With his technician's touch and cutesy, uncomplicated directorial style, Chris Columbus made Muggles of us all. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) were as dull as a day with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon -- we caught frustrating, occasional glimpses of a magical world, but we were not a part of it. The world he created wasn't big enough, it didn't draw us in, it was flat and unappealing. For every detail Columbus got right, he missed a mountain of meaning. Luckily, he's been pushed back through the looking glass to the producer's chair only, which is as big a gift as a Firebolt 3000. In Azkaban, successor Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón rights all wrongs, with his lush, visually and thematically thoroughly realized film.
To be fair, Cuarón has better material to work with, for the publication of Azkaban marked author J.K. Rowling's graduation to full-fledged membership in the fairy tale hall of fame. The brilliant brothers Grimm started it all, with their sexed-up, spiritualized surrealities. Writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L'Engle learned their lessons well, infusing darkest reality into their fantastical fictions. Potter and pals were delightfully inventive and addictive creations all along, but the third book brings madness and murder, death and betrayal to their ever-maturing world. A good fairy tale houses as much rage as it does passion, as much failure as it does triumph. And Azkaban is a very good tale.
The film joins Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) as he prepares to return to Hogwarts for his third year of study, his departure from the Dursley household made more abrupt than usual by an unfortunate incident involving a loudmouth bossy relative and a bit of uncontrollable magic-making. Our now-teenage wizard is finding it hard to control his temper. Before too long, he will find that, of all his considerable powers, control -- of fear, of anger, of wits -- comes hardest. Stranded on the streets of London and stalked by a mysterious black devil dog, Harry takes a ride on the Knight Bus (wizard public transportation) and finds out that the demented Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the Alcatraz of the magic world, Azkaban. Black, of course, appears to be in league with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and, thus, after Harry. To make matters worse, Azkaban has dispatched a contingent of its guards, the dreaded Dementors, to Hogwarts to intercept the prison's first-ever escapee, but these evilly ethereal soul-sucking spirits seem to harm Harry more than protect him. Evil omens abound, Harry continues to grapple with the violent loss of parents he can hardly remember, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) squabble incessantly, and the rain falls in sheets. With drama this high, we are soon all prisoners of Azkaban.
One of the main themes of the third Harry Potter installment is the passage of time and all its inherent losses and gains; Cuarón captures this bittersweetness beautifully. His darks are dark, his colors alive, as he dares to slyly incorporate the imagery of time: windows that turn out to be clock faces, staircases, melting snow and blooming flowers. Most known for the Academy Award-nominated Y Tu Mamá, También, the director first showed his colors in the vibrant Secret Garden sister, A Little Princess (1995), and in the greenest greens of Great Expectations (1998). He brings all of his artistry to Azkaban. Hogwarts has never been grittier, grander, messier -- or more visually stunning. Cuarón shoots on the same sets as the first two films, but with a wide-angle lens that, quite simply, transforms locations like the cavernous Great Hall and Snape's shadowy classroom into fully dimensional entities. He ventures outside the walls of the castle to the wild countryside beyond and frees the kids from their school robes, allowing them to be all untucked shirts and sweaters and jeans (a simple move that virtually eliminates the weirdness of actors soon too old for the parts they play). He seamlessly weaves in the special effects of the Dementors, the hippogriff Buckbeak and the gallery of living portraits.
Most importantly, he redeems the Whomping Willow; it's no longer a punch line with its whirling dervish arms and nasty temper, but rather a grand gatekeeper, a symbol of the seasons, a sad and beautiful sentinel. Here is all the richness, all the thrill, all the texture that has been missing. Rowling's gorgeous imagination finally meets its movie match in a film no longer on the level of Casper the Friendly Ghost or The Frighteners. With his artist's eye and superior Gothic-tinged sensibilities, Cuarón's work is much more Wizard of Oz or Edward Scissorhands.
The beauty of Rowling's books is that she never writes down to her readers; how satisfying to have a film version that does the same.