Thursday, June 10, 2004

Darker 'Potter' yields brighter results

—Originally published 6.11.04

In an attempt at full disclosure, I am a Muggle through and through. I haven't read a single page from any of the five "Harry Potter" books, nor do I really care to.

Nevertheless, a movie based on a book should be able to stand on its own two legs (as in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"). I have now seen all three movies in the Potter series and the most recent "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is the first watchable installment.

The die-hards may grumble "Azkaban" leaves out too much of J.K. Rowling's text (from what I gather, there's A LOT missing), but for the five of us who haven't read these books, the dramatic changes in both look and feel from volumes 1 and 2 are welcome.

Credit all of this to new director Alfonso Cuaron, who takes Harry and his wizardly friends in a radical new direction. "Azkaban" is better than the first two films in the series combined; Christopher Columbus, who directed those movies, should never be allowed back into this universe.

Columbus seemed bereft of any style whatsoever as he tried to jam every tidbit of Rowling's novels into his movies. Instead of rushing from plot point to plot point, Cuaron burns away the background and allows scenes that make the cut to actually live and breathe. The story gets a little confusing at times, but I'll take that over Columbus' kitchen-sink mentality.

Maybe it's simply a maturation process, but the entire cast seems to have swallowed some magic acting pills or something. Just about everyone is better this time around, most notably a much older-looking Daniel Radcliffe in the title role and Emma Watson as his friendly companion Hermione Granger.

At the beginning of No. 3, we once again greet Harry, now 13 years old, in his Mugglish aunt and uncle's home where he's struggling to deal with life sans magic. Fed up with his legal guardians' overbearing behavior and downright cruelty, Harry leaves early for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry.

But before he arrives, he has a frightful encounter with the Dementers. These nasty creatures (reminiscent of the Black Riders from "The Lord of the Rings") are searching high and low for Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, in an excellent performance), an evil wizard accused in aiding the murder of Harry's parents. He recently escaped from Azkaban Prison and now he's out to finish the job and kill Harry.

Thus "Azkaban" slips into darker waters, and the film is all the better for it. The kids who started reading Harry Potter books several years ago should definitely be old enough to handle the scares by now, and the story's added dramatic weight makes this movie much more palatable for adults -- or anyone looking for a decent time at the movies.

The first two films in this series made scads of money and were wildly popular with children, but they still stunk. By comparison, "Azkaban" may look better to critics than it probably is. As a Muggle, I'm growing tired of what are apparently required scenes in each novel/film: Quidditch matches, school lessons and the bratty young wizard Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) being, well, bratty and getting away with it. Harry's friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is one of the most annoying characters I've ever seen, and if he says "bloody hell!" more than once in the next film, screenwriter Steve Kloves should also be banished from this world of wizardry.

Still, for at least one installment Cuaron brought this series out of the doldrums and it's a shame he isn't at the helm of No. 4, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," due in November 2005. Instead, we get Mike Newell, whose checkered history includes some goodies like "Donnie Brasco" and "Pushing Tin," but also bombs like last year's "Mona Lisa Smile." About the only director out there who could match Cuaron's mix of artistic vision and childlike sensibilities is Tim Burton, but I'd be surprised if he gets a shot at Nos. 5, 6 or 7.

Oh well, we'll always have "Azkaban."

Grade: B+

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