Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron picks up the reins from Chris Columbus in this third installment in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and leaves his mark without betraying the source material. Orphaned wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering adolescence and anxiously anticipating a third year of study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,...read more
Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron picks up the reins from Chris Columbus in this third installment in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and leaves his mark without betraying the source material. Orphaned wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering adolescence and anxiously anticipating a third year of study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, his refuge from life with the Dursleys, Harry's viciously coarse and stupid relatives. Forced to endure a visit from his perfectly beastly Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris), Harry flies into a rage when her brandy-fueled use of kennel metaphors to insult his parents becomes too much to bear. To be sure, he only uses his powers to give Marge's poisonous pomposity real-world consequences; her gaseous self-importance inflates her like a noisome blimp balloon and sends her bobbing off through the suburban skies. But Hogwarts students are strictly forbidden to use magic outside school and the Dursleys are furious, so Harry does what any distraught 13-year-old would do in similar circumstances. He runs away. To his great surprise, he's not only rescued by the mystical Knight Bus, which whisks him off to the welcoming Leaky Cauldron Inn, but the stern Minister of Magic (Robert Hardy) lets him off with a mild warning. In fact, all the grown-ups are tip-toeing around Harry, because they know something he doesn't: The rogue wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who betrayed Harry's parents to the dreaded Lord Voldemort, has just escaped from Azkaban prison for magical miscreants and it seems likely that he's coming to kill the last of the Potters. Oh, and the coup de grace is that he's Harry's godfather. For Harry's sake, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, stepping gracefully into the role originated by the late Richard Harris) allows Azkaban's spectral security force, a group of ghastly soul-sucking wraiths called Dementors, to patrol Hogwarts until Black is caught. In all, the new school year starts under a pall, and it's clear that the skills of Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against Dark Arts instructor, will be very much in demand. Where Columbus vanished behind Rowling's intricately imagined world, giving each invention equal on-screen weight, Cuaron lets his enthusiasms show. He's evidently enchanted by the whomping willow, which screws up its gracefully relaxed limbs into a living scourge and thumps the hell out of any living thing within range (including a beatifically chirping bluebird), delighted by the marvelous hippogriff and singularly uninterested in the sporty pleasures of Quidditch. And in an unusual grace note typical of his slightly skewed take on the material, Cuaron gives the enchanted Hogwarts, where living paintings line the walls and ghosts caper in the public spaces, a grittier, more conventionally realistic texture than the Dursleys' perfectly manicured suburban home.
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