Third Time's The Charm

Y tu Hermione también: Emma Watson (center) with Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'
Warner Bros.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban hasn't been released yet and I'm already missing it. One-off director Alfonso Cuarón probably signed onto the franchise to bridge Chris Columbus and Mike Newell administrations. What he has fashioned represents the best of the series thus far--and, I predict, further. No offense to Mr. Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), whose "family film" Into the West capably balanced grit and sentimentality. But if the powers that be at Warners don't bring Cuarón back for an encore (say, when Harry is 16), they'll deserve a "kiss of death" by soul-sucking dementors (who'll leave humming "Unsatisfied," no doubt).

Columbus, infamous for turning Macaulay Culkin into a cartoon version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," tried to make the story of young Harry Potter going to Hogwarts wizard school a wondrous thing. Predictably, he chose shock and awe through super-sizing: big snake, big doggie, big chessboard pieces, big school, big soundtrack, big effects. Sure, the size of many of those things was conceived first by series author J.K. Rowling, and has much to do with a child's eye view of the adult world. But books are not like movies, and the relentless stand back! scale of Columbus's Hogwarts (Chamber of Secrets ran two hours and 40 minutes!) effectively numbed this viewer to the wonders therein.

From his first scene, Cuarón pulls the camera in far closer: Harry's mean room, at his horrible, nonmagical relatives' house, finally feels suffocatingly small. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is under the covers, reading by wand-light. Ugly Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) keeps busting through the door, trying to catch him at it; the boy is always peacefully sleeping when he looks in. The sight of the light under the bedspread will delight any kid who has snuck a flashlight to peruse a new Harry Potter; the idea of a pubescent boy under the blankets holding a "magic wand" will crack up any adult who has seen Cuarón's frankly sexual teen tale Y Tu Mamá También. What Cuarón finds with a tight lens is texture: dimensional, tangible, sensuous.

The director even detects a nub on the heretofore flat Radcliffe. Just his arm outside the bedclothes has a round weight to it that no part of him had previously expressed. (I'd never thought of Harry as a body before.) In the next scene, Harry clatters down stairs, reluctantly requests a signature, and makes a threat, all with mulish attitude and clumsy physicality--in other words, more like your average pissed-off 13-year-old than I'd thought possible. Cuarón has somehow bewitched Radcliffe into acting like a real boy and not like some heroic icon or vehicle of audience emotion or pitiable child who can't act caught in a $100 million spotlight.

Cuarón's magic works on the rest of the child actors as well. Soon after Harry has taken refuge in a wizard's hotel, his pals Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) arrive, along with various other Weasleys. As a chaotic milling and riffing ensued, I thought suddenly, This feels like we're between takes in the first two movies--as if, with this version, some veil of pretense is ripped away and we can now experience the characters as they truly are: witty, scruffy, distinctive. Oliver and James Phelps, as the older Weasley twins George and Fred, convey gobs of gleeful camaraderie in mere seconds of screen time. Grint's Ron enacts the damsel in distress of the tale to delirious effect. Meantime, Hermione throws a mean punch and saves the day with her brain-sporting low-slung jeans (and, yes, breasts). The movie highlights the changing space between the heroic trio's bodies. There are a lot of endearingly uncomfortable interrupted embraces and jostlings, which owe their impact to the rapt attention of Michael Seresin's camera.

More traditionally magical happenings also benefit from Cuarón's love of tactile detail. The first 10 minutes cram in so much superfragilistic viscerality--a shrinking bus, an expanding woman (shades of Willy Wonka), a talking shrunken head, a snarling furry book--that I was afraid the movie couldn't sustain the pace. It does, though--by deepening the playfulness into something scarier. There be dementors here, and killer trees. But the most frightening thought is that beings one likes may look ugly on the inside. Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall play former friends--and perhaps betrayers--of Harry's dead parents with varying degrees of gravity but equal excellence. Their characters make it clear that Harry and friends are moving out from Hogwarts' cozy horrors into a wi(l)der world. And the talented men themselves challenge Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint: Can you keep up? (So far, so unexpectedly good.)

This is the book of Rowling's series in which who and what is evil becomes increasingly messy; Cuarón shows he's up to the task in an unmasking scene that seems talky and overlong in the book, but here becomes a creepy comedy of (magical) entrances and exits. Indeed, Cuarón and screen adapter Steven Kloves have cut out much that chafes about the series--specifically the self-righteous dominance of Harry's Gryffindor House and their Quidditch team, which always makes me feel sorry for the other three-fourths of Hogwarts who are not Favorites. The final Harry image here is not of a celebrated hero, but a smear of character in process. Can a series created to be "good family fare" grow up into something more subtle and wonderful? Might this film--dare I say it--be better than the book?

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