*Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PG)
I confess I was puzzled over my two 17-year-old sons' fevered anticipation of the third film in the Harry Potter series. I skipped volumes one and two (which they complained about bitterly), and have steadfastly avoided reading the books, having witnessed both sons go through days of sleeplessness each time a new Potter is released. When they tell me I have to read them, I respond that I'll require a week's vacation from work first.
The idea of kid wizards didn't exactly grab me. But when I heard the early buzz about director Alfonso Cuarn's version capturing the dark magic and moodiness of J.K. Rowling's books, the essential mystery of Harry Potter, my ears pricked up. Cuarn, after all, in addition to directing the sexy international sensation Y Tu Mama Tambien, directed one of the best film adaptations of a kid novel of all time, The Little Princess (1995). That film transcended the genre, offering sweeping visions of exotic locales, astute peeks at the dark interior of a scared, abandoned child's heart, and a non-sentimental portrayal of her immeasurable inner resources. If you've never seen it, hurry and rent it. Now.
So I entered Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at a distinct disadvantage, being basically Potter illiterate. A tutorial from one of my sons brought me quickly up to speed. This would be Harry's third year at Hogwarts, the residential school for young wizards in training, tucked away somewhere in the English countryside. There, he hangs out with his two best friends, prickly Hermione (Emma Watson) and nave Ron (Rupert Grint). When he's not in school, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), an orphan, is being raised in a miserable household by Muggles (non-magical people). He is a special young wizard because he survived an attack by the bad wizard Lord Voldemort, who killed his parents. A former friend of said parents, presumed murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), has just escaped Azkaban Prison, eluding Dementors, the dreaded flying prison guard spirits that suck the soul out of you when you're caught. And Black is reportedly on the lookout for Harry.
From the first moments of the film, I was entranced. Harry uses his magic to inflate a hateful, prattling aunt, a comical turn with just enough edge to leave you wondering if, indeed, she will blow into a million bits. Then he catches the night train back to Hogwarts, a spellbinding, shape-shifting transport that weaves through traffic jams like water through a narrow canyon, directed by shouts from a suspended shrunken head.
Hogwarts' labyrinthine stairways, talking paintings, wavy windows, serpentine candles, goofy student body and eccentric faculty are all captivating. The landscape is surreal but earthy and alive with motion and rich color. On the school grounds, a magical beast -- half horse, half eagle -- the hippogriff, is cared for by the lumbering giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Inside the hallowed halls, snooty Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), dotty Professor of Divination, Ms. Trelawny (Emma Thompson), and prissy Professor of Defense Against Dark Arts, Mr. Lupin (David Thewlis) keep their charges safe while challenging them to learn to protect themselves, as the best grown-ups do.
The acting, including the adolescent actors, sings, and Cuarn's vision of Rowling's vision is swirling, rich, terrifyingly beautiful. The plot meandered a bit, taking off wildly in the last 30 minutes, but I was satisfied to lollygag in the gorgeous universe of Hogwarts, unmindful of the length of the film (136 minutes).
My sons had no quibbles with the artistic license taken by Cuarn -- pieces of story moved and rearranged -- and agreed that this Harry Potter is a worthy adaptation of the book that kept them up for untold hours. I promised to read volume one, vacation or not.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Tinseltown, Cinemark 16