Potter finally scores! After two laboriously faithful adaptations, the series succeeds in finding a distinct voice of its own onscreen. Aided by the mysticism and gleefulness inherent in the text on which it's based, but reworked in the dark vision of director Alfonso Cuarón, this is thus far the best movie of the lot.
When first we see him, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now at the cusp of puberty, is still living as an outcast with his thankless uncle and aunt, but is no longer willing to succumb to their injustices. In the opening moments he finally stands up for himself, a move befitting and appropriate considering his rebellious age. He prepares to return to Hogwarts, but not before being offered a ride onboard a blue double decker that speeds across the city and literally squeezes its way through traffic. Once reunited with best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and after meeting other familiar faces such as Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, apt in the shoes of the late Richard Harris) and Snape (lusciously sly Alan Rickman), news breaks out that a certain Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison.
The bulk of the first half, as has become customary, is devoted to classes of occult teachings, during which new instructors Professor Sybil (Emma Thompson as a near blind teacher for divinity) and the seemingly supportive Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) make first appearances. Lingering just outside the school grounds, and suspended over the horizon like the macabre creatures that they are, are the Dementors, looking very much like distant cousins to the Ring Wraiths. Their presence in such close vicinity is warranted; they are after all, the guards of the prison and are on the look out for Black, expected to visit campus and make an attempt on Potter's life, for reasons that become apparent as the story moves along.
If the first two Potter films were about life inside Hogwarts, then Azkaban is about adventure when the kids venture outside and into the unknown. The visuals are imbibed with style and atmosphere that was always present but were just too tame to be of any notable significance earlier. Consider the odd frenzied excitement generated by a Quiddith match played on a rainy afternoon with a surprise visit by a pack of Demetors, who freeze the very air around them. Or the way that details of Harry's parents are revealed via intimate conversations with Professor Lupin. This is more a film about the discoveries of past and the intrigue of Harry, than the oddities of the supporting characters. The pace is kept in check by the curiosity created with the mystery to be solved, while preserving the innocence of knowing who the audience for the finished product are.
Cuarón concentrates on situations and not just novel concepts to awe us, a welcome contrast to the ponderous approach his predecessor had taken, thereby omitting the checklist of every aspect from the book. It has been called dark, but it is so not only because of the conscious tweaking of its tone by the director, but also because J. K. Rowling's book intended it to be this way. There are werewolves, an execution and many scratched and bloodied characters, and some of the younger viewers in the audience might find it more frightening than previous instalments.
Purists may find much to complain, but as a self-proclaimed muggle, I sat in awe at the cleverness of the script and the richness of the technique. My only quibble is that Cuarón will unfortunately not be returning to work his magic a second time. As with its prime protagonists, the movie has finally matured as well. And as far as the Potter universe is concerned, the world of Hogwarts has found a new admirer. - Faizan Rashid