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.