I suspect I am not the only person who was a bit surprised when it was first announced that Alfonso Cuarón had been signed to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film adaptation of J.K. Rowling's (deservedly) ubiquitous novels. Yes, the Mexican-born director had helmed A Little Princess, a movie featuring a young protagonist who, like Harry, had lost her parents. But he had more recently (and more famously) directed Y Tu Mama Tambien, a sexually explicit film about the relationship between two teenage boys and an older woman. Fortunately, any fears that Cuarón would have Harry and wizarding buddy Ron Weasley trading graphic descriptions of their sexual conquests--Y Professor McGonagall Tambien?--proved unfounded. Rather, Cuarón brought to the Potter franchise a quality curiously missing from the two previous films: magic.
The first two attempts to bring Rowling's work to the big screen--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets--were both directed by Chris Columbus, the corporate sentimentalist who gave us such explorations of contemporary domesticity as Stepmom, Mrs. Doubtfire, Adventures in Babysitting, and the Home Alone movies. Columbus's firm grounding in the cinema of the Here and Now left him ill-prepared to capture the otherworldly appeals of the Potter series, so he retreated into literalism, transcribing Rowling's work onto the screen with stenographic fidelity. The result was two films that, for all the spark and wit of their source material, felt timid and lifeless, like illustrated books-on-tape. Cuarón's Prisoner of Azkaban, while a touch less faithful to the details of Rowling's oeuvre, captures far better its mood, the constant sense of wondrous discovery and lurking danger.
Harry, as children fluent in any of (at last count) 61 languages are well aware, is a teenage wizard enrolled at Hogwarts Academy, a kind of coed Eton for the magically inclined, housed in a vast medieval castle in northern England. Like the previous installments in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban opens just before the beginning of the school year, with Harry, who spends summers in the suburbs with a cruel aunt and uncle, pining for his return to Hogwarts. In keeping with Rowling's basic formula, Harry has an unpleasant confrontation with his relations and responds with an unintentional display of magic. But already there is a more foreboding edge to the proceedings, with both the abuse (a still-more-repulsive relative arrives to insult Harry's dead parents) and the boy's response (he turns her into a fat, heliated balloon that floats off into the twilight sky) considerably darker than previous episodes. And that's before Harry sees the sinister black dog snarling at him from the bushes....
Things improve little after Harry reunites with school pals Ron and Hermione and arrives at Hogwarts. A murderer, Sirius Black, has escaped from the previously inescapable wizard prison of Azkaban and appears intent on killing Harry. Worse, the Dementors charged with recapturing Black--soul-sucking wraiths that make Peter Jackson's Nazgul look like Ewoks--seem also to have taken an unhealthy interest in our young hero. From these ominous beginnings the plot unfolds with the meticulousness for which Rowling is justly famous, with numerous interwoven storylines--the elevation of lovable ogre Hagrid to Professor of Magical Creatures; the arrival of Professor Remus Lupin, yet another in a series of Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers with a secret; the mystery of Hermione's overloaded class schedule; the disappearance of Ron's pet rat, etc.--driving the story toward a conclusion that will be utterly unexpected for those (presumably childless) viewers who haven't already read the book.
Like Columbus before him, Cuarón struggles to squeeze all the elements of Rowling's overstuffed novel into the limited running time of a feature film, losing odds and ends along the way. He never explains, for example, who Padfoot, Prongs, Wormtail, and Moony are, or why Harry sees a spectral stag across the lake as the Dementors swoop in for the kill. Other omissions are more welcome--specifically a dramatic reduction in the screen time devoted to Quidditch (a kind of cross between polo and Australian Rules Football played on broomsticks) and the decision to skip the self-congratulatory end-of-the-school-year ceremony featured in each of the first three novels.