My father used to say that even a blind hog would find an acorn every once and a while. In my recent review of "Shrek 2," I wrote that most sequels are nothing more than dumbed-down copies of the original. My father also used to say that you need to make your words sweet, because you might have to eat them.
Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in �Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.� (Warner Bros.)
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is much superior to its two predecessors in the "Potter" film franchise. "Azkaban" tells the story of the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a wizard convicted in Lord Voltemort's plot to murder Harry's parents. The Ministry of Magic believes that Sirius Black is loose to murder Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and thus end the Potter line.
Harry returns to Hogwarts with Black's escape hanging over him. Having to spend much of his time confined to Hogwarts, he is drawn to Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Harry discovers him to be a man of many secrets, one of which he tells Harry gladly: Lupin knew Harry's parents, and Lupin continues to fill in the blanks Harry has about his parents.
Stationed around Hogwarts are the guards of the Azkaban prison. These guards are beings known as Dementors. They look like death but offer a fate much worse than their look: They can suck the soul from a person. The Dementors affect Harry, but Lupin teaches Harry a spell to ward them off—which brings up an important point about the story.
This is not the Harry of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." He is not this retiring boy, shaped by years of shame under a stairwell. Harry has hit puberty, and he grows in confidence and ability. His power as a wizard is beginning to show.
Add to the story a werewolf and a mysterious black dog, and this yarn has an edge that the other movies lacked. And that edge makes a great deal of difference.
This movie has darkness. Alfonso Cuaron directed this movie, and his vision of the wizard world is not the light and greens shown by Chris Columbus, director of the other two. Hogwarts has a gray tone that speaks more toward what a world of wizards would look like. It also suggests that the wizard world is like others: lots of gray, with little that is black and white.
Also added is a sharper focus on Harry. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are here, but their roles are not as large as the past. Cuaron focuses more on how the present installment is woven into the larger story of Harry Potter. This approach gives a better vision and story. The previous two" Potters" had many set pieces. There were always lessons in the classroom and a long Quidditch match. Learning now takes the students outdoors and makes for a more organic feel.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" deals with large issues. We see that the wizard world has problems with politics and injustice. Ambiguity arises out of the interpersonal relationships between wizards and the bureaucracy. Harry is getting older, and his world is changing. He must face many of the problems that his Muggle contemporaries face.
Cuaron taps into puberty's emotions and feeling powerless in the face of those with power. He thus develops a fine film about, essentially, being a middle-school kid in a world that doesn't understand.
My son, who is a Harry Potter fan, did not like the movie because of its differences from the book. Indeed, "Azkaban" takes many liberties and departs from the source material at times. Nevertheless, Cuaron's vision yields a fine movie.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writer: Steven Kloves (from the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Cast: Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe; Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint; Hermione Granger: Emma Watson; Sirius Black: Gary Oldman; Professor Lupin: David Thewlis; Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon; Professor Snape: Alan Rickman.
The movie's Web site is here.
Also read Parnell's review of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and Roger Thomas' review of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."