The best Potter yet

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Much like the Olsen twins, Harry and Hermione are on the cusp of being generation Z teen heartthrobs.

Much like the Olsen twins, Harry and Hermione are on the cusp of being generation Z teen heartthrobs.

Rated 5.0

The sun barely cracks through the gray clouds in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a surprising stylistic departure for the steadily improving film franchise. While the series got a bit darker with its second installment (Chamber of Secrets), Azkaban could qualify as the year’s best horror movie to date. Full of flying creatures resembling the grim reaper, a psycho Gary Oldman and a werewolf far creepier than those oversized jokes in Van Helsing, this is scary stuff. Somebody must’ve given the MPAA a pile of dough and a big bag of jellybeans because the film’s PG rating is a gift.

With a new director at the helm (Alfonso Cuarón, whose most famous effort is the overrated quasi-porno Y Tu Mamá También), Potter goes in an impressive, dark direction. That darkness even manages to envelope Harry’s usually joyful Quidditch match, staged this time in a torrential rainstorm. Harry is being pursued by a murderer, and worse, is thinking murderous thoughts himself. A beautiful, mystical creature called Buckbeak, a sort of half-hawk, half-horse, gets sentenced to death by beheading. Not your usual children’s fare.

From the onset, it is obvious that Azkaban intends to take the series over to the dark side. When Harry causes his mean aunt to inflate and float away, it’s apparent his days of being passive in his horrible home life outside of Hogwart’s are over. If need be, he’ll use his powers to protect his dignity and his well being, at all costs.

He is soon put to the test, as Oldman’s Sirius Black is released from the Azkaban prison, and word has it that his sights are set on Harry. When Potter learns that Black aided in the murder of his parents, he vows to kill Black at the time of their eventual, inevitable meeting.

Chris Columbus, director of the two prior films, wasn’t awful, but he was inconsistent. While Chamber of Secrets was probably the best film he ever directed, his first Potter film (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was a misfire, a bunch of pretty sets shot in unimpressive fashion.

Producers took a big gamble on this one, hiring Cuarón to take over their cash cow. It’s impressive to see how much artistic license they’ve allowed Cuarón. He opts for a washed-out, appropriately dark look more suitable to art-house offerings than summer blockbusters.

This darker approach makes locales like Hogwart’s School of Wizardry seem real instead of fantasy. With the horror elements that come to play in this third story, the tone is pitch-perfect, heightening the chills. The cinematographer is Michael Seresin, the guy who shot Angel Heart. That’s right, the man who captured Mickey Rourke having sex in a blood shower with Lisa Bonet has shot a children’s film! Industrial Light and Magic has managed visuals that stand right alongside the majestic heights reached in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They are a pleasure to look at.

Daniel Radcliffe has come into his own as Harry Potter, progressing from the little boy who looked shocked to be in a movie into a mature young actor. Rupert Grint’s sad face and excellent comic timing continue to score big laughs as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson is perhaps the strongest performer of the bunch as Hermione Granger. Newcomers like David Thewlis, as a concerned new teacher, and Oldman give the film terrific flavor and credibility.

Again, this is pretty dark stuff for children’s fare. In my day, horror films that kids could see had some ghosts in a television, comical gremlins, and maybe the occasional witch or cantankerous gorilla. This one is full of death, despair and wicked humor. These kids today are into some pretty twisted stuff. Something wicked this way comes, indeed. (CPL, CR, CS, ER, NM)