Broomsticks will fly, paintings will whisper and menacing villains will have their comeuppance on more than 6,000 screens across North America when the third instalment in the Harry Potter series will be unveiled on Friday, June 4, worldwide.
Then, there is Hippogriff, half-eagle, half-horse, that Harry rides into the horizon. Be prepared to see a certain professor who turns into a werewolf.
Welcome to Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, directed by the well-known Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and considered by many to be the most mature and intriguing of the three Harry Potter films. The most important endorsement came from none other than J K Rowling, who believes it could be the best of the three films based on her novels.
'No one who has read the book will be at all disappointed,' Rowling is quoted as saying in the production notes. 'He [Cuaron] has taken the essentials. I would be very surprised if most people didn't find their most favourite parts of the book in the film. But there is a unity about the film and a consistency about its theme and feeling that was just very, very enjoyable for me. It's Alfonso's version of my world, it is his baby.'
The new film, which will also be released on 49 Imax screens (a first for a Harry Potter film) joins the Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, released three years ago, and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets unveiled two years ago, in the hope that millions who have enjoyed the previous instalments will come back, along with new fans, to watch the magical story of good versus evil unfold.
The previous films, based on J K Rowling's international bestsellers have generated nearly $2 billion revenue in theatres, in DVD and video stores, and through a raft of tie-ins, not to forget the television and cable deals.
The new film is certainly more brooding and darker than the previous ones because the novel too is filled with darker and more menacing images. Besides, the central characters are now teenagers, and are going through certain amount of internal turmoil, as many teenagers do.
'Alfonso has great intuition as to what will and what won't work,' said Rowling. 'And in a couple of places, we were just discussing -- what we can't say on camera because it would give too much away -- in a couple of places, he has put things in the film that without knowing it, foreshadows things that will happen in the final two books. So I really got goosebumps when I saw those couple of things. I thought people are going to look back on the film and think that was put in deliberate as clues.'
An estimated 250 million copies of Harry Potter books have been sold around the world, making J K Rowling one of the richest writers in the world. The release of the new film should give her books a new boost. Many fans who has caught the early previews of the film will tell you that The Prisoner of Azkaban is a sumptuous, gloriously entertaining and reasonably well-paced film with far more mature characters than the previous sagas. Like the previous film, the new one too will hold the younger audiences and their parents and guardians in quite a bit of awe.
But don't try to compare it to the admirable Shrek 2. Though both films are aimed at younger audiences, Shrek 2 is a far giddier film that belongs to yet another magical universe. One can easily imagine the audiences rooting for both Shrek 2 and The Prisoner Of Azkaban. 'You don't need to be a wizard to predict huge numbers for the Warner Bros picture,' wrote the influential trade publication Hollywood Reporter, 'which will be given an added boost with a simultaneous release in Imax theatres.'
Replacing the American Chris Columbus, 45, who stepped out on his own saying he was too exhausted directing the first two epics is 42-year-old Alfonso Cuaron. His previous films, including the 1995 British-American film, A Little Princess, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's bestseller; and the controversial and steamy Mexican film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, together cost less than the $130 million spent on the newest Harry Potter.
Cuaron also directed an updated version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. While the films were not very successful, they received excellent reviews. Chris Columbus stayed on with the film as one of the producers, actively helping Cuaron decide on several new actors, including Emma Thompson (of Sense And Sensibility) for the new film.
When Cuaron was offered the film, he asked his closest friend and fellow Mexican Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade) if he should accept the assignment. He got an immediate okay but was told that he should think of the new project as a continuation of the previous two films, and should not go on an experimental limb. 'You have to serve the material,' Cuaron recalls del Toro telling him repeatedly. Any notion of ego lurking in his mind vanished immediately, Cuaron confesses readily.
Author Rowling must have understood Cuaron's dilemma. Here is a filmmaker who has rejoiced the freedom he has enjoyed in many films in the past decade. She told him to be faithful to the film without being too literal. Everyone knows that Rowling has a strong say in choosing the director for the series. She enthusiastically accepted Cuaron because of the admiration she has for his A Little Princess. Its author Frances Hodgson Burnett has been one of Rowling's favourites for a very long time.
The new film continues the saga that began at Hogwarts, the boarding school, where 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) had learned that his parents were wizards. He also learns he possesses magical powers and he has to train himself to appreciate their full potential. His pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) join him in his exciting, suspenseful and potentially dangerous quest.
In the second film, he had continued his training at Hogwarts despite a warning from an elf that danger awaits him at every corner. As evil forces turn the students into stone, Harry's task becomes more urgent and dangerous. In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry is threatened by Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who was implicated in the death of Harry's parents. Escaped from Azkaban prison, he is hell bent on disrupting life at Hogwarts in the meanest possible way. Despite the new threat Harry wants to prevail and he forms a bond with Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who helps him confront his fears.
But like many other characters in the film Lupin could have a secret or two, and his character adds quite a bit of suspense to the film. There are many characters in the film who have plenty of white and dark shades in them. But we also get to see the gray area in their lives. Despite the film's darker hues and temperament, there is plenty of humour, quite a bit of it coming from the Divination Professor Sibyll Trelawney (an awesome Emma Thompson).
Thompson has said in several interviews that she decided right at the start to make her character even nuttier than the script warranted, and she got her idea readily approved by the director. For Cuaron too has been conscious that the richer the characters, the stronger glow his film will cast. The best of the special effects, he has known for a long time, are facial expressions and adequate body language.
'We set out to do a character-driven film with visual effects, rather then a visual-effects film with some characters,' Cuaron says.
Cuaron readily confesses in the production notes of the film that his task became considerably light because most of the artists repeated from the previous film -- they constitute about 70 percent of the major parts -- came back with unbridled enthusiasm and fierce ownership of their roles. That enthusiasm and passion made them bring a lot of humanity to their roles. Those who remember the scorching erotic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien might have expected Cuaron to bring at least some chaste romance to the new film.
Cuaron says scriptwriter Steve Kloves and he flirted with the idea of kindling romance between Hermione and Ron but decided against it because the next Harry Potter film may deal with it. 'Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban turns out to be entirely chaste -- implausibly chaste; given what else goes on in Hogwarts you'd think the magic of romance would tickle at least one or two of these teenage wizards,' wrote British critic Anthony Quinn in The Independent. So far we haven't seen so much as a peck on the cheek. Cuaron does, however, import something different into a series whose blandness under Columbus had become crowd-pleasing to the point of suffocation. With the help of his cinematographer Michael Seresin, Cuaron has 'darkened the Potter palette to a medley of blue-blacks, gunmetals and sickly greens, and fitted out the Gothic interiors with a disquieting touch of noir: mirrors, shadows and flickering lights are significantly featured,' Quinn added.
Many reviewers in Britain especially in such mass circulated publications such as The Daily Telegraph think that this instalment is the best of the three, which doesn't mean it would be the most successful one at the box office. 'In the 2001 Columbus-directed Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone and 2002's Chamber Of Secrets, the studiously elaborate screen replications of author J K Rowling's universe often dwarfed the characters,' wrote The Telegraph. 'But Cuarón has brought the human side of the story to the forefront.'
Amidst the flying broomsticks and magical metamorphoses, the review added, 'There are still everyday friendships, rivalries, homework, and pesky family relations to contend with. Watch out for the scene in which Harry gets so mad at his pestering aunt that he inflates her into an airbag or the sequence in which Hermione, not seen in her characteristic pleated skirt, punches a snob in the face.'
Some critics felt that while the new film as a lot of depth and energy, the franchise wasn't offering anything startlingly new. 'After three movies, I find myself now longing for Harry to test his powers outside the closed world of school,' wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, 'to confront a human adversary in a situation where magic skills may or may not be of any use, or else to use them to quell a wizard-opponent viciously.
'This new Harry Potter picture will cast a spell on its fan base. But the broomstick's losing altitude.' The altitude question will be settled in the next few weeks. There is no doubt that The Prisoner Of Azkaban will open big, perhaps taking $100 million in its first five days in North America, and nearly two times that amount worldwide.
It could recover its investment in just about two weeks. It will be an extraordinary feat for a big budget film. But its potential will not be known till about third or fourth week. For once, the loyal fan base has seen the film, the magical question would be how many of them will come back for the third or fourth time to see the newest instalment in the lucrative franchise?