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Harry Potter Grows Up

"The Prisoner of Azkaban" is the best Harry Potter movie yet.

12:00 AM, Jun 4, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THE GOOD NEWS is that at no point during Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban do Harry and Ron head out to the Hogwarts swimming pool.

Worries about the selection of Alfonso Cuarón to direct the third Harry Potter movie were needless. While Cuarón was an odd choice--his most notable previous work was the randy and overpraised Y tu mamá también--the executives at Warner Bros. have broken him in. To such a degree, in fact, that for two-thirds of the movie you might think that Christopher Columbus was still behind the camera.

THERE ARE THREE LESSONS to be learned from Warner Bros.' handling of the Harry Potter franchise. The first, is that no price is too great to pay for a property like Harry Potter. In 1997 producer David Heyman paid $500,000 to option the first novel for Warner Bros. At the time, it was a fair amount for an unproven commodity. The first two Harry Potter movies have grossed a combined $1.85 billion--just in their theatrical release. Count rentals, DVD sales, and broadcast rights and the number is probably closer to $2.5 billion. If J.K. Rowling were to ask for $100 million for rights to her next book, it would be a bargain.

The second lesson is that the movies didn't need to be any good. Directed by Christopher Columbus, The Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets were pedestrian affairs. The product of robotic adaptations, the screenplays were clunky and inelegant and designed mostly to guard against criticisms of deviation. Can you name a single scene from either movie that sticks in your mind? Me neither.

Not that it matters. People were paying to see the characters from Rowling's wonderful books brought to life. And so long as these first two movies weren't terrible, they were bound to be enormously successful.

Which brings us to the third lesson: It is possible that Warner Bros. chose Columbus to direct the first two movies precisely because he is so middling. If The Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets had been masterpieces, they hardly could have done better business. Now that we're into the meat of the series, the novelty of seeing the books on film has worn off and the movies need to stand on their own. So by trading Columbus for Cuarón, The Prisoner of Azkaban couldn't help but be an improvement--it is unequivocally the best Harry Potter movie yet. And since Mike Newell is directing The Goblet of Fire--the next installment of the franchise--it seems likely that that will be the best Harry Potter movie yet.

By slowly trading up in directorial talent, Warner Bros. is ensuring that each movie is better than the last, thus hedging against any letdown. By book seven, we could have Michael Mann directing. It's good business sense--and certainly smarter than trying for perfection from the first frame. If the first Harry Potter movie had been a classic, the series might have collapsed under its own weight.

SO WHAT has Cuarón done to improve Harry Potter? For one thing, he has dirtied things up. Diagon Alley is grimy with almost Dickensian filth and Hogwarts is grittier, too. More interestingly, Cuarón has redesigned the topography of Hogwarts. Instead of being surrounded by lush, green fields, the school now sits at the top of a craggy hill, with rocks, steep inclines, and hardy-looking trees.

The director is faithful to most of the book: The story revolves around Harry's third year at school, where convicted criminal Sirius Black has escaped prison and come looking for him.

For much of the movie's two and a half hours, The Prisoner of Azkaban suffers from the same faults as its predecessors. It is slow and faithful to the book in ways which do nothing to advance the story. For instance, there is a run in with the Monster Book of Monsters (which is never seen again) and the obligatory Quidditch match.

But late in the movie something unexpected happens: Once Harry, Ron, and Hermione arrive at the Shrieking Shack to confront Sirius Black, professional movie making breaks out. For nearly 40 minutes, The Prisoner of Azkaban buzzes along at a brisk clip, ruthlessly cutting everything from the book that clouds the central narrative and, as a consequence, building real suspense. It is the first time in the series that feels like a real movie--where the director cares about pacing, conflict, and momentum--and not just a Harry Potter movie, where the only important thing is to show up and shoehorn in as many recognizable images as possible. Cuarón is to be applauded.