Once there was a magical little boy named Harry Potter who had the magical ability to sell millions of books and the magical power to enchant millions of children into going to see some really crappy movies.
Then, one day, a magical director named Alfonso Cuarón decided that it would be a good idea if the Harry Potter movies didn't give children the false impression that film was an artless medium lorded over by soulless monsters like Bicentennial Man director Chris Columbus. So Cuarón scaled the mighty walls of Warner Bros. pictures, where evil sorcerers had been keeping the soul of Harry Potter inside a big bucket of very boring schmaltz. And he freed that soul, and the people rejoiced, and there was much viewing of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban throughout the land.
Not that HPatPoA (as the hipsters are calling it) is a great film, but it's at least a decent film, with some rather thoughtful camera work, and that elevates it above the horrors of Chamber of Secrets and Sorcerer's Stone (also known as Philosopher's Stone in those countries that don't hold learning and erudition in contempt).
Where Chris Columbus, robotic director of the first two HP movies, liked to use a lot of sweeping crane shots drawn from the epic style of 1960s filmmaking, Cuarón uses a slow, drifting Steadicam that adds a great deal of intimacy without sacrificing the vastness and grandeur of the wizardly sets. Not that Cuarón is above a little trickery: In one of the film's most ingenious moments, the camera swoops in towards a mirror and then seems to fly through it, opening up into a classroom. At the end of the scene, there's a close-up of Harry Potter's face, and the astute and nerdy viewer will notice that his scar is on the wrong side of his head. It's not a showy effect; it's just a thoughtful little joke in a shot that's really about getting inside the character's head.
Cuarón gets a similar effect in adopting modern costumes for the characters. In the earlier films, the star wizards Harry, Ron and Hermione were almost always in their somewhat silly Hogwarts Wizarding Robes, which made them look like they had just picked up their doctorates in medieval studies.
In HPatPoA (as the Christian rock groups are calling it), the three are frequently dressed in tight-fitting hoodies and properly teenaged trousers. Meanwhile, their arch-nemeses, Draco Malfoy and his henchmen Crabbe and Goyle, are always seen in their dark robes. It's a nice bit of contrast and establishes that the Malfoy clique is from the reactionary and regressive wing of wizardry, while hipper Harry and Hermione seem to be about moving things forward.
It also makes the Harry/Hermione/Ron trio easier to relate to, an effect that's enhanced both by the improving acting abilities of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, and by Cuarón's intimate filmmaking style, as seen in his Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Not that Harry and Ron and Hermione behave like the characters in Y Tu Mama, though there is a burgeoning sense of sexual tension between Hermione and Ron. It's handled, however, with tremendous subtlety, and younger viewers will probably miss it entirely while they wait for the pretty magical effects to happen again.
The effects are actually the one weak point in the film. Most of them are spot-on, if not terribly inventive, but there's some really lame CGI stuff involving a werewolf that looks less like a wolf and more like Paul Wolfowitz.
The other magic moments are all passably fine, and everything looks pretty much like you'd expect it to if you were one of those geeks who read the books. (Does anyone have any info on when the sixth volume's coming out? I'm going crazy waiting!) Still, I guess I expected something I'd never seen before, rather than just a continuation of the (admittedly excellent) standard set by the visuals of the earlier films.
What's nice about this outing, though, is that it doesn't ask the visuals to carry all the weight. While the story is slow to get started, there's no fat in the script, as every seemingly random moment gets tied together in the climax. Plus, the acting by the grown-ups is as good as ever. Series holdovers Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are incredibly charming, and Michael Gambon does an admirable, if not entirely adequate job in replacing the great Richard Harris in the role of Albus Dumbledore, but the show really goes to newcomer David Thewlis.
His portrayal of Defense Against Dark Arts Professor Lupin is intensely natural and human, in spite of the fact that his character is unnatural and inhuman. Perhaps because he never had Chris Columbus' more ham-handed directions, there's no hint of the campiness that you saw in, for example, Kenneth Branagh's work in the previous film, or Robbie Coltrane's performance as Hagrid.
Not that the camp is bad; it's just refreshing to see someone play a wizard without any reference to the flourishing, flouncing and flippant style of a top-hatted stage magician or Las Vegas lion-taming drag-queen.
Which is essentially Cuarón's contribution: He's taken away some of the gayer glitz and replaced it with a more mature, and more interesting, emphasis on character. He won't be around for the next film, so it looks like the Harry Potter renaissance is going to be confined to just HPatPoA (as Cahiers Du Cinema crowd is calling it). So savor it while you can: This may be your one chance to see a summer mega-hit that actually has some soul.