Making the Grades
As another summer comes to a close, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) prepares to return to Hogwarts School for his third year. But not before wreaking magical havoc on the Dursley family yet again, by inflating Aunt Marge's body to match the size of her liberally dished out insults.
Running away from his muggle (non-magical people) relatives, the thirteen-year-old boy tries to take refuge in the world of witches and wizards, only to find more trouble brewing. Sirius Black, (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban to finish the work of his master, the evil Voldemort. That means the convicted murderer is out to kill Harry! In an attempt to keep the young wizard and his fellow students safe, the Ministry of Magic has ordered Dementors from the penitentiary to act as sentinels at the school. However, after meeting these grim reaper-like guards, Harry is afraid their protection may prove more harmful than helpful.
Curious to understand what part Sirius Black played in the death of his parents, the orphaned hero sets out to find some answers, with the assistance of his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), as well as some extra curricular spell-casting advice from Professor Lupin (David Thewlis).
Anyone who has watched the two preceeding movies (The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets) will notice some marked differences in the handling of this film. Undoubtedly one of the reasons is the aging of the cast. Trading their school uniforms for tee shirts and blue jeans, the protagonists have shed that sense of British charm and childhood innocence for a slightly more rebellious adolescent attitude. Rule breaking receives further approval when it's suggested Harry's father had similar problems towing the line. Ron's language has grown to include some mild profanities, and Hermione has suddenly taken to holding hands or hugging tightly when the going gets scary.
This script also has a tighter focus on the three main characters. Perhaps the passing of Richard Harris who starred as Dumbledore (now played by Michael Gambon) was a deciding factor in the decision to scale back his role. Yet many of the other prominent adults like Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) don't get much screen time either.
This is the first Potter epic to be directed by Alfonso Cuaronhas (Chris Columbus resigned his former chair, although he retained a seat as a producer), and the movie reflects the change in vision. Overcast or raining in almost every shot, Hogwarts Castle looks perpetually cold and wet. The dreary palette contributes to a darker feel throughout, while the witches and wizards look more Wiccan.
Whether to trim budgets or to lessen the workload, viewers can expect fewer special effects too. For instance, there is only one very short Quidditch game depicted, and no visits to Diagon Alley. The good news is, those that are included (like the Hippogriff and the Marauders Map) are done very well.
Families familiar with the original book likely won't be surprised by the established pattern of intensifying occult and ?kids know best? themes. They will also have a fairly accurate idea of how much violence to expect. Still, parents should remember the filmmakers' incarnation of the monsters (especially the Dementors) may be more frightening than their child imagined while devouring J.K. Rowlings' written work.
What viewers may not be prepared for is the increased artistic license taken by screenplay writer Steven Kloves. Readers will be quick to recognize reordered scene sequences and missing background information. On the other hand, a few little touches have been added, such as talking shrunken heads and ghostly horsemen charging through the castle with a decapitated head in hand.
Although this adaptation isn't as faithful as his previous efforts, I appreciated Kloves' nips and tucks, which served to tighten the pacing while still remaining true to the main plot points. (However, I must confess to finding the usual series formula to be a little contrived --- like, why does the villain always wait until the end of the school term to make his climactic move?). Judged on its own merits, I feel the movie will please casual audiences. However, for those Potterphiles comparing every word to the novel, the alterations may have them convinced, ?something wicked this way comes.?