Growing Up Potter

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I loathed the first two Harry Potter movies so much that despite the critics’ adoration of the third installment, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, I was skeptical. I was actually hoping to dislike it. But Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban won me over quickly and didn’t loose its grip.

Unfortunately, I fear it will become the series’ The Empire Strikes Back — the pinnacle that shows the bankruptcy of the rest of the entries. And for that, we should thank the good executives at Warner Brothers.

I’ve not read any of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and after Chris Columbus’ two film versions, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to. The stories were juvenile — which isn’t a problem for stuff meant for kids, but many adults (my wife included) are in Harry’s thrall — and slow. While Columbus certainly didn’t help things, the material itself seemed to be lacking.

Columbus’ sins are well-documented: endless mouth-agape reaction shots to compensate for a style that inspires no wonder, embarrassingly neutered performances from great adult actors, amateurish turns by kids, sleep-inducing pacing, a tendency to draw undue attention to special effects, storytelling overloaded with clumsy exposition, unrelenting fidelity to the books ... and the list goes on and on and on.

I didn’t realize how inept Columbus’ treatment was, though, until Cuarón got his hands on the material. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a revelation. It’s a sparkling entertainment that’s surprisingly weighty, and it shows that there might be something in this Harry Potter thing for me, after all.

I should have expected it. Most reviews note that Cuarón directed the randy coming-of-age movie Y Tu Mamá También, but the Mexican filmmaker is also responsible for 1995’s sweet and charming A Little Princess. That movie blended acute loss, a wide-eyed innocence, some broad humor, and a dash of magic into something so disarming that it’s nearly impossible to resist.

Azkaban is a natural extension of A Little Princess, with the notable difference of being told from the perspective of a pubescent male rather than a little girl.

The plot of the third Harry Potter film involves Sirius Black, a wizard who was convicted of assisting in a successful plot to kill Harry’s parents and who has now escaped from Azkaban, evading the soul-sucking guards called Dementors. Those same creatures — flying Grim Reapers — are then called upon to keep Black out of the Hogwarts academy. Harry forges a close relationship with one of his teachers, Professor Lupin, who knew the child’s parents and is eager to help the young wizard harness his talents.

The meat of the movie is Harry coming to terms with his growing prowess as a young wizard/man, and Harry’s puberty and wand skills are linked unsubtly in the movie’s opening scene. It could be merely an easy joke, but the film is actually about the awkward transition from boy to man, and the way in which Harry’s relationship with his dead parents is transformed from childlike sadness to complex grief, with its attendant anger.

I won’t dwell too much on the movie itself, because I agree with most critics’ praise. The biggest difference between this and the first two chapters is Cuarón’s brisk pacing — rarely pausing to let the audience absorb everything it’s seeing — and the performances. As the three young leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson prove the director’s skill with actors. Their elders — particularly a winking Michael Gambon as Dumbledore and David Thewlis, who anchors the movie as Lupin — show how little room for shading Columbus gave his experienced thespians.

In fairness, Columbus’ blunt and coarse Home Alone manner was an appropriate way to begin the series. The books are coming-of-age stories that first captured kids in the neighborhood of 10 and 11 years old, and as the characters and primary readers mature, so should the books and the movies.

Harry Potter debuted in British bookstores in 1997 and in the United States in 1998, and the film of the first book came out in 2001. Kids who immediately latched onto Harry were probably about 14 for the movie of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [or Philosopher’s] Stone. Columbus’ deliberate, expository storytelling and lack of ambiguity and texture probably hit that audience just about right.

Those kids are now 17, and they’ve seen a lot more television and movies. They’ve acquired (unconsciously) a much more sophisticated way of watching film. They’re ready for Cuarón, and they’ve (probably) outgrown hacks such as Columbus.

But I’m not hopeful for the rest of the series. Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) is directing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (due in 2005), and his selection suggests Warner Brothers doesn’t have a clue what to do with the series.

Newell is obviously an improvement on Columbus — Donnie Brasco shows him to be an adult talent good at shaping a narrative and working with actors — but there’s nothing on his résumé that suggests he’s capable of maintaining the high standard that Cuarón has set. There is, simply, nothing remotely magical about what he’s done.

The larger problem is that Warner Brothers doesn’t have a plan for the series. It moronically asked Columbus to direct the third film, and when he declined, Cuarón came on. The studio asked him to do the fourth episode, and when he passed, Newell stepped in.

Warner needs a game plan for the rest of the Potter series. Cuarón was an unconventional and inspired choice for Azkaban, and while I’m not sold on Newell, I’ll give him a shot. But who will helm the fifth, sixth, and seventh installments?

The relatively poor box-office performance of Azkaban will be all the evidence Warner Brothers needs to stay away from “arty” directors such as Cuarón. If I were a betting person, I’d guess that Columbus will be brought back to direct at least one of the later movies.

And, of course, that’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to Harry Potter.

As the series darkens and teeters on adulthood, why not bring in directors with proven track records in those veins? Guillermo del Toro, outside of his comic-book movies, has made a pair of stunning, thoughtful horror films: Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Neil Jordan gave a bloody, sexual reading of “Little Red Riding Hood” in The Company of Wolves and also made the grossly underrated In Dreams; both films have a surreal, earthy feel that would do wonders for the Potter world. And while they’re not obvious choices, think of what David Fincher or David Cronenberg could do with a good script and their distinctive, twisted sensibilities.

The main thing to keep in mind is that one should expect the last Harry Potter movie no earlier than 2010, at which time that sweet little kid who devoured Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when it first came out will probably be in at least his or her sixth year of college.

It’s an unforgiving age of discovery, and Warner Brothers should plan for it. The last thing it wants is a reaction similar to that which has greeted George Lucas’ colossal turds of recent years, also known as Star Wars episodes one and two.

Like Columbus, Lucas is an eternal 15-year-old with far too many people in his employ and far too much power. What George never understood was that his audience passed him by, because he never bothered to grow up with it.

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