In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the titular young wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) turns 13. And fittingly for a film about a boy hitting his teen years, the very first scene finds Harry hiding under his covers, trying desperately not to be caught by his uncle while playing with his ... er, wand.
Oh, come on, don’t pretend it’s not there. It’s not a matter of reading too much into things because new director Alfonso CuarÃ³n explored youthful sexual experimentation in his 2001 art-house hit Y Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n. Hermione (Emma Watson) is looking more developed than the last time we saw her; a hand clasp between Hermione and Ron (Rupert Grint) takes on a more uncomfortable significance. With Azkaban, the series finds its central characters colliding with puberty—which I’m sure we all wish we’d had a few spells handy to overcome.
Not coincidentally, the film series finds itself at a similar crossroads of maturity. Chris Columbus directed the first two wildly successful adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful books, keeping the focus on fast-paced kid-friendly adventure. This darker installment tries to find a balance between that adventure and the fleshing out of Harry’s character as he gropes toward manhood. It’s somewhat astonishing that it succeeds as often as it does.
But adolescent fumblings aren’t the only thing afoot at Hogwart’s in Year Three. The unlikely flight of convicted wizard murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from heretofore inescapable Azkaban Prison casts a shadow over the term’s opening, especially since it is presumed that he is out to make Harry his next victim. Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris) brings the hideous Dementors to the school to help seek out Black, while a kindly new faculty member—Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor—makes things easier for Harry. But once Harry learns the reason Sirius Black was in prison, it may be a question of who tries to kill whom first.
CuarÃ³n is going to get a lot of credit from critics for bringing that angrier edge to the material, but he’s really just following Rowling’s lead in the gradual darkening of the storyline. The director’s touches are of a different kind, a graceful and patient brand of visual storytelling evident in the film that probably landed him this assignment, the glorious 1995 Frances Hodgson Burnett adaptation A Little Princess. He takes time to provide a context for Hogwart’s as an actual school, lingering on dorm room goofing, homework sessions and field trips. Transitions between seasons occur through clever visual cues—the abrupt leaf-shedding of the Whomping Willow, an owl’s flight from fall into a winter snowstorm. For the first time, a Harry Potter adaptation feels like it was crafted by someone interested in making an actual movie.
Yet make no mistake, this is a Harry Potter movie, a designation that bears a unique burden. Columbus showed the instincts of a crowd-pleaser in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, remaining agonizingly faithful to the letter of his source material and providing zingy action set pieces. CuarÃ³n, by contrast, seems uncomfortable adding the necessary bursts of adventure; even the obligatory Quidditch game sequence feels like a chunk he’d much rather have discarded. As sure a bet it is that critics will dub Azkaban the best of the Potter bunch thus far—which it may very well be—it’s only slightly less likely that the target fan base will embrace it less enthusiastically.
Of course, that target fan base is also growing up, and they may be ready for something that doesn’t feel like an exercise in trying not to screw it up. They could recognize in Harry’s latest quest a primal hero tale about replacing one’s father, even if Radcliffe doesn’t quite have the acting chops yet to pull of the more emotional scenes. They could even connect with subtext this series now seems to share with another film franchise featuring a boarding school for unusual youngsters—X-Men—about feeling like an outcast and looking for a place to fit in.
We adults, meanwhile, can simply appreciate the new, more sophisticated style Alfonso CuarÃ³n brings to the Harry Potter brand name—even as we understand that growing up is sometimes just as messy as it is exhilarating.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, ***, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Rated PG