find myself now longing for Harry to test his powers outside the closed world of school, to confront a human adversary in a situation where magic skills may or may not be of any use, or else to use them to quell a wizard-opponent viciously seeking dominion in the muggle world.
Instead, the impetus of the Harry Potter films seems at this stage to be in the opposite direction: to retreat further from the concerns of non-magic civilians into an autistic wizard-ish universe, which will be increasingly baroque and complex and pregnant with its own self-important Tolkien-esque seriousness and "darkness." This new Harry Potter picture will cast a spell on its fanbase. But the broomstick's losing altitude.
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