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Innocent no more: Cristiano in I’m Not Scared.

A Real Wizard
By Laura Leon

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

The arrival of a new baby was the precipitory event that caused me to lose track of the Harry Potter book series. Realizing that Mom, the reader of bedtime stories, was usually either nursing, sleeping, or nursing and sleeping, my oldest son took to the 700-plus paged book all by himself. Perhaps my ignorance of the story, despite Denis’ best attempts at filling me in, helps explain my absolute enchantment with the latest movie adaptation, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I do believe it has much more to do with the fact that director Alfonso Cuarón, screenwriter Steven Kloves and cinematographer Michael Seresin have fashioned a deeply involving, visually fantastical and substantively meaty story that even dismissers of the genre should find rewarding.

No matter that this is the third in a screened series, Azkaban just feels like it’s one of a kind, a stand-alone movie that doesn’t limit its audience to the hardcore devotees of J.K. Rawling who are willing to queue up for days on end to plunk down $14 for the latest weighty installment. Unlike its predecessors, which were faithful to the texts almost to the point of lacking imagination and risk-taking, this movie has a life of its own, a more deeply and creatively rendered story, and an outstanding sense of atmosphere. This atmosphere suggests fairy-tale qualities, even while evoking a peripheral menace, a sense that he-who-shall-not-be-named, or his minions, are lurking just out of our eyesight, poised to pluck poor Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) or Ron (Rupert Grint) out of Hogwarts and into some rotten stinkhole of a prison. Much of this has to do with the fact that Cuarón and Seresin have taken the action largely out of the halls of Hogwarts and into the forests and hillsides nearby. There is something Hawthorne-like in this transport, for it successfully recalls the idea of goodness in nature coexisting with the dark and hidden.

Our trio of wizards are at the awkward adolescent stage. Grint still makes much of his grimaces and moans, but Cuarón seems to have compelled him to subdue it a bit. Radcliffe, who still comes across as more loveable and cuddly than he does as a hero whose shoes the viewer would like to fill, gets to show off some moodier sides, as Harry comes to terms with the fact that his beloved late parents’ best friend (and his own godfather), Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), may have had a hand in their murder. (Indeed, Azkaban as a whole benefits from having much meatier subtexts—anger, loyalty or lack thereof, revenge, loss—to weave through its plot.) As usual, the most inspired characterization comes from Watson, whose Hermione is overwhelmed with an unwieldy courseload and, possibly, her growing attraction for one of her best buddies. Perhaps as a nod to fans of his alt-hit Y tu mamá también, or maybe just to scare the bejesus out of us, Cuarón stages one scene in which the kids witness the execution of one of Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) fanciful creatures, so that Hermione weeps on Ron’s shoulders while Harry leans for comfort onto Hermione’s chest. One can’t help but think, with quite a start: Oh, no, not the menáge a tròis!

This sense of humor and playfulness is another thing that distinguishes this Harry from Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. The script is rife with wit, from Harry’s reaction to Ron’s nightmare about the spiders who make him tap dance, to the casting of Emma Thompson as the myopic soothsayer Professor Trelawney. Taking a unique place in the annals of the series is Michael Gambon, thrust into the difficult position of taking over for the deceased Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore. While Harris was suitably wise and occasionally displayed a heart of marshmallow, Gambon is positively impish, like somebody’s favorite grandfather who is always just missing getting caught by Gran with his finger in the gravy pan. This makes Dumbledore much more a sort of ally to Harry and friends, not just an occasional enabler. The movie’s few disappointments are that there isn’t enough of either Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) or Sirius Black, and that its last 15 minutes or so seem hurried and toss up a few unanswered questions.

But these complaints pale compared to the embarrassment of riches that Cuarón and company have harvested in making Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that wondrous thing that it is: a series flick that transcends its predecessors and, to some extent, its source, to become an enchanting tale for any lover of great writing, imagination, wit and (of course) good movies.

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