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.
Cuarón does not limit his alterations to cutting, however. Rather than treat his source material (the previous films as well as the novel) as received texts, sacrosanct and untouchable, Cuarón freely adds his own flourishes. Hogwarts now features a delicate gothic footbridge and a massive clock tower whose pendulum swings menacingly across the school's entryway--this latter hinting at the solution to the novel's central dilemma. The changes of the seasons are dramatized with brief comic set pieces featuring a murderous bit of foliage known as the Whomping Willow.
Most important, Cuarón creates an entirely new topography for the Hogwarts grounds. The first two films took place almost exclusively indoors, with only the occasional visit to the Quidditch field, Hagrid's cabin, or the Forbidden Forest--none of which existed in any clear geographic relation to the school itself. Cuarón instead perches Hogwarts on a steep hillside overlooking a crystal lake and invites his characters to come out for some fresh air. (The magnificent scenery belongs to Glencoe and Loch Levin, in the Scottish Highlands.) In front of this enchanting backdrop Cuarón even finds time to offer moments that are not strictly necessary for the fulfillment of the storyline. These scenes--among them two talks between Harry and Lupin, one on the footbridge and the other in woods overlooking the lake--offer much-needed respites from Rowling's furious plotting. Cuarón's unhurriedness, his willingness to pause to enjoy a mountain view or a conversation between two characters, opens the film up and gives it room to breathe. These days, after all, any director with an adequate technical budget can give us digitized trolls and basilisks, flying cars and animated chessmen. It takes a cinematic wizard to remind us that there is greater magic out in the real word than can be made in any studio.
The Home Movies List: Midstream Horse Changes
Gone with the Wind (1939). Crossing this particular stream required so many horses that it's hard to believe anything else was getting accomplished in Hollywood at the time. In addition to cycling through four directors (George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Sam Wood, and William Cameron Menzies), producer David O. Selznick used a dozen different writers (including Ben Hecht and, briefly, F. Scott Fitzgerald) and even solicited (and then disregarded) input from Alfred Hitchcock.
The Godfather Part 2 (1974). Has any willful decision by a minor actor ever affected movie history more adversely than Richard Castellano's refusal to return as Clemenza in Godfather 2 because he felt he wasn't being paid enough? His replacement, Michael Gazzo's Frankie Pentangeli, was fine. But his betrayal and ultimate suicide couldn't possibly have the weight they would have had if he'd been Clemenza--the man he was supposed to be, the man who'd taught Michael to make spaghetti sauce.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The fact that the characters came more fully to life in this Irvin Kershner-directed sequel should probably have tipped us off that George Lucas needed to be kept as far away as possible from flesh-and-blood actors. (Gratuitous argument-starter: Star Wars is still the better movie.)
Aliens (1986). It's a testament to the dramatic versatility of nine-foot-tall, slingshot-jawed monsters that they were just as at home in James Cameron's war movie as they'd been in Ridley Scott's horror flick. Keanu Reeves should have such range.
Hannibal (2001). Sadly, Ridley Scott is better at beginning series than ending them. This distasteful serving suffered from idiotic source material and the absence of Jodie Foster, but most of all from the replacement of humanist Jonathan Demme with aesthete Scott, who perhaps had a little too much in common with Lecter to find his moral distance.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.