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Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Darkness in teenage wizardland
"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy has come and gone, but its fantasy film rival, the "Harry Potter" series, seems to be just hitting its stride with its third installment, "Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban." Director Alfonso Cuaron, known both for his sexy road movie "Y tu mama tambien" and his 1995 children's fable "The Little Princess," replaces Chris Columbus in the director's chair and faces that problem of all sequels: How to balance giving us more of what we expect and something new.
For the most part, he succeeds. Take the opening scene, the ritual sequence (continued from the first two films) in which Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), teen wizard, is berated and bullied by his muggle foster parents before being spirited off to Hogwarts school for aspiring sorcerers. This time, however, Harry's a little older and a lot more fed-up. He vents his rage by turning a particularly abusive auntie into a hot-air balloon. The ensuing row with his guardians suggests that we won't be seeing Harry back there for film No. 4 . . .
That scene signals a bit of a harder-edged Harry Potter, and sets the mood for the film. There's plenty of laughter and light in the film too, but trailing it is a sense of danger, a very real possibility of death that's far more ominous than anything in the earlier films. You can credit Cuaron for some of this -- he has a different touch in the lighting and atmosphere and framing of his scenes -- but it's also a reflection of the direction author J.K. Rowling has taken in the books, setting Harry on a crash course with his fear of death.
We get a sense of that dread very early on in the film when Harry, after a wacky race through the streets of London on a spectral double-decker bus, is riding the magical, mystery train to Hogwarts with his best friends Ron Weasly (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). The train is stopped cold -- literally, its windows frost over as it's submerged in an icy mist -- as black-cowled, wraithlike dementors prowl the train.
Guardians of the prison of Azkaban, the dementors are searching for Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an escaped murderer who is reportedly an accomplice of Voldemort, the evil sorcerer who killed Harry's parents. But as they pass through the train, one wraith hovers above Harry and proceeds to siphon off his memories, a horrific and surreal moment that gives new meaning to the phrase "suck face." The virtuoso sequence finishes with the camera spiraling into the black void of Harry's eyeball -- a flourish seemingly more at home in a Darren Aaronofsky film than "Harry Potter," but there you are.
Much of what people expect is dished out at Hogwarts. Gentle giant Hagrid is now a member of the faculty and introduces the students to a Hippogriff, a mythical half-horse, half-eagle beast that will surely appeal to the film's "Junior Miss" demographic. There's plenty of bother with the ghostly paintings and moving stairwells. Richard Harris has been replaced by Michael Gambon in the role of the headmaster Dumbledore, though with that big snowy beard, you only notice it in the voice.
Alan Rickman continues to steal every scene he's in as the sibilant Severus Snape, professor of potions, but he's joined by some formidable new colleagues: David Thewlis ("Naked") plays Professor Lupin, the new and equally ill-fated teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, while Emma Thompson appears as the professor of Divination, infuriating her charges with her gushy, new-age babble. Even wizards, apparently, don't have any time for people who say, "Your aura is pulsing, dear!"
What really sets the "Harry Potter" series apart from its fantasy-film competition is the way they've taken the care to develop the relationships between the characters. One can buy the friendship and bond between Harry and Ron in a way that was never possible with Frodo and Sam. Ditto for Hermione, and note the subtle way in which they're injecting a bit of romantic tension into this triangle.
Another thing to like is that, with the exception of Draco Malfoy (who everyone's been waiting to see smacked upside the head), the series has been quite deliberate in playing with your assumptions of who the bad guy is. This chapter has several surprises in store, with Professor Snape being seen in a new light, while good-guy Professor Lupin harbors a dark secret.
The plot, as usual, contains some holes. When Hermione and Harry travel back in time to save a loved one, it's puzzling why Harry doesn't give the amulet a few more spins and go back and save his parents. I'm sure the rabid readers of Rowling could give me an arcane explanation, but it wasn't in the film.
And yet, it's hard to care. Cuaron has fashioned a film rooted in mystery and wonder, largely avoiding the kind of trendy computer graphics that could date it quickly. Harry, describing his successful conjuring in the time-travel sequence, says, "I knew I could do it this time, because I'd already done it," and that's probably true of Cuaron as well.