Harry Potter is 13 in this third movie based on the globally-popular series of books by J.K. Rowling, and the movie itself seems to be entering adolescence, darker themes, darker images, and darker emotions. It also has a bracingly welcome sense of humor.
The first two movies were competently directed by Chris Columbus, with brilliant production design and meticulous attention to detail, making sure that the books’ passionate fans were happy but playing it safe.
For the third, Columbus stayed on as a producer, but there is a new director, Alfonso Cuaron, whose previous work has demonstrated ferocious visual flair (Great Expectations) and great sensitivity in working with and portraying children (A Little Princess) and teenagers (Y tu Mama Tambien). He has kept the best of the first Potter films and enriched it with his own splendid vision, meshing perfectly with the tone of the story and the increasing complexity of the themes and characters. Literally and figuratively, the horizons of the characters are getting wider. Third-year students with parental permission are allowed to leave the Hogwarts campus for a visit to the nearby town for shopping and snacks. Harry does not have permission, but finds a way to do some exploring that corresponds to what is going on inside him as he begins to seek some answers.
For the first two years, Harry has spent most of his time being grateful to be rescued from his awful relatives, the Dursleys, amazed at all the magic around him, and resolute in his commitment to loyalty and integrity. But now he is beginning to get angry. He is growing up and feeling everything more sharply and deeply, especially injustice in general and the loss of his parents in particular.
This year, when life with his aunt and uncle gets to be too much for Harry, even for summer vacation from Hogwarts, he packs up and leaves — after extracting some revenge on a nasty relative. Soon he is back at Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures called Dementors, guards at the wizard prizon of Azkaban are there to seek the first-ever escaped prisoner, Sirius Black. He is the one who betrayed Harry’s parents to Valdemort, and he may be on his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry.
Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers are to the Harry Potter books what drummers are to Spinal Tap — they don’t last long. This year’s teacher is Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), whose kind eyes and melancholy air make him a good friend for Harry. Harry’s first friend, Hagrid, is now teaching the magical creatures class, introducing the students to a hippogriff (a sort of flying bird/horse) and Professor Trelawny (Emma Thompson) is a professor of divination (fortune-telling) who is so focused on the future that she is not very tuned in to what is going on in the present. The Hogwarts chorus sings “Something wicked this way comes” as the camera swoops in, and you don’t need to be Professor Trelawny to tell you that they’re on to something.
When the hippogriff injures Harry’s adversary, Draco Malfoy, it gives ammunition to those who oppose the headmaster, Professor Dumbeldore (now played by Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris). The hippogriff is sentenced to death. The Azkaban guards, called Dementors, have come to Hogwarts looking for Black, and every time Harry sees them, he faints. They dissolve any happy thoughts of people in their path, and Harry, who has known greater sadness than anyone else in his class, is the most vulnerable. Harry has to find a way to save the hippogriff and protect himself from Black and from the Dementors. His friend Hermione seems to be behaving strangely, especially when it comes to entrances and exits. She is also growing up nicely, ready to stand up for herself with more than her magical powers. Harry is growing up, too, but he still has to cope with his potions teacher, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and the rest of his schoolwork.
The next movie is underway with the same cast but yet another director, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and should be out next year. And Rowling has promised two more books. I can’t wait.
Parents should know that the movie is close to a PG-13 for intense peril and grotesque, Halloween-ish images. A strength of the movie is its treatment of a theme of the book (increasing in subsequent books), the wizard version of racial prejudice against “mudbloods,” those of mixed witch/muggle backgrounds.
Families who see this movie should talk about Dumbledore’s statement that people can bring light to even the darkest moments. What can you learn from the way Harry and his friends learn to defeat the Boggerts? The Dementors? Older kids and teens should examine all of the Potter movies to see how different directors and cinematographers can take the same characters and settings and convey a different feeling. Notice how the colors and texture of the scenes and the movement of the camera help to creat the mood and tell the story.
Families who enjoy this movie should read all of the Harry Potter books and listen to the wonderful audio tapes read by Jim Dale. They should see the first two movies as well. And they will also enjoy Back to the Future.